Point of Beginning

Letters to the Editor

September 7, 2000
The buzz from our readers.

"Letters to the Editor: A Lost Opportunity"
June 2000

I read Mr. Courtright's letter in the June issue, and I would like to answer his question. He should be concerned. And so should all of us because it doesn't appear that we communicate with each other very well at times.

A good place to start might be to define what qualifies one as a "GIS Expert." GIS expertise is generally vested in the ownership and construction of specific GIS layers and/or knowledge of GIS hardware and software systems. It also might be useful to distinguish between "GIS Experts" and GIS Professionals.

I recently served on a panel to develop position descriptions for GIS professionals for the county of San Diego. The process took nearly a year. We reviewed descriptions for hundreds of positions from all over North America. In the end, we settled on three sets of distinguishing characteristics and called them respectively, GIS Specialist, Analyst and Senior Analyst. All of those describe the operation of the equipment, the construction of layers the production of thematic maps, and the maintenance of the systems. Only a rudimentary knowledge of surveying terms and practices is required. The prevailing theory is that subject matter experts should be consulted to resolve questions regarding specific layers.

The editor of POB was correct to assert opportunities are lost whenever surveyors don't participate in community activities involving the use of Global Positioning Systems. But let me suggest a possible explanation. Mr. Courtright refers to "resource" (or feature) grade GPS units. Most land surveyors employ survey-grade GPS units. It is rare for private sector land surveyors to invest in resource-grade equipment because it does not support the precision requirements for the majority of their work. In fairness, it is even more rare for a non-surveyor GIS Analyst to "Blue Book" or record a survey point.

The editor was also not wrong to state that "Surveyors really are the experts when it come to GIS base maps." It is commonly held that the term "base map" refers to "representations of boundaries." Most enterprise-class GIS systems use some representation of their boundaries and their accompanying control monuments as their "base map" layer(s). Court rulings have consistently held that the spatial data used to construct this kind of layer falls within the purview of the land surveying profession.

It is self-serving and absurd for Mr. Courtright to suggest "Surveyors simply don't have time to become GIS experts." I earned my professional certificate in Geographic Information Sciences the same way I obtained my three land surveying licenses. I found the time! It was not by accident that I became a GIS manager. What most surveyors don't have is the resources to construct and maintain a GIS. But as soon as they discover the power of having GIS data on their desktops, they become avid users and advocates.

I am still trying to fathom "State of Idaho GPS chair for resource-grade GPS for a number of years." It would be interesting to take a poll of the number of land surveyors who are members of various GIS advisory committees across the country and compare it to a poll of non-surveyor GIS Analysts who are members of spatial data reference system technical advisory committees.

Then there is the issue of using the terms GIS and GPS almost interchangeably. Surely Mr. Courtright must be aware it is quite possible to be an expert in either with barely any knowledge of the other.

What we all need to keep in mind is that GIS is big-maybe even bigger than Priceline.com. It easily lends itself to interdisciplinary activities, and there is plenty of room for lots of "experts." Mr. Courtright need not feel threatened. And neither do surveyors.

Michael L. Binge, PLS
GIS Manager
County of San Diego Public Works

I am writing in response to John Courtright's letter "A Lost Opportunity." I believe he misinterpreted the editor's statement that all surveyors should be GIS experts. The surveying profession plays a very important role in the establishment of GIS. It is the surveying profession that establishes the legal boundaries that provide the basis for all other GIS functions.

To feel comfortable with the fact that the "resource-grade users" he knows would "never" present themselves or their data as anything else is a very scary philosophy. For every 10 GIS technicians that do not act as surveyors, there is probably one out of 10 that will. The surveying profession needs protection against those individuals so that the legal basis of boundary location can be maintained.

I hope I can speak for all surveyors in the fact that we are not trying to "own" the profession of GIS but to maintain control at our level. The typical surveyor does not have the acquired knowledge and capabilities in GIS to the extent where they would represent themselves as GIS experts.

I think Mr. Courtright should attempt to have a better understanding of the surveyor's role in GIS. That may prevent him from making negative assumptions to the fact that we are trying to steal the GIS profession.

Patrick Fuhrman, PLS
via E-mail

John Courtright responds:

I certainly must agree with Mr. Binge on one point: We have to communicate. This is clearly evidenced in the fact that "base data" means one thing to a surveyor and can mean 10 different things to a GIS analyst. I made two points: first that practicing surveyors need not become GIS experts and secondly, the survey profession should concentrate on the integrity of its solutions/data and not the technology used to achieve the solution. I stand behind these two points.

Mr. Binge is a GIS Manager. This begs the question as to whether he manages a GIS program and also holds a surveyor's license or is a full-time surveyor? The distinction is critical as I clearly addressed my comments to the full-time practicing surveyor. I am simply proposing that the survey community is better served by collaborating with "GIS experts" in addressing GIS digital spatial data issues such as data structure, standards, storage, retrieval, use and map making to achieve the best use of their limited resources.

GIS and GPS are expanding technologies and are undergoing a rapid technology transfer that is clearly evidenced in the proliferation of low-cost GPS receivers and GIS software. Surveyors need to better understand the role of digital spatial data and GIS to insure they protect the integrity of their solutions and data and not overreact to the changing technologies.

I appreciate Mr. Fuhrman's comments and will work towards a better understanding of the surveyor's role in GIS. We clearly need to build a better relationship between these two highly technical, closely related professions. This issue deserves a thorough discussion, and I certainly hope it receives it for everyone's sake.