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Viewpoint: Getting Involved in GIS.

April 19, 2000
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There have been a great many words in the pages of POB and other professional journals about the interrelationship between traditional land surveyors and GIS specialists. There are legitimate and serious concerns as to the proper role to be played by licensed surveyors in the burgeoning GIS industry. This is a lively and useful debate. I do not intend to cover this same ground. Rather, I would like to address the subject from the point of view of market opportunities.

To start, however, it is worthwhile to note that surveyors and GIS professionals are not alike. They approach the idea of geospatial data with different mindsets.

Surveyors come from a common educational background. They share a legacy dating back many hundreds of years. Surveyors are passionate about accuracy in measurement (centimeter accuracy is nice, millimeter is better). They are emotional about pedigree. For the surveyor, position is everything.

GIS professionals, on the other hand, come from a variety of different educational backgrounds and disciplines. (It is noteworthy that people working in GIS do not even agree on what they should be called. Are they geomaticists? Geographic specialists? GIS technicians?) They are content with submeter accuracy and almost indifferent to pedigree. To the GIS professional, position is just another attribute-an important one to be sure, but not the only one.

I have seen articles by surveyors lamenting the fact that the surveying profession "missed the boat" by not seizing the initiative and taking a role of leadership in the evolution of the GIS industry 15 years ago. It is true that the two disciplines have followed different development paths until now, in spite of the many things they have in common. I believe, however, that recent developments in GPS technology may help to erase the essentially artificial boundaries between surveying and GIS, and this will open exciting opportunities for surveying companies to participate in the rapidly growing GIS market.

GPS manufacturers are developing a new generation of common-platform GPS receivers, permitting the use of the same hardware for both GIS and surveying applications. This will permit the same GPS field receiver to be used for a GIS job one day and a surveying job the next. An example is the GS50 GPS/GIS data collection system, introduced by Leica Geosystems in 1999. The GS50 is based on Leica's System 500 GPS survey system. The hand-held receiver is identical. The unit can be expanded from a GIS receiver with submeter accuracy into a full-blown RTK survey receiver providing centimeter accuracy with a fairly simple upgrade. Conversely, the SR530 RTK survey receiver can be just as easily expanded to add GIS data collection functionality with a comparable upgrade. Both GIS and survey application programs can reside side by side on the same receiver. The GIS user can increase position measurement accuracy to centimeter level at any time without losing the GIS data collection and processing functionality, and the surveyor can add GIS without losing the survey capability.

This opens a relatively painless way for surveyors to get more work in GIS. Many smaller surveying companies are reluctant to bid on GIS projects because of the initial capital investment required for GIS hardware and software, not to mention the need for retraining surveyors to use the unfamiliar GIS software packages.

Consider, for instance, XYZ Surveying, a typical company of professional surveyors in southern California. The company consists of three licensed surveyors and a small support staff. Their work mostly consists of boundary surveys, roadway construction and building site jobs. The principals have often discussed bidding on the growing number of RFPs for GIS-related jobs from the county and state government, public utilities and other customers, but they have been deterred by the capital investment required. They reckon that they would have to spend upwards of $15,000 for new GIS data collection hardware. On the other hand, if they already owned a survey receiver they could upgrade, it would only cost something like $5,000 to convert it for GIS work. In other words, their barrier to entry into the GIS market has been reduced by two-thirds. This can mean the difference between making a loss or a profit on the first GIS project.

For a larger surveying company or utility surveying department, the flexibility offered by such common-platform systems is equally attractive. In this case, a pool of GPS receivers can be managed centrally. A given receiver can be configured for either surveying or GIS work as required. This will help eliminate receiver rental costs at peak usage times for either receiver type, and will also virtually eliminate the retraining of staff when switching between the two.

In summary, GPS/GIS data collection should be viewed as a substantial market opportunity, not a threat, by professional surveyors. The development of common-platform GPS receivers opens the door to profitable GIS work by reducing the formidable barriers to entry.

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