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Smile! Google Earth is watching!

A last-minute opening in a construction magazine gave one of our manufacturing clients a spur-of-the-moment opportunity for a case study. They had one perfectly suited to the editor’s needs that showcased our client’s machine at the hands of an expert on a real-life job. But the green light to proceed came during the busiest part of the tradeshow season. Everyone who could provide a missing piece of the puzzle was unavailable. I had very little hard data to go on. Deadline, imminent.

My main problem was that I couldn’t for the life of me picture the jobsite or the operations that took place there. Heck, I didn’t even know what street it took place on. Two of my client contacts I reached didn’t know either and wouldn’t be free to help me for about a week.

When you start a phone interview with a client’s customer, you’re almost always asking a prominent company figure to take precious time away from their main concern – meeting a project deadline, or more often than not, several project deadlines. You certainly don’t want to start the interview asking for basic information. They might not mind taking time to give you information you couldn’t have known without their input. The rest you should have known before you bothered them.

Google Earth to the rescue!

I had a few clues from the job story data collection form. It was a heavily travelled four-lane corridor through the metro’s downtown area. I knew at one end of the project was a strip mall with many entrances. The data collection form said so. It also mentioned a big-box store, government agencies and institutions along the route. I should be able to instantly locate that on Google maps.

Unfortunately, the map showed three routes satisfying the description – at least from the map and satellite views. Choosing the most likely one, I zoomed down into “Street View” to see if I could match up clues from store fronts, not just the few business tags on the overhead depiction.

Sweet serendipity! The Google car had actually caught the job in progress, and the digital capture was still the most current street view. Right there on my computer display was the customer’s crew, using the equipment I was to write about! Service trucks brandishing their logo lined the street. Their heavy equipment was lined up in a parking lot.

I cyber-traveled the length of the project, noting where excavations had been made and restored, how traffic was controlled, how the project was laid out. It was the next best thing to being there.

These details condensed and focused my interview questions later that day, keeping the conversation brief and to the point. The contractor was relieved I already knew a lot about the project, saving him from tedious explanations. He called up the view himself, and we discussed the project together with a common reference.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, this has happened before. Not long ago, for another story, I couldn’t grasp over the phone how a horizontal directional drilling crew had run a pipe line from one lift station to another via a small sandbar in a river. The routing defied description until I could see it for myself. I had turned to the Google Earth satellite photos on that occasion, as well, just to see how large the sandbar was, and how far it was from a direct line between the two. It wasn’t just an empty sandbar, though. I could see something on it in the satellite image. When I zoomed in closer, I saw the drilling crew at their HDD rig alongside their fluid pit. I saw them pulling pipe through and immediately understood the strategic advantage of this halfway point.

Joe Bradfield is senior writer for Ellenbecker Communications