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Another Curveball: Coronavirus and Geospatial

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series April 2020

Out of the blue, we’re facing another curveball. The current global concern (COVID-19, aka the Coronavirus) was generally not anticipated, and the situation changes daily. It was hoped that, by the time this is published, the situation would have calmed dramatically—but sadly it has taken a turn for the worse.

Thus far disruptions have only generally affected our respective professions, AEC, and other client constituencies we serve—not much beyond the broader societal disruptions. At least not yet. But, unless there is some unprecedented resolution, we should be prepared for disruptions, especially downstream from other sectors. For example, a lot of geo-related events have been postponed or cancelled, and access to public records counters may have been limited or temporarily suspended. Surveying and geo education schools are temporarily closed—more have or may soon move online. The field aspects of our work are by default done in relative isolation, but some office work has moved to tele-work.

I hesitate to open this can of worms, yet it has often been said that when Wall Street sneezes, we catch the cold. It was only about a dozen years ago when a big downturn created a sharp drop in so many client industries: not a trickle, but a deluge of bad tidings for surveying and geo (nearly everyone). After more than a decade of steady recovery, we’re often in situations of plenty: work backlogs, struggles to find enough qualified staff, and being able to afford to modernize gear and workflows. That could end, and rapidly. Think two or three levels upstream: large and growing engines of our economy are the service, hospitality, and travel sectors. They are already taking a huge hit—and how long will it be before that could translate to postponed or cancelled projects? The hit from the previous downturn was not completely across the board. Residential and commercial development felt impacts more than utilities, public works, and transportation. We saw practitioners broadening their skillsets and portfolios to adapt.

With that in mind, when xyHt first heard the murmurings of this potential Coronavirus crisis a few months back, we decided to accentuate the many facets of surveying and geo, so we interviewed folks in multiple disciplines—including those who have been proactively broadening their scope of services. Read these profiles in this month’s article, “The Many Facets of Surveying.”

One piece of advice given by Esri president Jack Dangermond when I asked him how to prepare for other changes ahead was, “It might be better to be more a of generalist than a specialist.” As automation and other changes hit our professions, in some cases we are becoming more the overseers of processes than the direct hands. This has made it easier to be effective in multiple areas.

Of course, we need masters of various skillsets—like the artists of boundary research and related legal matters—but should this be the aspiration of everyone in the profession? One can wear many hats and call in the specialists when needed.

We are used to the feast or famine cycles in our professions, but do we need to accept that as a given? Will surveyors and geo folks and firms become more adept in more fields and therefore more ready to adapt as needed?

Of course, diversifying needs to be well thought-out. As business coach Richie Norton says, “Dig a well before you’re thirsty, but dig over water.”

Today we face the dual hazards of both overreaction (that can be disruptive and costly), and under-reaction (that could turn out even worse) to the Coronavirus. I’m writing with the hope that cool heads prevail, and we do not squander the lead time that earlier-hit regions have given us to prepare.

In the interim, the work goes on, we continue to be nice to each other, and I for one will continue to enjoy tacos on Tuesdays.

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