Technology in the Field – Q&A with Duncan Anderson of Odic Environmental

“Freedom to be in the field and stay in the field”

Duncan---Word-Cloud.pngIs your head in the cloud? If so, you are among a pioneering group of environmental professionals eager to work better and more efficiently. Cloud computing is, in its simplest form, remote computing, a way to leverage the Internet and access cloud-based applications through a web browser, light-weight desktop or mobile app. The cloud. Mobile technology. These are not just things. Or types of phones. Or tablets. Or data plans. Or applications. They are all part of a broader movement that is quickly transforming how we all do business.

Remember the business trip? Video conferencing—a low-cost way to meet with clients from virtually anywhere with computer and Internet access—is the new in thing. How about the digital camera? There’s a smartphone for that. And e-mail? A quick text, tweet or even a post on Facebook and LinkedIn  can get the message out—bigger, better, faster. These are just a few of the latest developments that have made once-innovative technologies passé.

One forward-thinking environmental professional, Duncan Anderson, is using his passion for technology to cut through the hype and put real technologies into use in the field, carving out an edge in the process. EDR Insight is fortunate that Duncan agreed to share with readers the ways that he uses the latest technology and where he thinks this wave will take us as an industry. Given how fast technological advancements have provided all of us with the ability to work virtually from any place in the world, it seems more than appropriate that Duncan participated in this exchange from vacation in Mexico.

How has technology changed the way that you conduct Phase I environmental site assessments?

Now I can go on a site visit, take photos on my smartphone or tablet, record my notes in real time, go to a coffee shop, upload everything to my computer and write my report. I can do all of this in between site visits, especially if I’m on the road or out of town. Another thing that’s been extremely liberating for me is not having too many accessories. In the old days, I’d have a digital camera, my notepad and a cell phone to carry around. Each time I performed a new function, I would have to put down one object to use another, distracting me from my greater purpose. I carried around too much clutter to a site visit. Going into the field with just a smartphone or tablet is one of the most enlightening (i.e., “lightening”) experiences for me. “Doing more with less” has been my motto.

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Duncan---Image.pngLooking ahead, where do you think technology is headed for environmental due diligence professionals specifically?

In the future, I hope that environmental professionals are not tied to a brick-and-mortar location…that we have the freedom to stay in the field and keep working, and not have to rush back to the office. If I had a way to record my work, do my reports in one application and go to a new site without having to commingle different site information, my work would not only be more efficient, but this, in turn, would increase my chances of completing the report ahead of schedule,
which would really please my clients.

In a perfect world, I would go on a site visit and be able to save my photos, notes and scanned documents in a singular format or software program that I could access again later, without having to duplicate my efforts. Now, I still have to format my notes and photos when I return to the office.  

In terms of your clients, how important is it for you and your firm to be tech-savvy?

Most of my clients are lenders. They want reports to be prepared in a cost-effective and timely manner, in accordance with the terms of their clients’ loan specifications. Time can have a huge impact on their deals. So if an environmental professional can spend less time and energy fiddling with various software programs or duplicating their efforts compiling notes and photos at the office, and use technology to their benefit, the report could be prepared before the deadline and everybody wins. If my clients look good to their borrowers, then their business increases.

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So the biggest value to clients of using technologies in the field is the time savings. Does your firm charge a premium for fast turnaround time?

At Odic, we pride ourselves on our fast turnaround times and the quality of our work. We only up-charge when absolutely necessary. My goal as a professional is always to get the report completed earlier than scheduled without compromising the quality. On occasion, and when absolutely necessary, we will quote a small up-charge for Phase I ESA projects that need to be completed within a 5-7 business-days time frame.

What’s one of the most challenging aspects of doing Phase I ESAs under tight time constraints? And how does technology help?

The agency record reviews can really hold up reports being completed in a timely manner. That’s our Achilles’ heel. You can manage time effectively within your organization, but when it comes to working with city and state agencies, they have no sensitivity or sympathy for your timeline or that of your clients. Sometimes it comes down to who you know to get the information you need.

During a file review, environmental professionals may have to look through several large folders that sometimes contain hundreds of files, depending on how well the site’s been documented.  Often, they have to photocopy the files they need, which can be costly, and then return to the office to scan in all the documents. Today with my smartphone, I can access an app that will scan all the pages I need and automatically convert them to a PDF document. No wasted paper or wasted time rescanning and best of all, no paying the agency’s exorbitant fees.

What do you think is the most important lesson that technology is showing us?

That there are many more efficient ways to work. With the help of technology, environmental professionals don’t have to work harder to be the best; they can work smarter. Some people get set in their ways of doing things and can’t be bothered to follow new technological trends. My advice to them would be: Do your industry and your clients a favor and embrace technology. Simply follow industry-specific trends and articles such as this one, and learn from your peers. We’re all in this together.

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What has been your experience internally with other colleagues at Odic in introducing them to new technology? 

For me, sharing new technology internally has been a rewarding experience, especially when I see the curiosity, surprise and relief of a colleague upon realizing there is a better solution. One of the biggest “aha” moments happens when people learn how much time they can save by simply using their smartphone for scanning documents.

Can you name a few of your favorite applications that save you time in the field?

Yes, Genius Scan and Evernote are two of my favorites, available for both iPhone and Android smartphones. Genius Scan allows me to scan documents in the field, convert them to PDF documents and save them to my smartphone. Evernote allows me to record notes in the field, which get transcribed to a text document that is then saved in the cloud and automatically made available on my computer.

Do you think adopting cutting-edge technology is important to your firm in terms of attracting young professionals?

Absolutely. Today’s young professionals grew up using the newest technology and are a great resource to learn what’s on the cutting edge. I believe each new generation of professionals looks for new ways to be more efficient at completing tasks. Besides, using cutting edge technology can be really fun.

 

How do you keep up with all the latest technologies? 

Technology is my passion, and I’m enthusiastic about searching for better ways to do things. Learning new technologies has helped me work more efficiently by doing more with less, thus developing a quality product in a more than timely manner, which brings added value to my clients. With technology on my side, everybody wins!

Look five years down the road. What does the property assessment process look like to you? 

Integration is the name of the game in terms of future property assessments. With the advent of cloud computing, files and documents will be available in real time. For example, a person walking a site will input data that will be uploaded instantaneously into the cloud, making it accessible to coworkers in real time so the work can seamlessly continue without interruption. Now if we could only get all of our building and agency records in real time, that would be the game changer!

NOTE TO READERS: EDR Insight wishes to thank Duncan Anderson for sharing his vision for the role of technology in the environmental assessment industry.