Geo Positions: Surveying at Sea
Capt. Eric Berkowitz is the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hydrographic surveys division. He says NOAA Corps officers like himself change roles within the administration every two or three years. He started his career off as a junior officer aboard a hydrographic survey ship and spent about six years going out to sea as a hydrographer. He was also chief of the hydrographic field party on the west coast for about three years. He’s been in his current position for just over a year now. “So it’s been about 11 years in total, but sort of broken up with other assignments and different jobs and different missions,” Berkowitz says.
He is currently based in Silver Spring, Md. and spends more time in the office carrying out administrative and managerial responsibilities than when he started in the field. The division is responsible for all navigable waters in the U.S., except for federally maintained channels, which are covered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He says his team charts and maintains the products and services in the navigable waters. “What the data that we collect is primarily used for is to update the nautical charts and navigation products that we provide. But all of the data that we collect goes into the NOAA-wide environmental database,” he says.
Berkowitz went to college to be a chemical engineer and says one aspect of his career that he most appreciates is the constant change and unique adventures it involves. “The nice thing about it is I’ve got to do all kinds of stuff that I never, ever imagined that I would do when I was in college. I’ve worked on NOAA ships out in the water. I got to go to the Persian Gulf after the first Gulf War. … I’ve gotten to fly aircraft. I’ve been an NOAA diver. I’ve done all kinds of stuff that is not typical, I would say, for an engineer.”
Q. What do you do for a living?
A. “I’m a commissioned officer in the NOAA Corps, which is one of seven uniformed services in the United States. We provide the operation expertise for NOAA programs. Our primary function is to operate NOAA ships and aircraft. As we do that, we move up into more leadership roles within the organization. You start off very technical as a general officer. Then you gain some experience on the technical side and you gain more experience on leading teams and small groups. Then, hopefully, you progress from there to leading a field party and then up to a division level, where I am right now. What I do for a living has changed over the course of my career obviously. So I’ve become very much of a generalist. I’ve got a lot of experience across the NOAA, working for different parts of the organization.
My role right now is primarily focused on hydrographic surveys, where we plan and prioritize the areas that we need to collect data for updating nautical charts. So we look at areas that tend to see a lot of change, or where there are changes in the use. Maybe there are going to be deeper ground vessels coming into a particular port, which would require us to do some surveys to ensure that they can get in there safely. So on a day-to-day basis, it’s managing the planning here and providing leadership and guidance to the personnel here within the hydrographic surveys division, helping to establish priorities, aligning their duties and responsibilities with the overall goals of the organization, and then to the higher levels within the National Ocean Service, and then within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then up to the commerce level. So it’s a lot of management, a lot of responding to tasks, field personnel issues, and budget.
Redefining our priorities is a big push for us right now, trying to understand where we have the highest risk as far as areas that need to be updated. It’s a lot of dealing with people, dealing with taskers, answering a lot of questions that sort of justify this program and justifying the need for this program— a lot of meetings. The main purpose of those meetings is to provide focus and guidance as to where we need to go with updating our requirements, specifications and deliverables for the data that we collect. We don’t just use our own in-house assets. NOAA does have a fleet of hydrographic ships, but we also have contracts for hydrographic data services. So we have a lot of companies out there that do a lot of work for us as well. We have to manage those contracts, deal with our acquisition grants office, deal with the contractors themselves, providing them direction and updating a lot of technical documentation.”
Q. What is your favorite tool to work with?
A. “The people that I have here working in the agency are the most valuable asset that we have because I don’t really do the work. I manage it, but I don’t do it. I’ve been really lucky in my career to work with some really talented people and some people that are a lot more technically savvy than I am. I just have to make the decisions sometimes, which calls for a lot of collaboration with the people that I have on my staff. They get the job done and we use a lot of GIS tools to do that and to be able to show and demonstrate our work to the public and to other parts of the organization.”
Q. What is the toughest challenge you face?
A. “There always seems to be a lot of important things to do. Everything seems to be important and over the years we’ve sort of been forced to do more with less. Technology is changing, so trying to keep up with all of the questions and the information requests that we get, and trying to weed through and decide what’s important, and then how to use the tools that we have to answer the questions or to show the value of this program and how we’re operating, and to display how efficient we’re being. So the top challenge is setting priorities, trying to do more with less and then making the best possible use of all the tools, data and information that we have. To be able to produce products and information for everybody as efficiently as we can and then to use the tools we have available to us to display that information has been a real challenge.”
Q. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
A. “I think the biggest lesson is don’t be afraid to admit a mistake or decision that you’ve made that’s been wrong, and to be able to accept that and to make a change. If the path that you’ve decided on isn’t producing the results that you had anticipated or intended, it’s time to reconsider. And you might have invested a lot of time and energy and effort into it, and a lot of times the decision is made to keep going down that path. You need to take a step back and look at it and really not be afraid to say, it’s what we decided but it’s not working the way we expected so we’re going to do something different. I’ve made mistakes before. I definitely don’t know all the answers and would not pretend to know all the answers, but I think the biggest thing is being able to admit a mistake or that your decision might not have been the right one, and it’s time to change course and move on from there.”
Q. What advancements would you like to see made?
A. “There are a lot of people running around out there now with GPS receivers, especially with the small recreational boaters. These receivers are often tied to some sort of navigation product that’s also tied to a depth sounder that they might have, collecting a lot of good information. A lot of this can be logged and a lot of this is in areas that we don’t typically go to. A lot of our focus is on commercial traffic and the recreational boater areas; we didn’t have the technology to go in there. We’re starting to develop that with LiDAR and improvements in bathy LiDAR systems, but there are still a lot of areas. There’s a lot of area for us to cover. If we could start to harvest some of that, what I would call, crowdsourced information out there, I think it would be very valuable to us. It may not meet the rigorous standards that we have for a typical survey, but it probably has some value to us, either in a planning mode where we can see some changes or it could even be applied to the chart if we know enough about it. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there for potentially bringing in crowdsourced data and being able to use it for either decision making or actual navigational charts.”
Q. What are your keys to success?
A. “People are the most valuable resource that I have. I am definitely not the expert. The key to my success is listening to what folks have to say, being collaborative and being open to others’ ideas. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not the expert and always be open to learning something new.”