Here is a pop quiz on your Y2K preparedness: Have you installed that new generator yet? How is your bottled water cache coming along? Are you having trouble sleeping with all those lumps caused by stacks of $20s and $50s under your mattress? By now, everyone in the country has heard ad nauseam the potential problems caused by computer systems unable to correctly manipulate 4-digit dates using 2-digit algorithms. Predictions of the fallout range from a minor annoyance to the collapse of civilization as we know it.

My wife and I have had some discussions on this point—I think that scattered problems may occur but none serious enough to warrant losing any sleep over, and she, although willing to admit (to my face) that there likely won’t be any problem, nevertheless is probably hoarding plastic bottles somewhere around the house. (In the interest of domestic tranquility, I am compelled to note that because the smooth operation of the household depends primarily on her activities, and because she believes that this particular hedged bet carries with it no shame, acquiescence in her hedge is probably in my best interest. Discretion being the better part of valor, or something along those lines.)

It is true that some overseas countries will likely have more serious repercussions from this problem, and those whose practice includes work in those countries might encounter some significant disruptions. However, the vast majority of domestic firms are not in those markets and are thus unlikely to suffer direct consequences as a result.

Small Business

By nearly every measure, most surveying-only firms fall into the small business category. In fact, design firms of all stripes chiefly are found there. The impacts on small businesses have been characterized as potentially more serious than those on large businesses because, as a rule, small businesses do not have the personnel to devote exclusively to addressing the problem. However, small businesses are more likely to use off-the-shelf hardware and software, which, if kept current, will avoid much of the problem.

We do have specialized tools that could be affected. Data collectors, which are in wide use, both track the current date and embed it into data files. Our data collector vendor was circumspect when asked whether the devices would correctly "roll over" into the next century. (In fairness to all manufacturers, their legal departments probably have severely limited what their tech support people can say about the matter, good or bad, fearing later repercussions over implied warranties . . . a litigious society does have its drawbacks.) So, we really don’t know whether we will have a problem with these tools. But let’s assume for a moment that the collectors will not properly roll over. How will our operations be affected? Only in a very minor way. Because the date is not manipulated by the collector or by subsequent processing of the data, the incorrect date will merely appear wrong in the data file—more annoying than life-threatening. GPS computations depend on accurate time, but that information is broadcast from the satellites themselves; nevertheless, some GPS receivers are not Y2K-compliant, and the owners must turn them in for upgrading. There may be other devices in limited use that will have a problem, but generally I have not been able to identify a major threat to surveying firms.

Computers and Society

If computers were not as essential to daily life as they have become, the Y2K issue would not have attracted the attention it has. We are only just beginning to witness the changes to be wrought on society by these machines. At the turn of the last century, telephones were not yet in wide use, and probably few foresaw the effect they would have on business operations. Now, business without the phone is unthinkable. The impact of the computer, I believe, will dwarf that of the telephone; in some fields it has already done so. The market for surveying services, being fundamentally one of information gathering, analysis and presentation, stands to be on the front end of that revolution—perhaps right behind the computer industry itself. Already considered in nearly every firm as crucial to day-to-day operations, computers will continue to grow in importance, solving problems once considered insurmountable, while creating new ones (like Y2K), and in the process transforming our way of life. There is little we can do to stem this tide, and I have encountered few surveyors who would advocate doing so. Generally, we surveyors are satisfied with the changes ushered in by the computer and look forward to what remains in store.

And thus we must endure whatever negatives the ubiquitous boxes bring with them.

The Real Problem

But enough of that. I do have one problem that undeniably will present itself for solution. Our office, like most surveying firms, I suspect, uses a numbering convention for projects based on the year in which the project is initiated. For instance, the first project of 1999 was 99001, the second project was 99002 and so forth. The new century will force us either to add an extra digit to the front of the number (so that the first project of 2000 is 100001) or come up with a completely different numbering scheme. Merely resetting the numbering to 00001 will result in numeric project listings being out of order—no one seems in favor of that. We could convert to a purely locational numbering scheme, but because our projects are geographically indexed anyway, such a conversion would saddle us with two filing conventions—before Y2K and after Y2K—with no corresponding benefit. And so we mull over our options with no obvious solution.

I find this ironic. Here we are on a threshold crossed by humanity only once every thousand years, and I’m worried about how to number the next project. Any suggestions would be welcome. Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to rinsing out these plastic bottles.

Copyright © 1999 By Joel M. Leininger, LS