Point of Beginning

Professional Topography

March 26, 2002
We just don’t get no respect.



Whether called surveyor, geomatics practitioner or survey engineer, the primary traditional occupation of this group has been to delineate property lines or other land lines. Regardless of the name, what’s critical to understanding this group’s future—and an excellent project for someone with a master’s or doctoral project ahead of them—is to determine the economic worth of the surveying community. And I suspect that the value billed for the task of determining land and property lines would represent a fairly small fraction of the billings for services in all surveying activities.

People involved in surveying activities, regardless of what they or others call them, perform a multitude of services besides determining land and property lines. They include: mapping the land for planning; construction stakeout for buildings; geodetic and control surveying; as-built surveying; stakeout for other types of construction; directing the positioning of barges, dredges, hydraulic structures and offshore platforms; aligning heavy plant machinery; surveying for oil, metal ore and other mineral extraction prospecting, on the ground and below ground; mapping the bottom of bodies of water; quality control and quantity measurements in construction and mining; surveying for planning, construction and maintenance of routes (highways, pipelines, electric transmission, canals, etc.); and on and on. Most of you should be able to add at least one more surveying activity to this list—and that’s even without adding other “suspect” activities: construction or alignment of large vessels (shipping or tanks); photogrammetry; GIS design; GIS data collection; GIS maintenance; remote sensing; seismic and subsidence monitoring; and etc.

While the economic worth I mentioned above was intended to mean the billings or equivalent worth, there is another “worth” to be considered: the value of the projects to which surveyors contribute. Where you draw the “worth” line is somewhat arbitrary, but in the case of construction, it could be the construction cost of the power plant project; in a subdivision, it could be the combined price of all the saleable lots; in a mine it could be the acquisition cost of the rights to perform the mining activity. But in each of these cases it could also be the price of the electricity sold over the useful life of the plant, or the price paid by each of the first owners of each lot in the subdivision to build and finish and furnish a house, or the total value of the mine’s output.

The object of this discussion is not to pat ourselves on our collective backs and be proud of our contributions to the economy in which we all live and work. We can do that if we wish, and it would be well-deserved. Rather, it is to point out the huge reliance—and responsibility—placed on people called surveyors to contribute to the economic well-being of society. Surveyors, I will immediately acknowledge, aren’t the only members of a group of “doers” who have responsibilities like this. But since most you who read this are surveyors, it is your part on which I wish to comment.

As an illustration, let’s look at a large construction project. Surveyors have been contracted to do all the property line surveying, mapping, stakeout, quality control, quantity measurements and as-builts for the project. Months before the project starts, the project manager meets with the manager of the contracted surveyors. As they have already been hired, the surveyors already know the scope of the project, the time schedules planned and the major classes of activity for which they must plan. At the meeting, the project managers give the surveyors a link to the website where all the project documents are maintained. The surveyors are to upload preliminary and final data from their work into clearly delineated files three times a day and at other times as required by project needs. The surveyors are to also access this site to get information on work to be done, including last-minute requests. Three times a day, the surveyors are to update the surveying resources allocated to various surveying tasks on the jobsite as a means of informing project managers and construction project participants; this includes the latest estimates to finish tasks and sub-tasks. Additionally, they work out the infrastructure needed to support real-time links that allow them to upload data directly to any workstation of any professional involved in the project. The link allows internally approved revisions to engineering designs to be sent in real-time to the surveyors in the field so that they can execute the mapping or setting out function as required; it also allows the surveyors to report the status of these activities, especially if the designs are difficult and all parties are anxious to know if the surveyors can confirm that the first of many field steps of the designs have been correctly executed.

The surveyors are also responsible for maintaining project control for the systems used by construction machines for earthmoving, grading and even paving. They perform calibration and alignment functions for the machines on a regular schedule, test and monitor the performance of the systems continuously, and perform quality tests on the data used by these systems. They also get web and wireless links that make remote monitoring and even software and data updates of the machines possible. As interconnected players on this project, the surveyors are able to flag and stop construction processes that have drifted “out of spec”; they provide the project managers with full transparency on their activities; and they have full transparency into the project so that they can best determine how the surveying resources need to be applied to minimize delays, downtime and work stoppage.

“In your dreams,” you might say. “Essential,” I say. Not that the relationships between surveyors and others, whether engineers, business managers or other professionals, need to be exactly this way. But I believe what’s required is acceptance by other professionals of surveyors as an integral part of the project’s success—and acceptance by surveyors of the very serious responsibility they owe the project. Also required is the acknowledgement that project success is highly dependent on clearly defined and well-used lines of communication. Emphasizing the communication function between project professionals is essential. It is very much a reality that project managers often shudder at the thought of needing to stop a project to wait for the surveyors to arrive on site, or finish their fieldwork, or report their findings, so that work can start again. Too often, the surveying activity is treated by managers as a “black hole” because the planning, execution and reporting, as well as the extensive two-way communication that is required between the surveyors and others working on the project is often non-existent, not as clear, or just plain slow.

The reason for this discussion? Simply this: With the critical responsibilities given surveyors for the success of multitudes of projects that are part of the everyday economic landscape, wouldn’t it be preferable for everyone concerned if surveyors were treated (by others as well as themselves) as integral members of the team that make the project reality? “They are,” you might say. “Not enough,” I would reply. Why is this important? It ties back to every discussion we’ve had but which I can’t expound on in this month’s column: about the professionalism of surveyors—or even whether they are professionals; whether licensing surveyors for the purpose of delineating property boundaries makes that activity the only one that should be regulated; or the only purpose for which the state requires a body of knowledge to be possessed by the practitioner; whether the group of people we call surveyors will exist as a group a century from now.

Very often discussions of the surveyor’s role, lot in life, whether they get the respect of fellow professionals, or this group’s very name, are often venues for stating “I became a surveyor because I liked doing or being something, and changing the way I look at my occupation doesn’t appeal to me.” We all have the right to say and do that. But the economic reality is that a vacuum created by unfulfilled needs gets eventually filled, and not always by someone who believes they have a right to decide that it should be them, or how it should be filled, or when it should be filled. One’s willingness to change, to adapt to a changing landscape, to be creative in responding to clients' needs so that they get what is desired, in my view, is the hallmark of a professional’s role in serving clients. Consulting services that provide products by rote or cookie cutter are eventually doomed by external changes to failure.

So regardless of what we call them, surveyors’ economic impact on society’s projects absolutely requires that they be functional players. Otherwise, technological improvements to surveying activities will simply be adopted by others who see the economic advantages—and are smart enough to develop a presence—that could make who we know as surveyors quickly become dinosaurs.