Conference Recap: Embracing Change

October 1, 2008
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The 2008 ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit highlights new opportunities in geospatial technology.



Event: 2008 ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit

HOST: ESRI, www.esri.com

Location: San Diego Convention Center

Dates: Aug. 2-5, 2008

Number of Attendees: 300+

Future Dates and Location: July 11-14, 2009, San Diego

Nearly 350 professionals attended the 2008 ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit held August 2-5 at the San Diego Convention Center. The theme of the summit was “Building New Opportunities.” Following the pattern of past ESRI events, the first day (Saturday) was plenary and opened with remarks by Brent Jones, ESRI’s survey and engineering industry manager. Jones reiterated a summary from past summits of the trends that have been driving change in areas where surveying, mapping and engineering come together:

  • The Earth is no longer flat. GPS technology especially has drawn more attention to how to think geodetically as large distances are surveyed almost as easily as small ones.
  • The positional tolerances in mapping are tightening. As it has become easier to map objects with centimeter tolerances--again with the help of GPS--users of data are finding more uses for higher-accuracy maps and thus are blurring the line between surveying and “mapping-grade” activities.
  • More corporations, governments and nonprofits have begun relying on GIS to provide authoritative information and decision-making support.
  • Spatial data in databases supporting GIS are undergoing incremental continuous improvement. The system of yesterday is the system of tomorrow but with improved data quality, part of which is enabled through high-confidence positions obtained with GPS when features are revisited with improved positioning technology.
  • The business environment is changing at a rapid pace in every field of endeavor, partly driven by the Internet.
  • A better understanding of the technology is allowing users to create improved models for measurement analysis.
  • Data are tending toward more centralized processing in real-time regardless of whether a spatial component is involved.


Jones pointed out that these trends are spurring innovation in the ways data are managed and used; old methods are being thrown out wholesale and replaced with new ones. Add to this fact the result of a study showing that more than 75 percent of a facility’s cost is in operations (i.e., construction only represents 25 percent of the dollars spent), and you have the ingredients for evaluating, planning, designing, building, monitoring, maintaining and improving with greater operational excellence than before. The opportunities such change creates for surveying and engineering professionals are momentous--but only if enough individuals understand the opportunities and firmly grasp the role they themselves play in the evolution of technology.

Practical Applications

The morning’s keynote speaker was U.S. Air Force Col. David W. Madden, commander of the GPS Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center. He updated the attendees on some of the operational issues faced by those running the space segment. He commented on the innovation that has occurred in applying GPS technology to uses never foreseen by the system’s developers and in wringing out unimagined positioning and timing accuracies from the satellite signals. Madden said that the estimated market for GPS is $30 billion this year--a figure that provides an idea of the wide variety of uses and users, far beyond the military and surveying and mapping applications. The ubiquity of GPS is illustrated in the fact that GPS is now being sold to many organizations as chipsets to embed in products that require positional awareness. Today the pricing of that chipset in high volumes is $3 to $4 each. By 2014, it is estimated that the price for a single chipset will be $1, and yet the worldwide market will be $1 billion.

Madden traversed to the future by showing how the satellites are being improved--sometimes even after they have been completed and placed in storage for a future launch--so that improvements can be implemented for system users earlier rather than later. He described how the system designers are working with operators of Glonass and Galileo, indicating the Air Force’s commitment not only to have a continuously operating and improving system but also to support the ability for users to have receivers that can seamlessly interoperate with other global satellite systems, taking the best that each system offers.

For surveying and mapping professionals, as well as many other disciplines from geophysics to geodynamics, Madden talked about little-known future improvements, including the placement of laser retroreflectors on the satellites to enable millimeter-level evaluation of satellite positions and orbits. The continuous improvement program only bodes well for positioning professionals.

The second keynote of the day was presented in the afternoon by Timothy C. McCormick, senior vice president of the Hazard Engineering and Geospatial Services Group at Dewberry, a Fairfax, Va.-based engineering, surveying and GIS firm. McCormick discussed the process his company uses for moving the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) paper-based flood insurance rate maps (FIRM) to digital products (DFIRM) as part of a map modernization process that started in 2004. Dewberry has developed a new risk map product that helps to manage levees and coastal structures and support faster updates for improved decision making. The presentation was an eye-opener for showing the breadth and depth of engineering applications being served by mapping and GIS technologies. (See the related article in this issue, “A FIRM Grasp of GIS,” on pages 42-46.) Dewberry received ESRI’s Special Achievement in GIS (SAG) award for engineering applications at this year’s summit, along with Western Solutions Inc.’s award for surveying applications.

An industry leadership panel consisting of Bruce Carlson, president of Carlson Software; Nedra Foster, private practice surveyor and chair of the Texas Board of Professional Land Surveying; Kenneth Slaugenhoupt, PLS, of Trimble; and Rudy Stricklan, RLS, of EMS Consulting engaged with the audience on the topic of “Machine Control--Where and What Are the Geospatial Professional’s Boundaries?” Moderated by POB’s Joe Paiva, the discussion addressed a variety of topics including the low number of young people entering the profession of surveying; drastic legislative reaction to a shortage of surveying professionals; excessive duplication of efforts, products and steps in the handoff from the design professional to the construction process; and whether surveyors have adequate training to create the digital terrain models (DTM) used for machine control. The panel discussed a “Ring of Fire,” which was described as the sequence of collecting data, analyzing, designing and constructing. Machine control enters the ring in the construction sequence of that cycle. As with any innovation, identifying who should be certifying the models used for machine control sparked considerable debate.

Sunday’s schedule consisted of breakouts in a variety of topics, such as GIS implementation in utilities and construction, natural resources analysis (including ground and surface water), real-time GIS, survey workflow and technology improvements, coordinate systems, the National Integrated Land System (NILS) and survey records and management, and geodetic tools and practices. A first this year was a survey and GIS hands-on learning lab where attendees could drop in at their convenience to learn more about GIS products and features in structured exercises.

Food for Thought

This summit coincided with the Remote Sensing and GIS Summit. On the second day, the 170 professionals from this summit lunched together with Survey & Engineering Summit attendees and listened to a talk by David Zilkoski, director of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS). While his talk focused on how NGS is changing its priorities to develop more services and products in the areas of models and tools and outside capacity, it was food for thought for the assembled geospatial professionals of all stripes. Government agencies, especially on the federal level, are often perceived as lumbering, outdated and rarely in touch with the need to change. The efforts of NGS provided a shining example of how the professionals in the room needed to constantly re-evaluate their own organizations--whether private or public--to better relate to external events that necessitate change if the organizations are to remain viable and meaningful.

The summit concluded on August 5 with new and repeated papers on surveying and engineering topics. Additionally, the surveying Special Interest Group (SIG) met to discuss issues on a variety of subjects, most notable of which was an update by the Arizona Professional Land Surveyors association. This association has reconfigured the definitions for membership to enable geospatial information professionals to come in as peers to land surveyors. A notable result of this infusion of new members and new thinking has been the society’s creation and publication of the Spatial Data Accuracy and Georeferencing Standards document, which is now available on the Internet at www.azpls.org.

The summit was held concurrently with the 2008 ESRI International User Conference, which took place August 4-8 and gave attendees the opportunity to interact with GIS and mapping professionals from around the world. Next year’s summit will be held in San Diego in July. For more information, visit www.esri.com.


Special reporting by Joseph V.R. Paiva, PS, PE, PhD, and Michael L. Binge, LS, GISP

Sidebar 1: Recognizing Outstanding Contributions

At the concluding plenary session, the organizers of the summit presented certificates of appreciation to Dave Zilkoski (below top) and POB columnists Mike Binge and Joe Paiva (below middle and bottom, respectively) for “outstanding contributions in the field of GIS, sharing knowledge and skills in the surveying and engineering communities and contributing time and support to improve the annual ESRI conference.” In addition, Paiva was presented with an award for “Excellence in GIS thought leadership” to recognize his public speaking and writing about the challenges and opportunities for geospatial professionals.

Sidebar 2: A Sea of New Technology

As it is most years, the exhibition hall was a virtual sea of new technology. ESRI product training sessions were reinforced by using product “islands”--small theaters where ESRI products featuring the latest release of ArcGIS 9.3 were demonstrated and questions were addressed ad hoc. The islands allowed users to learn new concepts at their own speed. There were also work stations available to “test drive” the products.

One of the most interesting products on display was Topcon’s new GMS-2 Pro--a total hand-held GIS-grade GPS package. It has an L1 submeter (50 cm) GPS, an onboard 2.0 MP camera, a bar code reader and integrated 50 meter laser EDM measurement capability. The GMS-2 Pro uses both GPS and Glonass satellites and doesn’t require external cables.

Other exhibitors showcased products that enable better display of electronic maps, including touch-driven “map tables;” plotters for generating 3D maps; and a number of camera systems--including some models enabled with GPS that simultaneously record position as the exposure is made, and other systems that better facilitate representation of the real world in “fly-throughs” by capturing a 360-degree view that includes the zenith to within 20 or 30 degrees of the nadir.

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