“I’m lost and I have no idea where I am…,” said the panicked voice on the phone. One of our William & Mary students in the St. Petersburg study abroad program had called my wife, Bella Ginzbursky-Blum, who is directing the program this year. I’m traveling with the group on a project that uses Google Maps along with other technologies to create meaningful multimedia research projects about the city. To get the students acclimated to Google Maps, one of the mini-projects we did before leaving for Russia was to create a shared Google map of all of our apartment locations. I thought it would be cool for the students to be able to see where they lived on the map in relation to each other and to other sites, but I had no idea that creating this map would be critical in helping our lost, and by this time very shaken student, find the way home.
The call came in to our apartment phone at around 8 p.m. on Monday evening, the program’s first official day. We had spent most of the early morning helping the students buy cellphones (a mandatory requirement of the program for several years now), and Bella had wisely prepared emergency contact cards with our apartment phone number and Bella’s cell number for each student.
When the student called Bella from their brand new cellphone (luckily the battery had a partial charge), I could tell from Bella’s voice that something was seriously wrong and it didn’t take long for me to figure out what was going on. I quickly logged on to our shared Google map of apartment locations and we asked the student to describe their surroundings. Since the student couldn’t identify any street names, a bird’s eye view of the map wasn’t going to do us any good. We then asked the student to describe the buildings, signs, anything to give us an indication of where they might be, and while Bella talked to the student and kept everything as calm as possible, I zoomed in to Google Street View and started trying to find landmarks that might give us a point of reference.
“Look around you. Are there any signs or landmarks?”
“There’s a furniture store, I think.”
“Is it a big red sign on the side of the building? And is there some graffiti next to it?”
Whew. Okay, so thanks to Google Maps and Google Street View, we were able to locate the student on the map. For the next half hour, Bella talked the student through the maze of streets while I navigated them through Google Street View until we got the student back to their apartment block. The student’s knees were shaking and our nerves were frazzled, but the student was home and safe, thanks to some quick thinking, some smart preparation, a live internet connection, and Google Maps!