Surveying GIS: Land information systems in Australia, Part 1

April 1, 2009
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The Survey Analyst is a powerful tool with enormous potential, but it has yet to gain widespread acceptance. So when I learned that the Department of Lands in New South Wales, Australia had selected the Cadastral Editor as the engine to rebuild the parcel base for the state, I naturally wanted to find out more.

After several discussions with Gail Swan, the program development manager for the New South Wales Department of Lands, I made the trek from Los Angeles to Sydney to investigate the project firsthand. There, I met with Gail and her team, which includes Steve Drury, project manager for records transformation; Mark Deal*, project manager for ePlan implementation; and Curt Wilkenson, senior GIS consultant. They gave me an overview of how they’re implementing this new system.

A surveyor at work in Sydney.

The Torrens Title System

The story of how New South Wales eventually moved its land records into a modern repository employing sophisticated tools like the ArcGIS Survey Analyst Cadastral Editor began in 1792 with the establishment of private land ownership under what is now referred to as the English Old System. The Old System was a method to transfer Crown lands (areas designated as belonging to the monarchy) to private ownership. Under the Old System, property ownership was not guaranteed, and every deed was a separate and independent transaction.

In 1863, there was a profound change in title transfer with the introduction of the Torrens title system. The Torrens system is named for its founder, Sir Robert Richard Torrens (1814-1884). It was designed to replace the need for a chain of title. The fundamental principle of the Torrens system is title by registration rather than registration of title.

The Torrens system has three other guiding principles: the mirror principle, the curtain principle and the insurance principle. The mirror principle reflects the current facts about one’s title. The curtain principle means the researcher has no need to go behind the certificate of title because it contains all of the relevant information about that title. And the insurance principle provides for compensation to the owner in the event of a loss caused by an error or errors made by the registrar of titles.

Under the Torrens system, the government guarantees title, and there are no title companies. (For more on the Torrens system, see Rouff, T., “An Englishman Looks at the Torrens System,” Law Book Co., Sydney, 1957.)

Fast forward to 2002. Though the Torrens system had served Australia well for nearly a century and a half, it remained an analog system. Records were in book form. And Australia, like much the rest of the world, was well into the computer age. That is when the government of New South Wales began to develop ePlan.

A deed book page from the 1800s.

What is ePlan?

ePlan (electronic processing of digital plans) is part of a project developed by the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping (ICSM). The ePlan project is part of a larger framework called eLand Administration Applications. It is designed to enable the creation of a data file of surveying information related to a subdivision survey. That ePlan file will replace the paper/PDF plan of subdivision.

In 2005, the scanning of the Torrens records began. Three million parcels needed their records scanned in New South Wales.

Kurt Wilkenson and his group have been busy constructing a cadastral fabric using the ArcGIS Survey Analyst Cadastral Editor. It is scheduled to go into full production in July 2009. A cadastral fabric, as described by ESRI, is “a topologically integrated geodatabase dataset. It is designed to store a continuous parcel fabric that covers a jurisdiction as well as survey based subdivision plans without any loss of any information in the original survey record.” That seems to be somewhat of a tall order, but the folks in New South Wales are dedicated to the task.

Plans are entered into the geodatabase by their coordinate geometry. The Coordinated Cadastre has been a reality Down Under for decades. In New South Wales, the surveyor’s proposed subdivision--which is referred to as a “lodgement”--must be tied to the survey control information management (SCIM). The geometry of the lodgement is reviewed and added to the cadastre.

The multipurpose cadastre is pretty much a reality in Australia. And the Australians have the Land Information System well Web enabled. Incidentally, I had occasion to meet with some Australian surveyors on an informal basis to talk about ePlan, and most are supportive and enthusiastic about the improved ability to expedite their projects through the system.

We will take a look at how surveyors use the ePlan process in a bit more detail in the next installment.

For more information about the ICSM ePlan model, visit ePlan/index.html.

*No relation to the founder of

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