A lot of my work has to do with technology. However, I don't always spend that much time working on my actual "hard tech" skills. Much of my day-to-day work looks at how a given tool or service can impact a project, and, by extension, the user experience that comes with that - the learning curve, whether or not people can actually stick with it, the implications of introducing something disruptive. In other words, it's important that I know how (for example) GPS tracking works, but not that I can build my own satellite.* 

But I do try to get as much hands-on practice as I can, in a variety of areas. Not just because it's important for me to stay informed, but also because it reminds me of some of the obstacles that a lay user might face. I'm learning Python with the kid that I mentor, and we've been messing around with an Arduino (from a kit with a manual that, for the record, has so many errors that I started keeping notes). I've dabbled in database construction. At one point, I could make a Flash (!!) animation. Etc. All of which I say to explain why I was actually, physically yelling at an empty map on my laptop this afternoon.

I've been toying for a while with an art project idea that would involve maps, so I've played with QGIS a bit in the past. And today I found myself stuck inside, feeling under the weather and babysitting a blind dog who literally wants to do nothing but cuddle all day.** So it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit it.

My goal, which is not the important part of this post, was to try to make a sample map that showed how unemployment in DC varied based on distance from a metro stop. QGIS is open-source, and there are tutorials from multiple sources across the web, so theoretically, anyone should have the power to take geographical data, visualize it, and (ideally) understand that information in a new way. After having tried it this afternoon, I am here to tell you that that is only kind of true.

The lighter the blue, the higher the unemployment rate. Data from   https://factfinder.census.gov/ . (Note that the bottom white space is a military base, which is classified as a separate type of employment.)

The lighter the blue, the higher the unemployment rate. Data from https://factfinder.census.gov/. (Note that the bottom white space is a military base, which is classified as a separate type of employment.)

Here are some of the things that a person would have to know to make this map:

  • what it means to download a software "package" and why you have to install multiple components
  • how to save an Excel file as a .csv and why that matters
  • what "csv" actually means
  • what integers are
  • what strings are
  • the difference between a shapefile and a table
  • how to join a shapefile and a table

To name a few.

(And yes, you can Google the answers to some of these - I sure did - but that still requires both knowing what questions to ask and the ability to understand the answers. For example, the first thing that comes up when you search for "shapefile" is a Wikipedia article that starts: "The shapefile format is a popular geospatial vector data format for geographic information system (GIS) software. It is developed and regulated by Esri as a (mostly) open specification for data interoperability among Esri and other GIS software products." Cool story, bro.)

The whole experience reminded me of this (excellent) recent article on CES, "Everything is Too Complicated," by the Verge's Nilay Patel. He looks more at interoperability as a user obstacle, but, as part of that, makes a very similar list of real user questions that might prevent adoption. (Personal favorite: "Does Alexa always listen to you like Facebook?") If I had this much trouble creating a join that didn't yield a bunch of fields filled with null sets, and I think about technology and design for a living, imagine how a so-called lay person might do.

So how do we address this type of inaccessibility? There's obviously a need for better educational resources, formal and informal. And I think that open-source software in particular could certainly stand to re-examine its overall user experience. It's a peculiar paradox that the same tools that are free, and thus the most broadly available, often tend to be the least beginner-friendly - not coincidentally because the same people who have the interest in and skills to build new tools are generally expert enough to not need any hand-holding.

But there's also the option of removing the need to know the tool, and making the visualizations themselves more available. Happily, I discovered during my data search this afternoon that the US Census Bureau is doing exactly that. Using the American FactFinder tool, you can look up specific datasets and then create maps (by clicking a button that says "Create Map" - no shapefiles required here) of different categories. For example, let's say you wanted to see where women who worked in STEM fields lived in DC.

Must be something about the Red Line.

Must be something about the Red Line.

Personally, I think this is great. I mean, the site needs some work (seriously, guys, this aesthetic is straight out of 2003), but the map is relatively easy to get and requires no real technical knowledge. Which makes the insights - if not the technical skills - that much more available to everyone. Because not everyone has the time or the desire to spend hours trying to figure out if they should just use Mapbox. (Or a puppy to keep them company while they do.) And the faster we figure that out, the more democratic our usage of technology will be.

*And if I did want to, it would probably be too expensive anyway.

**Good thing he's cute.