Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo

A History Tale

I’m a bit of a history buff with a particular fascination for tall sailing ships, which evolved into incredibly sophisticated transportation vessels until steam power disrupted and ended that era. A favorite book, which I return to and re-read every few years, is Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. Dana was a law student at Harvard in 1834 when he was stricken with measles, compromising his vision. His doctor recommended that he take an extended break from his studies to rest his eyes, suggesting that he sail to Europe and spend some time sightseeing. Instead, Dana, at 19, decided to sign on as a common sailor on a merchant ship sailing from Boston to the coast of California. This was a bold and unusual move for a young man from a prominent family. The reaction of his parents is unknown, but they must surely have been mortified, as sailors were at the bottom rung of social status.

The Pilgrim sailed out of Boston harbor on August 14, 1834, for an anticipated 6-month voyage that would take them down the coasts of North and South America, then around Cape Horn to enter the Pacific and sail north to California, at that time a territory of Mexico. Two years later, Dana reversed that voyage on the Alert, a larger and better-managed vessel, rounding Cape Horn for a second time, this time in the Antarctic winter. He kept a thorough diary and a few years after he returned to Boston, he was able to write an accurate, first-person account of shipboard life for a common sailor of that era, something that had never been done before.

One aspect of Two Years Before the Mast that I find especially appealing is its absolute authenticity. Sailors endured very dangerous duties on a daily basis and Dana describes, with a minimum of dramatic flourish, how they climbed the rigging and went out on the yard-arms, sometimes as much as 100 feet above the deck, standing only on foot ropes as they leaned over the yard-arm to haul in or adjust the heavy canvas sails. This would be perilous enough in totally calm conditions, but these duties were required in all conditions, day and night, rain and snow, heavy seas, even in gales. Further, the motion of the ship as it pitches and rolls in the sea is magnified the higher one goes up the mast. On the upper-most yard-arms, the motion can be especially wild and a sailor must constantly hang on as firmly as possible to avoid falling to certain death, while simultaneously carrying out the duty to trim the sails. There were no safety harnesses, no safety nets below them, no OSHA standards for ship-owners to be concerned with. One of Dana’s shipmates aboard the Pilgrim fell from the rigging into the sea, never to be seen again.

1920, Ship Garthsnaid on passage from Iquique, Chile to Mozambique.

In the tall-ship era, the passage around Cape Horn was the most feared and dreaded part of any voyage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The last point of land in South America is at a latitude of 56 degrees South, roughly comparable to Newfoundland, Canada or the Alaskan panhandle in the northern hemisphere. The convergence of ocean currents from both the Atlantic and Pacific and colliding weather systems create constantly stormy conditions in the Southern Ocean around Cape Horn. It is cold and windy, with very high seas, frequent gales, and very dangerous for ships. A further complication is that the methods of navigation, involving the noon-time measurement of the angle of the sun from the horizon with a sextant to determine latitude, and the typical daily measurements of speed and heading (“dead-reckoning”) to estimate longitude, were often not possible during the passage around Cape Horn. Sea Captains compensated by sailing a bit further South than strictly necessary and sailing further East-West past Cape Horn before turning North again, hoping for the best as they navigated blindly in highly perilous conditions. This safety margin to compensate for the inability to navigate lengthened the time involved in the passage, extending the dangers. It is easy to understand why sailors dreaded rounding Cape Horn. They did not know how long it would take or when the worst of the terrible conditions would occur.

Coronavirus — our Cape Horn today

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the coronavirus situation that we’re in right now. There are many similarities:

  • We must make the passage, it’s the only way to get to the other side
  • We know the worst is yet to come, but we don’t really know how bad it will be
  • We cannot very accurately determine where we are in the passage
  • We are in a constant state of danger
  • It is possible, even likely, that we may lose someone close to us before the passage is over
  • There is no shortcut and no alternative except to stay on board, do our duty, and make the best of the situation
  • The ending of the passage will not be sudden, like crossing a boundary, but instead marked by gradually improving conditions until we realize that we are finally out of danger

I hope that you are coping well with the situation. There are lots of sacrifices being made and we all long for better days. I had several trips planned to conference events this spring, including two where I was scheduled to deliver keynote addresses, and of course, all of that travel has been canceled. AppGeo has everyone working from home. That aspect was not an adjustment for me, as I work from home already. What’s different now is that my wife is also working from home, and our youngest daughter, a high school senior, is home as well.

Some Predictions for the New Normal

I am starting to think about what the “new normal” will be like after we complete this passage. For Dana, reaching the Pacific after rounding Cape Horn for the first time must have felt like a milestone. He was seeing an entirely new part of the world and feeling much more competent and confident. He had been around the dreaded Cape and could finally call himself a true sailor, a “Son of Neptune”, as he describes in his book. He was fit and healthy and determined to make the most of his opportunities.

Again, I see parallels with the work we do in GIS and where I believe there will be more focus after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

First, it is clear that GIS is firmly embedded in the range of tools and analytics being applied in the massive response to the coronavirus. If you have any lingering doubts about whether our work is still happening mainly around the edges, I invite you to spend some time looking online at the ubiquitous maps and geospatial applications tracking the daily spread and response to the pandemic. Geospatial has fully arrived as a mainstream component of IT, and that is a very good thing. In our interconnected world (a world whose web of connections has come into sharp focus with the pandemic), our discipline helps make sense of those connections. I believe our work will be in ever greater demand going forward. We bring added value, value unavailable without GIS.

Second, we can now see how critically important broadband access is to the entire country. The measures we’ve put in place to minimize contact with other people rely heavily on people being able to access information and resources online, mainly over home broadband connections. There are still far too many households in the US that cannot get access to broadband, and I believe the “day of reckoning” for that situation is finally at hand. It is simply not possible for those households without broadband to have their children participate in remote online classrooms, or for vulnerable seniors in rural areas without broadband to access telemedicine. Those problems are now staring us full in the face and I expect that we will see a strong focus on closing the digital divide. More accurate broadband mapping will be part of the solution set and it will be needed quickly.

Another dimension we’re seeing is that broadband networks, when coupled with cloud-hosted resources and web-enabled applications, are the combination that has enabled the rapid shift from office-based work to working remotely. Organizations that have not already made that shift in the way they provision IT will be moving aggressively to do so. I applaud AppGeo President, Rich Grady, for recognizing this important trend several years ago. Last year, our VP of Technology, Peter Girard, completed the transition and eliminated the last of our onsite IT infrastructure in favor of web/cloud. The fact that we are a 100% cloud company made it a simple matter during this current crisis to have all of our employees work from home. I expect that we will see many more organizations accelerate their moves to these modern, nimble, online IT architectures. If GIS is not yet fully provisioned that way in your organization, expect to make that transition.

Third, it is clear that planning is key to preparedness and response. We can all see for ourselves that the lack of a clear plan at the outset of this outbreak allowed the virus to begin a more rapid spread than if a pandemic response plan had been put into action sooner. A plan was quickly developed and we are finally seeing the levels of coordination and cooperation that are essential to the response. The need for planning is true not just in crisis situations. Planning is the process that gets competing factions talking to each other, figuring out where there are overlaps in resources/capabilities, and leveraging each other’s strengths to the benefit of everyone. This is a universal lesson. Smart people will use this lesson to focus on better planning as the spine for all of their strategic initiatives.

Fourth, I expect that we will experience a renewed emphasis on GIS for public safety, similar to the pivot that occurred after 9/11/01. I remember that latter situation well. Our statewide GIS program in New York was focused on economic development in the days before 9/11 but shifted dramatically to homeland security immediately afterward. Public safety has many facets, and all of them can be improved with GIS. There has been growing momentum across the country for next-generation 9-1-1, with GIS at its core, and that will certainly continue and probably accelerate. Beyond 9-1-1, I think we’ll see a broader expansion of GIS into other areas of public safety, to go deeper than simply showing situational awareness in a mapping interface and to more fully tap the power of geoanalytics. This won’t happen because GIS is something new or “cool”. It will happen because GIS is essential for a comprehensive approach that integrates planning, response, action, and after-action remediation.

Fifth, I am virtually certain that budgets in the public sector will be changing after the coronavirus pandemic is over, with a different set of priorities. This event is a double-whammy for budgets: revenues from income tax and sales tax will be far below their original projections, and emergency spending to deal with the pandemic is high and unplanned for in current budgets. As the new budget priorities emerge, some projects that previously may have seemed safe and secure may well have their future revisited. The sorts of projects that move forward will be those associated with essential functions that align with the new priorities. I believe the items I numbered two through four above will be among the new priorities. GIS will enable these projects to introduce badly-needed efficiencies on critical activities or to generate substantial cost savings.


At AppGeo, we are doing our part to avoid spreading the virus and for our team to be responsible members of our respective communities. Now is not the time to pretend that it’s business as usual. We know that many things are changing as a result of this pandemic. We’re here to help you understand those changes and to work with you to navigate to the new normal. We understand the deep current in this geospatial discipline, the things with lasting value, the essential functions that will help you stay focused and be purposeful in this turbulent time. We all have important work to do, new priorities to set, decisions to make, opportunities to seize.

Circling back to my tall-ship sailing metaphor; we’re rounding Cape Horn. We’re aboard this vessel together. Duty calls. It’s time to go aloft in the storm, hang on tightly, and trim those cold, wet sails.

Let’s make this a safe passage.


Upon his return to Boston aboard the Alert, Dana completed his studies at Harvard and was admitted to the bar to become an attorney. His experiences as a sailor, particularly the tyranny that he witnessed from the captain of the Pilgrim towards its crew, led him to specialize in maritime law, frequently defending the rights of sailors. After writing Two Years Before the Mast, he published The Seaman’s Friend, a reference work on the legal rights of sailors. During the Civil War, he successfully argued a case before the US Supreme Court.

Two Years Before the Mast became a very popular book during the California Gold Rush of 1849, as it was one of the very few books with a description of California. Most used copies of the book found in bookshops are from these later printings. First editions are hard to find. Of his description of the passage around Cape Horn in the Antarctic winter of 1836, Herman Melville wrote: “But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.”

The extreme hardship of the Cape Horn passage has been all but forgotten since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.