GIS: The Next Step

October 19, 2000
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GIS Services for Professional Land Surveyors.

After nearly ten years of writing regular features for POB, this will be my last article for “GIS: The Next Step.” I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to write about GIS for POB’s readers. A number of you have written over the years, and I’ve met many more at conferences like POB 2000. This has been a special honor for me, since, as you may know by now, my dad was a land surveyor, and I worked in his office during the summer months. Nonetheless, I feel it’s time to let someone else give you their perspectives on GIS. I’m also going to enjoy getting back a bunch of weekends each year.

This month I want to challenge those land surveyors in private practice who haven’t yet “taken the plunge” into GIS in some way or another. And I hope that those who already have will find some new ideas on how to broaden your GIS services. I believe there is at least a half million dollars a year in GIS services revenues out there for most, if not all, private land surveying companies. A number of surveyors are doing several times that amount in GIS work.

Every business needs to understand the market it intends to serve, so we’ll start with an overview of the GIS industry, its primary market segments and the primary uses of GIS. Then we’ll look at the general types of services that organizations using GIS need. Finally, we’ll discuss specific GIS services that land surveyors can offer.

Figure 1 Major types of GIS users by percent

GIS Market Overview

According to Daratech, a computer market research firm, the worldwide market for all GIS products and services was about $7 billion in 1999 and is growing nearly 13 percent per year. Sales are split almost evenly between North America and the rest of the world. People in a wide variety of professions use GIS. Figure 1 shows the primary types of GIS users and indicates the percentage of all users that each type represents. This data was compiled in a survey of 3,800 readers of GEOWorld and Business Geographics magazines, of which 442 responded, or 11.6 percent. Only users accounting for at least one percent of the total are shown. As you can see, many of the most predominant GIS users are traditional clients of land surveyors. These include federal, state and local governments, utilities and transportation companies.

Another market researcher, Dataquest, conducted a survey of GIS software sales by type of application. This survey subdivided GIS applications into the following nine categories:

Base data - includes the creation of vector map data and raster images representing physical features on the earth’s surface, usually derived from aerial photography, digital orthophotography, photogrammetry, surveying, satellite imagery and hardcopy maps.

Land information - includes the creation and maintenance of the data for land records, land planning and land use.

Biological - includes environmental, public health and safety, forestry and agricultural.

Geoscience - includes oil, gas and mineral exploration.

Infrastructure Management - includes transportation, logistics, emergency services and dispatch management.

Utilities - includes water, sewer, storm water, electric, gas, telephone, CATV, data communications and steam systems.

Business marketing and sales - involves demographic, sales and locational analysis, as well as providing travel directions.

Geopolitics - involves the military or other defense use, as well as political districting.

Cartography - map making.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of worldwide GIS software sales according to these nine categories of GIS applications, as determined by the Dataquest survey. Note that four categories—base data, land information, utilities and infrastructure—directly relate to land surveying. These four categories account for 57 percent of all GIS software applications.

Figure 2 GIS software sales by application

GIS Services

Now let's look at the types of services needed by organizations that implement a GIS. These roughly correspond to industry segments. As you will see, however, there is a great deal of overlap among the services provided by these industry segments.

Strategic GIS Consulting - The GIS consultant assists the organization in examining its needs for GIS, and then planning the implementation of the new system. He or she may also be called upon to prepare specifications for the GIS hardware, software, mapping and data conversion services. And he or she may assist in the evaluation of vendor proposals or the review of contractor submissions.

According to GEOWorld “1999 GIS Sourcebook,” there are about 500 companies offering GIS consulting services worldwide, roughly two-thirds of these being based in the United States. Consultants have assisted a significant portion of the nation's larger cities, counties and utilities in planning their GIS programs. Some firms specialize in GIS consulting, but most mapping and data conversion firms, as well as many of the hardware manufacturers and software vendors also offer this service.

Mapping and Database Conversion - Purchasing a GIS is like buying a refrigerator in that it is “empty” when delivered. Someone must “stock it” with data before the system will be useful. This requires creating a digital base map to which all other GIS data themes can be registered. This often means creating a new topographic base map from aerial photography using photogrammetric mapping techniques.

Photogrammetric mapping is a specialized field requiring expensive, specialized equipment and highly trained mapping technicians. There are over 200 private photogrammetric mapping firms in the United States, according to John Pallatiello, Executive Director of the Management Association of Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS). These include companies that specialize in this service as well as consulting engineers, mapping firms and surveyors that offer this service among a broad range of capabilities. According to a recent MAPPS survey, most of these firms had experienced a growth in business during the past year. “Much of this growth has resulted from increased demand for digital orthophotography to serve as a base map for GIS,” says Pallatiello.

Other GIS database themes, including tax parcels, environmental data, district boundaries and utilities are usually digitized from existing hardcopy maps. Attribute data for these other GIS database features are usually keyed in and attached to the corresponding graphic data features. Providing these services also requires special equipment, software and training. Photogrammetric mapping firms, consulting engineers and surveyors, as well as specialized service bureaus provide these services. GEOWorld’s “1999 GIS Sourcebook” lists about 350 companies offering GIS data conversion services around the world. As with GIS consultants, roughly two thirds of these are based in the United States. The decision whether to perform a GIS data conversion project in-house or use contractor personnel is not a straightforward choice. Most GIS users, especially public agencies and utilities, only account for departmental salaries and (sometimes) fringe benefits. Contractors and consultants must charge for general and administrative costs, as well as a profit, in addition to labor and labor overhead. Therefore, on an hourly basis, in-house personnel are far less expensive than outside contractors and consultants. On the other hand, the outside contractor is a specialist in the conversion process and usually has sufficient equipment and resources to accomplish the work in a fraction of the time required by in-house personnel.

Training - The new GIS user requires training for the employees who will use the system. There are different levels of training required, depending on the type of user the employee happens to be. The GIS software vendor usually provides the initial user training using both their own training departments and authorized dealers and training centers. Subsequent training is often provided through in-house training programs, especially for casual users. Training in a particular GIS software package can also be purchased from software consultants and mapping firms that use the program.

Dr. Jay Morgan, Associate Professor of Geography at the Towson State University near Baltimore, Md., says that colleges and universities are concentrating on educating students in GIS concepts and theory, not particular GIS software programs. Instead, this is being done by an increasing number of community colleges. Many of these local schools have already developed courses for training in specific word processing, spreadsheet and computer aided drafting (CAD) programs, and are adding classes for specific GIS packages, too. Surveys done by Dr. Morgan have identified more than 900 schools that teach GIS courses around the world. Appendix A presents a list of such schools in North America. According to Morgan, employers are willing to pay a premium for new employees that have basic training in the same GIS package that the firm uses.

System Implementation, Customization and Integration - GIS vendors have developed programs that are useful to the largest possible number of customers. They cannot possibly deliver products that will meet all of the needs for every customer. Therefore, they have provided software tools that permit the user to customize the GIS software for his or her particular applications. This development work greatly enhances the efficiency of the GIS operations. Moreover, the GIS need not be a standalone, or “stovepipe” system. It is often integrated with other data processing systems and databases, including systems used for computer aided drafting (CAD), electronic document management (EDM), computer aided facility management (CAFM) and administrative databases. The GIS software vendor almost always will offer programmer training in its software development languages. Many of the software vendors, as well as numerous small software consulting firms provide software development services. Sometimes the GIS or mapping consultant will offer this service as well. These custom software programs often become the basis for an entirely new GIS product(s). These products are often referred to as “third party” products. This is because they operate in conjunction with a “core” GIS product such as ArcView, MapInfo or GeoMedia.

System and Database Maintenance - The GIS is a model of the real world, but the real world is constantly changing. These changes must be reflected in the GIS database. The GIS loses credibility if the data is not kept current. This work involves changes to both the graphic and the nongraphic (attribute) data in the GIS database. Like the initial database creation effort, it is usually very labor intensive. And, also like the creation of the GIS database, the decision whether or not to do data maintenance with in-house personnel is not always a simple one. In-house employees are most familiar with the changes to the GIS database. Moreover, depending on the organization’s accounting practices, in-house personnel may be less costly to the individual department in a public agency or utility than outside contractors. However, many organizations experience high turnover in GIS users, and therefore prefer to shift the burden of retaining qualified personnel on to outside contractors.

GIS Services for Land Surveyors

Land surveyors can offer services in many of the GIS market segments we just described. Specific GIS services for land surveyors include the following:

GIS Consulting – Qualified land surveyors are in an excellent position to assist with the planning and implementation of GIS. GIS consulting services typically include requirements analysis, system planning, system specifications, system implementation, coordination and quality control of data conversion projects, user training and system support. In addition, land surveyors are uniquely qualified to help plan and set standards for building the GIS cadastral layer, topographic mapping and GIS metadata (data about the data).

GPS Surveys – Obviously, land surveyors are uniquely qualified to provide GPS surveys. The point to keep in mind is that there are many ways that GPS surveys can support GIS. Aerial photography for topographic mapping and digital orthophotos is usually controlled to a dense network of survey monuments. The GIS cadastral layer is often refined by field surveys that reference selected subdivision and parcel corners to the state plane grid. Utility features, such as poles, valves, hydrants and so forth are often located using GPS survey techniques.

GIS Database Construction and Maintenance – Land surveyors are also well qualified, sometimes uniquely so, to create the GIS database. In fact, under certain circumstances, state law requires that many of these GIS data collection and digitizing activities be done under the supervision of a registered land surveyor. Some land survey firms offer photogrammetric mapping services that create topographic maps and digital orthophotos. However, while photogrammetry is a very specialized service, there are many other types of GIS data that must be created in addition to the topo “base map.” These data are often converted from hard copy maps, including tax parcel and subdivision record plats, zoning and land use maps, utility maps and so forth. Land surveyors are especially well qualified to create the GIS cadastral layer. This database construction work usually involves a great deal of field work and research into land and utility records in order to collect data and to resolve discrepancies in existing hardcopy records.

Beyond the construction of the GIS database, land surveyors can also assist in the maintenance of the data. The customer can provide “redlined” hardcopy records to the survey firm, which then makes changes to the GIS data in its office and returns the updated GIS files to the customer. Or, the survey firm can provide a person at the customer’s site to maintain the GIS database. Many organizations using GIS have chosen to “outsource” their GIS data maintenance using one of these two strategies.

GIS Software development and Systems Integration – Qualified land surveyors can also provide systems integration services. This includes installing and configuring the software and databases to work on the customer’s computers. The land surveyor can also customize commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) GIS software to suit a customer’s particular needs. Government agencies and utilities using GIS usually have dozens of specialized GIS applications that will enhance employee productivity, customer service or the usefulness of the GIS. Using the software development tools of the “core” GIS product, the land surveyor can develop a special GIS application in the office, install it on the customer’s GIS and train the GIS users. It can then maintain and further enhance the application in the future. Some land surveyors are currently marketing “add-on” GIS products that have been developed in just this manner.

Summary

Land surveyors can play an important role in developing and maintaining a GIS. Land surveyors are, by their training and experience, the professionals who are most knowledgeable about these areas. Because of this, surveyors can ensure the precision and reliability of GIS data, providing realistic and documented accuracy assessments. The involvement of a professional land surveyor can reduce liability and potential damages caused by the use of bad data or the misuse of good data. While planners, engineers, assessors, environmental scientists, statisticians and utility managers are experts in their respective fields, land surveyors are experts at creating, representing and manipulating the land-related data that forms the very foundation of the GIS database.

Many people think that if a map comes from a computer it must be right, but this is not necessarily true. Accurate computer maps require accurate data in the computer. Professional land surveyors are trained to ascertain accurate data for precision mapping. For many organizations, the accuracy of their GIS data is constrained by funding, schedules, data availability, skills, priorities and other factors. It should not be constrained by knowledge. Professional land surveyors are knowledgeable about GIS and trained in mapping. They are particularly well qualified to ensure the accuracy of the largest portion of a municipality’s investment in GIS—the GIS database.

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