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Professional topography: Dumbing down surveying

November 1, 2009
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With the advent of our modern systems for surveying and mapping, the intrinsic worth of a surveyor’s work is not in data collection but in the steps that follow.

However, while the instruments, hardware and software used to collect the data are sophisticated, it seems that the users increasingly are not.

Modern tools such as robotic total stations, GNSS, laser scanning and mobile mapping have made the measurement, or field, part of surveying so much easier that the surveyor’s emphasis now is to find new and innovative ways to provide the data in usable forms to the consumers. The surveyor provides value by managing data, assessing the quality of data, analyzing data and synthesizing information and knowledge from the data. Yet what meaning do these other functions have if the data are flawed?

A Lack of Understanding

I am concerned about this situation because of the interaction I have with those who are going to be tomorrow’s professionals. I meet many of them in courses designed to help advance their careers as technicians and paraprofessionals or as professionals-in-training. I am constantly surprised at their lack of sophistication in thought and understanding of the processes being done for them by the technology they use.

It begins with their less-than-adequate grasp of the fundamental algebra, geometry, trigonometry and statistics and continues with their lack of understanding of how these fundamentals are applied to perform various computations intrinsic to the acts of surveying and mapping. I cannot tell you how many times I have run into seminar and workshop attendees who cannot explain, in words or with mathematics, how coordinates are created from the raw measurements or how the area of a parcel is created. Although they presumably regularly review the data as part of a quality assurance process, it is obvious that they have an incomplete understanding of how the results are derived.

As a profession that provides expert measurement services, regardless of whether that measurement is performed under the supervision of a professional or paraprofessional, one would think that someone, somewhere, in a particular organization that uses these technologies, has an intimate grasp of the algorithms and other processes that act together to produce such marvelous results. If such a grasp is not there, what differentiates our measurement processes from nonprofessionals? And let’s face it--there is an increasing number of people in various walks of life who are “discovering” the high-precision technologies available to surveyors and finding new ways to apply them to meet their own needs.

The Need for Transparency

As events and circumstances drive the surveyor’s core functions to become more relevant to the needs of today’s society, it makes sense to move away from the classical view of the surveyor’s role. However, no matter how advanced and automated our data collection tools or sensors become, I cannot accept the idea that the professionals of the future (or today) should not be concerned with the data-collection process.

We frequently use technologies that not only perform basic mathematical and surveying functions but also highly specialized functions that relate to how a particular technology works. The software and firmware in these products sometimes use proprietary techniques. As a profession, isn’t it our prerogative to demand transparency about these processes so that we can satisfy ourselves that such processes properly support what we intend to do with these technologies as well as develop a better understanding of when and how to use−or not to use−the technologies? Have we, as professionals, encouraged the “dumbing-down” process for measurement because we have not protested when the transparency was not provided? Have we dumbed down ourselves?

A favorite saying of mine at seminars is, “If you don’t know how a technology works, how do you know when it isn’t working properly?” When using a steel tape, at least you know when it is broken. While “broken” may not be the correct term to apply with today’s advanced technologies, many of us have experienced situations when the results from them have been sub-par, if not incorrect.

Modern technology has reduced effort and cost while drastically increasing the quality and range of measurements we can take. Are we missing the boat by not making sure that our technicians and technologists are well trained so that they can analyze the data they collect, identify problems in the data, diagnose why these problems exist, and then take corrective action to remedy the defects? As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The New Status Quo

There is considerable movement in the nation to change the process of licensing surveyors from apprenticeship to a system that requires a formal university education followed by experience. However, this movement isn’t universal. Surveying is still the only profession in the U.S. where education beyond a high school diploma is not required for licensing in all jurisdictions. If this is the state of our professional licensing process, then what can we say of the training and education of our technicians and technologists?

If we, as professionals, move away from direct responsibility for the measurement process and hand it to the technicians and technologists, who will take responsibility for assuring the quality of the data? Achieving good data doesn’t start with analysis of what has been collected. Rather, it’s a process that begins with understanding--understanding the uses for which data are being collected, understanding the quality required, understanding the limitations of the technologies to be used--and then designing a measurement scheme that has a high probability of delivering the desired results.

By not taking the care to properly train those we entrust with making our measurements for us, have we given the impression that dumbed-down surveying is not only OK but also the new status quo?

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