Editor's Points: Defining your role in GIS.

July 1, 2009
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When it comes to GIS, it’s no secret that many surveyors have long been behind the curve.

When it comes to GIS, it’s no secret that many surveyors have long been behind the curve.

For years after GIS first started being adopted by government offices and private organizations, the associated knowledge, technology and software were generally viewed as being “someone else’s domain.” Surveyors were expert measurers and needn’t concern themselves with geodesy and the broader geospatial realm--or so some thought. Then surveying technology became more advanced and easier to use. GIS professionals started edging into areas that had previously been relegated to professional surveyors. And the economy went into a recession, leaving many surveyors looking for ways to diversify their businesses. Maybe GIS offered some opportunities after all.

Indeed, GIS is no longer a field that can be ignored. As one respondent to POB’s 2009 Salary & Benefits Study earlier this year noted, surveyors over the next five to 10 years will likely, in one way or another, become “feeders of the big GIS.” But what that means, exactly, has yet to be defined. The world of GIS is so broad and its applications so vast that even those who consider themselves “GIS experts” are continually finding new uses and opportunities. And while some in the surveying and mapping professions have voiced concerns that technology might eventually render surveyors obsolete, others are quick to point out that the increasing need for data accuracy and interpretation will guarantee a place for surveyors in GIS for years to come--if they take the initiative to learn what services are needed and how to provide them.

I recently spoke with Joseph V.R. Paiva, PhD, PS, PE, a contributing editor to POB and a prominent geomatics consultant, who is moderating a panel on “Business Aspects in Geospatial Technology” during the 2009 ESRI Survey and Engineering GIS Summit on July 11. Paiva pointed out that surveyors who don’t have a background in GIS can’t just jump in with both feet and expect to get GIS work; they must first understand what GIS is and what it entails. “One of the best ways to do that is to dip your toe in first--take some classes, attend some conferences, and look for other resources to learn about GIS,” Paiva said.

The next step is to find ways to use GIS capabilities internally for operations such as tracking records, recording monument locations and other functions that can improve business processes. “As you grow in knowledge, that’s when you can decide whether you want to tackle some small jobs with what you’ve learned and, if you do, what kind of jobs are out there,” Paiva explained.

He noted that it’s important to understand user needs. “More and more people want survey products in an electronic form,” he said, “and not just PDFs (although those are nice to have) but the underlying data in a format that can be easily loaded into a GIS. You have to know how to value those data, include the appropriate metadata and understand the standards of the target GIS so that you use the same terminology and the same way of designating lines, roads and other features.”

It can seem like an overwhelming proposition. But it doesn’t have to be. Networking and learning how others are using the technology to gain new business opportunities can generate ideas for how you can get involved--or expand your outreach--in this rapidly evolving field. And such ideas can become an excellent point of beginning.

P.S. More information about ESRI’s Survey & Engineering GIS Summit can be found at Look for editorial coverage of the event in future issues of POB. Also, be sure to check out the new GIS category on for answers to business and application questions as well as networking opportunities.

To contact the editor, send an e-mail to pobeditor@bnpmedia.

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