PortHills fire Monday 13 Feb from Lyttelton
PortHills fire Monday 13 Feb from Lyttelton. Photo credit: Dorje McKinnon

This is a story about why you should learn how to use Google Maps now, to help in your future. [Click here if you don’t want the story, but do want to skip to the tasks that will help you learn Google mapping]

Over the past few days there were some large scrub and bush fires very close to where I live. We were lucky but unfortunately many were not and lost homes and property to the wild fires.

One thing that frustrated me was that although the fires went on for several days there was no map of where the fires were, risk areas, evacuation areas or even where roads were closed. Now things were moving very fast hour by hour, and risk to life and limb is more important than making a map BUT all the organisations involved have young well meaning communications advisors. They did do their job, getting the message out about what they could see or what the fire service were telling them, but as they say a picture is worth a thousand words. So why no maps? Even the media didn’t have any maps, only photos of flames they had grabbed from twitter.

Eventually one of the great folks at Radio New Zealand (best news service in New Zealand, IMHO) made a Google map of the road closures on about day 2. Great that they did, and they improved it so that by day 4 they included the evacuation areas. And here it is

Christchurch porthills fire Radio New Zealand map 16 Feb 2017

On the government Christchurch transport site this was what I found

Christchurch porthills fires tfc.govt.org maps 16 Feb 2017

Note how this road closure is for only part of the road, from one intersection to another, yet the map shows a point on the road. This got me thinking and wanting to test something.

In 10 minutes, using the www.tfc.govt.nz website, this is what I was able to create using Google Maps and my google account.

Dorje's porthills fire road closures in 10mins

[Link to this map]

OK I know a bit about mapping, but what I really knew was “what I wanted to know” which was Are my friends impacted ? (NOTE : I haven’t put all the closed roads on this map and it was done at 4pm 16 Feb 2017 so it is not up to date).

The key here is that there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of, or even an attempt to understand, user needs by any of those involved in getting information out. In this case the public’s needs.

Later in the evening I noticed a twitter post by the Civil defence team here in Christchurch.

Christchurch porthills fires civil defence map 10:30am 16 Feb 2017

Finally a map. But note here that they say they will update the photo later this morning [PS the image is of the 7am situation, but was posted at 10:30am], I looked at their twitter feed at 11pm on the 16th, no updated map. I looked at their website and only one word on the whole site mentioned the the fires other than the red button saying there was a state of emergency. Hmm I thought. While I was thinking the blank area on their home page loaded their Facebook feed. So I went and looked at that. There I found the following:


So some explanation about the map linked to, but the LINK to the map shows the error at the bottom of the post (because I’m in the trade I know this is caused by the way FaceBook tries to pull info into the post from the URL you put in the post, but for normal folks it says if you click here it won’t work). Because I live on the edge, of a fire zone, I clicked the link which gave me this:


Now this is better, but to understand it I need to have read the Facebook post to know what the yellow and orange mean. I had read the post so I knew that neither of them tell me where people have been evacuated from OR which roads are closed.

So I thought may be if I search this map website I’ll get something …. So I did


click for large size

Now the second option in the results looked the best to me and this is what I got [One comment: the results have the date they were created beside them, but not the hour / minute. In this context things were changing every 30mins so the search results should also show the hour/minute the map was last updated]

Now this is awesome – map, with legend and explanation! Thanks the GIS team at Environment Canterbury. But I still don’t know which roads are closed or which of my friend’s have been evacuated, damn!

Why am I telling the intranet, digital workplace professionals, comms advisors, and journalists of the world this story ? Because it shows how a little “professional development” could go such a very long way. If any of the journalists and comms people had known how to use their Google account to create a map, we would have had maps helping everyone. It would have been easy to know which roads had been closed and where, which areas had been evacuated and possibly where the fire fronts were at different times. The other ingredient is that someone needs to step into the audience’s shoes and understand what they need.

Now all those involved in reporting / supporting this effort to put the fires out have done their best and worked bloody hard. My goal with this story is to outline areas where a little playing during work time with tools that are to hand can help. And how understanding what might happen, how fast it happens and what users will need is useful.

Lessons from this story

  • Radio NZ reports rock , first map out to the public.
    Take away : Listen to Radio New Zealand 🙂
  • In this case the fire changed very quickly, and so Civil Defence used FaceBook and Twitter to get messages out. Good call given the speed of change.
    Take away : make sure the tool you use is used by your audience and suits the speed of change you are dealing with.
    Take away 2 : dates and times on artifacts (maps in this case) so that users know which one is the most recent. This is especially important for fast moving events.
  • Everyone involved worked hard but there didn’t seem to be an understanding by any of the agencies involved what the public would need in the situation.
    Take away : Make sure you have personas of your users so you know make informed decisions about what they will need when new situations arise.
  • The Christchurch transport govt site had info on road closures in words that were accurate, but their maps didn’t match the words.
    Take away : Get user feedback before things get though and act on it. Or at the very least look for inconsistencies and make things better. Same could be applied to the adding time stamps to the map search results.

20 minutes mapping to help your staff

So my challenge to you dear reader is to use your Goolge account to create an map of your office location, and three things around it that anyone new to your business would find useful e.g. good lunch spot, dry cleaning business. Start with the Google tutorial.

To challenge you a little, add some areas (not just points) to your map that show those visiting your office or workplace the best place to find free parking, or go for a run.

Finally share a link to the map you’ve created in the comments.

If you really want to go all the way – embed your map in your intranet home page or digital workplace news item so it is available to all your staff.

Why 20 mins learning Google maps could save your job
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6 thoughts on “Why 20 mins learning Google maps could save your job

  • February 17, 2017 at 11:06 am

    Great post,

    Am certainly going to look at ways we can get on this next event. I also found RNZ the best. Onward and upward.

    • February 17, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      Thanks Donald – remember to do something good for GIS and mapping staff in your organisation 🙂

  • February 17, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Here’s mine!


    Couldn’t agree more, Dorje. I, too, have been getting most of my information from RNZ and had to refer to the map in my head or Google Maps to really get a sense of what was happenning where. Creating a simple, informative map like this is easy, as anyone trying to make their own map on Google will see. Listening to a story (on RNZ) this morning, an evacuee was complaining that there was no one point of contact and different people were getting different information from different people, which doesn’t really help which does make it clear that whoever makes “the” map like this must have access to the most recent and correct information and that it gets updated regularly so that there is one source of truth.

    • February 17, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      Crile – thanks for your map.
      I agree there are challenges and risks with creating maps in this situation especially where life and limb are in danger. To my mind something fast and rough early on, followed up with more formal and endorsed by those with responsibility following would be a great model.
      Who to listen to and who to get information from is another challenge. My recommendation to intranet and digital workplace professionals is to TAKE ON COMPLEXITY and deliver simplicity to users. In the case of the PortHillsFire it could have been done by a government agency, by an individual or by news provider who kept in contact with all those involved. For the agencies fighting the fire it would have helped too, by being one place to provide information to rather than the clamour for more info from hundreds or different places.

  • February 17, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    It’s particularly odd that the mapping aspect wasn’t handled better because there was a huge amount of mapping effort post earthquake. It’s concerning that that effort doesn’t seem to have translated into lasting change.

    • February 26, 2017 at 11:58 am

      Hi Philip,
      I agree. I know that all those involved worked really hard and produced what they needed to for their key audiences. I hope that my contribution and those of others in the field can help anyone in a crisis situation improve the mapping available.


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