Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lessons in limitations: One of government, one of the web

[This wasn't one of my better posts. See the update for the denouement. I'd delete the post, but that isn't playing fair.]

The original:

I picked up a map at the Minnesota State Fair yesterday. It's the DNR's state trail system map. It looks great at first, until one realizes that the Lake Wobegon trail is missing, despite being connected to the Central Lakes Trail (which is included). True, the connection is new, but the real issue is that the Lake Wobegon trail is not a DNR trail, and this is a DNR map.

So the DNR has provided us piece of a map, but not a functional map. It will be valuable to people who write books about bicycle trails in Minnesota, but, really, the DNR shouldn't have bothered with a public distribution. One day Google (or someone) will put together a mapping framework that works, the DNR could own one layer, other organizations could own their layers, and we'd have something useful. For now, we have authors as system integrators who fit the puzzle pieces together.

That's a limitation of government, and, more broadly, of any emergent result (a trail network) arising from multiple contributors. Creating self-integrating emergent systems (wikipedia) is something we're only starting to learn about.

The other limitation, one that's wider than government, is that the web is just too hard for people to get right. In particular, links are too hard. (On a related topic, Apple has abandoned one of their core innovations - file indirection.) The paper map references a URL: Yep, you guessed it: "404: Page not found." The DNR reorganized their site, broke the link, and didn't provide a redirect. The father of the web would not be surprised - he'd wanted indirection to be a part of the web infrastructure from the start.

Links are too hard. Maps that are puzzleLink pieces rather than solutions. Two limitations -- with some common roots.

Update: Ok, so this wasn't one of my better posts.
  1. I think the map simply had a typo. The url should have been: I've notified the MN DNR of the typo.
  2. It's true that the DNR only includes their trails on the map, but their web site has not only a great set of trail PDFs but also has a set of links to other long distance trails in MN. So, really, they're awfully close. They just needed to include those other trails on their overall map and they'd have had a real winner.
  3. In addition to authors who put books together on MN trails, the DNR also distributes a magazine called Minnesota Trails. That organization is not limited to one agency, and their magazine includes all the state trails and their web site includes a cross-entity view of trails in MN.
So government isn't doing too badly here, and the link example I used was probably a typo rather than a careless break. Ookkkayy, moving right along ...

No comments: