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Professional Topography: Our love-hate relationship with mapping and GIS.

October 1, 2009
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At the kickoff for the 2009 ESRI User Conference, ESRI CEO Jack Dangermond asked all of the attendees in the plenary session to introduce themselves to at least one neighbor.



One of my neighbors turned out to be the GIS manager for a small town in the Rocky Mountain area. When he learned my profession, his response was: “What? A surveyor who isn’t afraid of GIS?” I just laughed in response. Since then, however, I have continued to reflect on this comment.

Surveying is Mapping

Even if the GIS professional’s characterization of surveyors being afraid of GIS isn’t entirely accurate, it’s not way off the mark. To me, the activities involved in GIS are natural for a surveyor, just like CAD, COGO and CARTO activities. Surveyors have seldom, if ever, referred to their own records or the records at the local office of records as GIS--but, in effect, that is what they are. In fact, GIS as a concept has been around long before computers made it the sweetheart technology to improve businesses and enterprises from A to Z.

Not only have surveyors failed to recognize how GIS naturally complements their work, they have also failed to recognize their role in mapping. When I ask surveyors if they are mappers, many are quick to emphatically respond, “No.” It just doesn’t compute. How can surveyors deny that they have a role as mappers when that is often their main function? It seems to be due to a lack of realization that the body of knowledge we possess is considered by many, including non-surveyors, to include mapping.

Just look at the average surveying textbook. For example, if you have Wolf and Ghilani’s “Elementary Surveying” handy, flip to the first chapter, and you’ll see that the formal expression of the surveyor’s role includes mapping.

[S]urveying (geomatics) can be regarded as that discipline which encompasses all methods for measuring and collecting information about the physical earth and our environment, processing that information, and disseminating a variety of resulting products.1

While we produce charts, reports and data files, our dominant method of disseminating a resulting product is a map! Now, I know some of us call them plats or refer to them by other terms, but whatever you call them, in the end, they are maps.

Here’s another quote from Wolf and Ghilani that directly mentions maps:

Surveying has been important since the beginning of civilization. Its earliest applications were in measuring and marking boundaries of property ownership. Throughout the years its importance has steadily increased with the growing demand for a variety of maps and other spatially related types of information.[1]

Although the surveyor’s role as a mapper has long been recognized by some--this is, after all, the 12th edition of Wolf and Ghilani’s textbook--it obviously has not been recognized by all. I cringe when I hear about surveyors who not only don’t want anything to do with GIS but won’t even acknowledge that mapping is part of their work.

The Cost of Professional Myopia

While at the ESRI User Conference, I heard a presentation by Rudy Stricklan, RLS, from Arizona, who talked about the strides his state society has taken to incorporate GIS, mapping and GIS professionals into the society. It was heartening to hear that the Arizona Professional Land Surveyors (APLS) association regards land surveyors and GIS professionals as part of the same profession in many ways. Not only does APLS allow GIS professionals (with appropriate qualifications) to become full members but also collaborated with them to develop and refine the Arizona Spatial Data Accuracy and Georeferencing Standards. It was great to hear about the strides being made by these and other surveyors working to integrate mapping and GIS with the profession.

Unfortunately, not everyone has embraced GIS. Professional myopia seems to have affected a large segment of professional surveyors. I haven’t measured how many are afflicted, so I don’t know if they are in the majority. But if you are one of them, consider how this perspective may stunt your professional and business viability:

• A practice that encompasses a large spectrum of surveying and mapping activities (as long as the firm is qualified to perform them) is more likely to remain financially stable. If there’s one lesson from the current economic situation, it would be to diversify and broaden your scope to handle as many types of clients and projects as possible.

• As Brent Jones, ESRI’s surveying and engineering industry solutions manager, said at a preconference summit, it should be our prime goal as a profession and as individuals to become the trusted advisor to those seeking solutions or help with land and land measurement issues. How can you be a trusted advisor if you put on blinders to keep yourself from learning about the spectrum of activities and professional services that are provided by geospatial professionals (of which surveyors are one component)?

• Even if you insist that your only area of practice and expertise is in property boundary surveys, it is still your professional responsibility to know about other geospatial activities. This is best illustrated by the medical profession. A cardiologist, by virtue of being a physician, knows a lot about other parts and systems of the human body in addition to the heart.

So, get with it! Try to learn a little more about mapping or GIS subjects you are not familiar with. Talk to more people. Pay attention to how your world--the one that you measure--is changing, and take some credit for being a mapper, too. Maybe this will aid you in understanding and accepting the role of surveyors in developing, maintaining and using geographic information systems.


Reference

1. Ghilani, Charles D., and Wolf, Paul R., “Elementary Surveying: An Introduction to Geomatics,” 12th Ed., Prentice Hall, 2008, p. 1.

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