Professional Topography: Climbing the value pyramid.

April 22, 2008
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Over time, the process of making surveying measurements has become easier, and today, many people with no survey training are using surveying technology to perform measurement processes.

Over time, the process of making surveying measurements has become easier, and today, many people with no survey training are using surveying technology to perform measurement processes.

With technologies such as the EDM, GPS, RTK and even laser scanners and digital levels, many people are using surveying technology by learning which buttons to push to obtain certain results. And they are quickly becoming adept at using software in the field and office to capture and convert data measurements. Is this cause for concern for the surveying profession and its businesses? What are the implications of nonsurveyors obtaining and attempting to use surveying technology?

In my opinion, there’s no doubt that a certain class of measurements and other data collection will be done by nonsurveyors. I believe this change is inevitable and irreversible. Whether it is of concern to the surveying profession and its businesses, however, depends on the profession’s individuals and how they view their roles as surveyors.

Many surveyors view themselves as collectors of data for their clients. While true, it is unfortunate that many surveyors do not consider how to add value to their services. Many industry observers have commented on the hierarchy of geospatial information services that a surveyor might deliver. At the 21st North American Surveying and Mapping Educators Conference held in Big Rapids, Mich., last July, Admiral John Bossler, former director of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), described how the reduced difficulty of processing surveying measurements is an opportunity for surveyors to examine what they deliver to their clients. Bossler explained that surveyors can use this opportunity to expand their capabilities to move up a “pyramid of value.” Let’s examine this value pyramid and how it can be applied to surveyors.

Today's ease of processing surveying measurements offers surveyors the opportunity to expand their capabilities and move up a “pyramid of value.”

The Value Pyramid

Many observers have described the value pyramid, and while each description varies slightly, each is based on an element common to all surveying processes: data. More value is added to a service when information that can be gleaned from this data is extracted or interpreted for the client. (I define terms in this discussion somewhat differently from their commonly accepted uses. For example, some describe “data” as a collection of information. In my description, the word “information” has a value greater than “data.”)

The information level in the value pyramid may involve further opinions that the surveyor makes based on a broadened body of knowledge. In its most basic form, information is data that is processed so that the measurements made are transformed into the most fundamental conclusions. For example, when the data has been evaluated by the surveyor, it may be possible to advise the client that a property line has a different length than called for in the deed. With various levels of surveying expertise and additional data from sources other than surveyors, it is possible for the geospatial professional to have dense information about a surveyed area. This information level can also be defined as the first-level commentary the surveyor provides after looking at the total data collected.

The next level up on the value pyramid is knowledge. This is where the information from the survey and other sources is compiled in a systematic way (e.g., in a GIS database). With this knowledge, statements can be made about the project that more than likely could not be made from a collection of survey data alone. Further, this knowledge could provide an assessment of how changes in the region are affecting the creation of new roads and new zoning and how they may have a positive or negative impact on the site.

Wisdom is at the peak of most pyramids. The value of the deliverables in a surveying project can be increased by evaluating the accumulated data, information and knowledge to make decisions about the way the project or site is handled. Such wisdom may only be possible through interaction with other professionals, like lawyers, engineers or environmental scientists, as well as various stakeholders involved. This component of the value pyramid may be a recommendation on how to respond to a predicted positive or negative knowledge component: with wisdom.

Professional Potential

What exactly does the value pyramid have to do with easy-to-use surveying technology? How does this discussion help answer the question of whether easy-to-use technology in the hands of nonsurveyors should be a concern?

The answer is that, in general, the potential of what a surveyor can bring to a project completely outmatches what the nonsurveyor--who has merely learned to operate surveying technology--can offer.

However, at a lower level (the data level), certain activities formerly considered the surveyor’s prerogative will slowly be usurped by anyone capable of using the surveyor’s equipment. This does not mean that nonsurveyors will perform the services better, but eventually clients will form a perception that a surveyor’s services are no longer needed for many of these activities. Therefore, surveyors must teach clients to see their professional potential by promoting their roots, responsibilities, skills and knowledge.

Just as surveying technology has risen in performance over the last few decades, so must the surveyor climb upward to improve on the traditional deliverables. The ultimate deliverables will vary by region, project specifics and preferences as well as among individuals and clients, but it is up to surveyors--individually and collectively--to find ways to move up the pyramid of value.

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