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Surveying GIS: Using GIS as a business tool.

September 1, 2009
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During these challenging economic times, many surveyors are apprehensive about the future.



Some people are afraid. And perhaps there is some justification for that fear. But sagacity is a potent tonic in times of uncertainty. As the volume of work shrinks and dreams evanesce, the astute are looking into alternatives.

One way to change your perspective is to conduct a sober analysis of your current business model and look for ways to increase revenue streams. Using time wisely when business experiences a slowdown should be part of your overall business model. Many people believe this is the optimum time to acquire additional education, and I tend to agree.

If you have been thinking about enhancing and expanding your business, this might just be a good time to do a bit of research and development. For many surveyors, GIS presents a promising growth opportunity.

The Opportunity of GIS

Think globally, act locally. I make use of this mantra often, and it applies to the surveying profession, as well. If you have time available, it could be well spent developing your own GIS.

“But I don’t know a gazetteer from a gazebo!” some might protest. If I haven’t made this point clearly enough in previous tomes, let me re-emphasize it now: You don’t need to invest a lot of money upfront to use GIS techniques to improve your business model. What you need to invest is your time. There are a number of free and inexpensive products available to get you started. Where you go from there is limited only by your ideas.

As I said in the series “Developing a New GIS,”1 this is not necessarily about software. The approach to constructing your own in-house GIS is basically the same as developing one for an organization. Remember the first rule that never changes: It’s about the data. Your survey data may well be your most valuable business asset.

How are your data organized and stored?2 Many surveyors have their data well organized in traditional library-type formats. The component most often absent is the geographic link. Organizing your project data by location provides a graphic user interface (GUI) that gives you a map of where your work is located. This information can help you streamline project tasks, and it can also serve as a valuable aid in market research.

Imported GPS points overlaid on Google Earth map view.

Converting Files Into GIS Data

Many of your documents are probably in a digital format already. Most of us have an array of word processing documents, spreadsheets, CAD files and digital image files. Some of us have various digital databases containing spatial information. These files just need to be organized and georeferenced. And to do that, you need a framework. Free products like ESRI’s ArcGIS Explorer3 and Google Earth are both excellent choices to gain both familiarity and experience with the technology of GIS. Additionally, users of Carlson-IntelliCAD software can take advantage of a new partnership between ESRI and Carlson that provides access to GIS technology and is designed specifically to help surveyors jump-start a GIS practice.

Numerous educational opportunities exist that can help you learn how to integrate GIS into your business. Many new technology classes are available at state and national surveyor conferences and at corporate venues such as Trimble Dimensions, Autodesk University and the ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit and International User Conference. The question is often posed: “How much does it cost to attend these events?” Certainly, there are costs involved. But how much is it costing you in lost education and business opportunities not to attend?

There is great interest in the GIS community in getting more surveyors “on board” with GIS, so additional tools and training opportunities are likely to be plentiful in the future.

An example of a NGS bench mark “placemarked” in Google Earth.

Marketing Your New Capabilities

Once you have developed GIS capabilities, marketing those capabilities is the next step. Word-of-mouth advertising or the “grapevine information system” does work for some people. The economy of scale can be an effective strategy under the right circumstances and conditions. But when those favorable conditions suddenly and drastically change, the unprepared are often left without a fallback position. The basic rule of economics, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” has implications far beyond the stock market. Fortunately, surveyors have access to a broad tableau of marketing tools in today’s business landscape.

For example, now would be an excellent time to develop a Web site if you don’t have one already. Web sites are a great advertising medium. Even a simple site with contact information identifying you as a surveyor along with your location can be found through popular search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. Even if potential clients don’t initially locate you online, you can refer them to your Web site to learn anything you want them to know about you. You can describe your business plan and philosophy, post your résumé and a virtual portfolio of your work, list and display the equipment you use, and post testimonials from satisfied customers.

Other marketing tools include social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And even old standbys such as the Yellow Pages and local newspapers are offering an ever-increasing range of print and online options.

Growing Your Business

Ideally, implementing GIS capabilities in your firm will allow you to achieve a smoother, more efficient workflow. Once you get used to thinking spatially and globally, you will be able to leverage your own data by linking it to all of the free products and data available on the Web and then eventually expand your business to include GIS services.

Adopting a GIS-based business model opens the door to a host of new opportunities. Welcome them, and you may just end up looking at the future in an entirely new light.



References

1. The Surveying GIS series “Developing a New GIS,” published in 2008, can be found at www.pobonline.com.

2. For more information on data organization and storage, see “Surveying GIS: Managing Survey Data in a GIS,” POB, Feb. 2006, online at www.pobonline.com.

For more information about ArcGIS Explorer, see “Surveying GIS: Using ArcGIS Explorer,” POB, Feb. 2009, online at www.pobonline.com.

Sidebar:A Word About Google Earth

Google Earth is a 3D globe mapping application built on the Keyhole Markup Language (KML) platform. Georeferencing in basic Google Earth is easily accomplished by creating “placemarks,” and GPS points are also very easy to import. If you don’t have GPS coordinates, no problem--the “fly to” command works with street addresses as well as geographic coordinates.

Most of the tools will already be familiar to anyone who uses Google as a search engine. An easy-to-follow tutorial is also available. With Google Earth, you can begin making maps in minutes.

Importing GIS and other vector data into Google Earth does require an upgrade to Google Earth EC or Google Earth Pro, and these tools aren’t free. But you can add freeware enhancements like DSWorld, a third-party program available from the NGS Web site (www.ngs.noaa.gov) that plots NGS network points on your map page. Digital photographs can be easily “geotagged” and integrated into client presentations using another versatile and portable plug-in called Picasa (picasa.google.com).

The possibilities are truly endless. Discovering them is largely a matter of investing the time.

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