Q&A with Paul Digney

By on 27 January, 2021

An interview with president-elect of the Surveying & Spatial Sciences Institute, Paul Digney.

Spatial Source: Paul, congratulations on the new role as SSSI president. As a figure with a storied history in our industry, many of our readers will know you – but many won’t. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

PD: As I have been part of the surveying and spatial industry now for well over 30 years, I am sure countless readers, many whom I have worked with or met along the way will know who I am. For those who don’t, I am passionate about our profession and it’s difficult to think of a time in that last 30 odd years that offers more opportunities and rewards for those who are or want to become part of it than right now.

Regards my professional journey, as a kid I had always wanted to travel so joining the Navy as a brash 17-year-old seemed like the right choice. Little did I realise that my choice of becoming a Survey Recorder as part of Royal Australian Navy’s Hydrographic Branch would start me on a career path that would take me all around Australia, its Territories and the world. I spent my first 6 years undertaking various hydrographic surveys on HMAS Moresby, spending most of that time in Northern Australia. After leaving the Navy I completed a Land Surveying Degree at the University of Tasmania. After graduating I joined Geoscience Australia – formerly the Australian Surveying and Land Information group (AUSLIG) in 1998 where I spent another six years as a geodetic surveyor working on the Australian Regional GNSS Network during its early development and expansion. After leaving GA I returned to Tasmania and after a short stint with Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) doing mostly consulting engineering surveying work I left to pursue my registration where I spent 3 years completing a range of Crown Land Surveys across Tasmania with the Office of Surveyor General (OSG) – Tasmanian Government, becoming licensed in late 2009. Since that time where I decided to move back into consulting I have been with Jacobs (Acquired SKM in 2013) for the last 10 years in Melbourne And Tasmania where I am currently the ANZ Technical Director for Data Capture (Survey) where I am able to apply the experiences and insights gained over many years.

I have been involved with SSSI during much of my professional career joining the local Tasmanian regional committee in the early 2000s and have served as Mining & Engineering Surveying commission representative for much of that time, leading up to my recent roles as the Tasmanian Director & President-Elect.

Spatial Source: Let’s get right to the heart of the matter – what does the SSSI mean to you? What are its core strengths and essential functions?

PD: For me having worked and contributed to our industry now for many years. SSSI has and continues to play an important part in my professional career and development. SSSI helps define me as a professional. My view is that professionalism means working and behaving in such a way that others think of them as competent, reliable and respectful. However, you cannot simply learn professionalism solely by reading a textbook or going to a lecture it’s not a skill but a collection of attributes which need to be developed over time. Being a member of SSSI has provided me with the opportunity over time to understand and develop these attributes.

For me the core strength of SSSI is the quality and commitment of the people who are involved. The Institute continues to build on its reputation and brand both locally and internationally as Australia’s peak body representing the interests of surveying and spatial professionals which in no small part is due to its people.

Spatial Source: It’s been one of the most challenging years in many people’s living memory. What are your observations on the relationship of the spatial industry to calamitous world events (Covid-19, the bushfires)?

PD: No doubt the events of the last year have had a significant effect on all of us in so many ways, impacting not only the way in which we live and go about our lives but also how we work, with many of those changes likely here to stay. I think though in response the spatial industry has looked to act swiftly and collaboratively. A clear example of that was the SSSI National Bush Fire Recovery Map-athon, which was held in early February of this year this was organised in response to a significant amount of interest and concern from the surveying and spatial sciences community about what could be done to help Australians affected by the bushfires and in need of assistance.

My observations overall though are that whilst our industry to some extent has been affected by the pandemic, we have fared much better than other sectors such as tourism for example. In-fact we have an important role to play as the pandemic continues to unfold with governments and authorities relying on measures that are inherently spatial in nature, such as quarantining, contact tracing, and social distancing. 

Spatial Source: Drilling down, how have you seen organisations and people close to you be affected and respond?

PD: From what I have observed, I think most organisations have responded to this crisis in a very similar manner, adapting quickly and establishing workplace measures to ensure the safety of their employees. With travel being restricted and people being isolated to working from home businesses have still been able for the most part to continue to operate effectively using online and virtual platforms to stay connected and sustain a reasonable level of workplace continuity.

In both my roles at Jacobs and with SSSI I am constantly speaking with people all over Australia, and whilst I think to a large degree we have all been impacted in a similar way, its clear that as this pandemic has developed approaches from individual jurisdictions and the shutting of borders has meant that in time the effects differ depending on where you are located. Certainly, here in Tasmania our lives are starting to resemble some form of the pre-COVID normal, with restrictions easing and borders reopening. I contrast that with Victoria and especially Melbourne where thankfully they will hopefully start to get back to that level which I think will have a significant positive impact on those affected.

Spatial Source: What kind of support and reinforcements can peak bodies and industry associations provide in such circumstances? How might they change the priorities for the SSSI?

PD: I think that professional bodies can play an important role during such times. A clear example of that has been SSSI successful Webinar program that has attracted enormous interest from members and the broader spatial community right across the country and overseas. With many of the face to face events cancelled SSSI has had to find creative ways to continue to deliver our member services, which has led to moving a lot of the professional development and member meetings online.

In terms of priorities, SSSI conducted a member survey in April of this year to better understand how Members are faring during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and how it can continue to support and improve their professional needs during this difficult time. Whilst the response was limited it did reveal that members still value the importance of CPD, advocacy and member connectedness and related services, but there was also a growing worry around job prospects and economic sensitivity.

Spatial Source: With that in mind, what do you see as key priorities for SSSI?

PD: I think that whilst this last year has been very challenging it has presented the opportunity for SSSI to reflect and consider what are its core responsibilities and priorities for our members and the profession it represents.

In terms of what those key considerations are I would suggest it’s a combination of focusing on the core services we provide to our members, such as vastly increasing the amount of content that Members can access online, including an ambitious plan for online CPD and learning, that has since been well publicised, recognised and respected. Complemented with that is reviewing and enhancing our existing professional certification programs.

Other priorities include continue working to establish stronger connections with other likeminded associations and organisations and establishing strategic partnerships with government, corporations, the research community and academic institutions along with international bodies. Enhancing our collaboration through MOUs provides our members with the best possible content for them to improve and grow their knowledge and competitive edge.

Spatial Source: Is there anything else you’d like to add, as a chaotic 2020 draws to a close, with the dawn of a new year imminent?

PD: Like I’m sure has been for all your readers, it has been a particularly challenging year that has carried with it many difficult periods. I think though in many ways it’s been the strength of the spatial community to come together and the willingness of friends and colleagues to freely reach out and support one another that has enabled us to endure throughout.

From a SSSI perspective I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank the contribution of all those who have been involved with SSSI throughout 2020. In particular the efforts of our outgoing president Dr Zaffar Sadiq Mohamed-Ghouse who has demonstrated such enduring leadership, particularly over the last 12 months navigating what has been clearly the most unprecedent of times to position the institute where it has become more relevant, valued and stronger.

Spatial Source: Many thanks for your time, Paul – and congratulations again.

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