Point of Beginning

Professional Topography-Can you be a surveyor and a GIS professional?

August 1, 2007


The author (far right) moderates a panel on licensing issues at the 2007 ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit. Photo by Mike Binge.

At the 2007 ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit, I moderated a panel focused on “Licensing Issues--Surveying, Mapping and GIS.” The panel members consisted of Curt Sumner, executive director of ACSM; Chuck Pearson, a surveyor with a wide variety of experience at local, national and international levels; Al Butler, a civil engineer with a breadth of experience in a variety of GIS activities and applications; and Rich Vannozzi, a professional land surveyor with GIS experience who has embarked on a career in education.

We asked attendees to provide topics for discussion on licensing issues, but also suggested a few, such as: Should a GIS professional compiling locations for mapping control in a cadastral database be licensed? Should photogrammetry only be practiced by licensed surveyors? And is a licensed surveyor the only person who can determine the information shown or to be shown on any map?

The discussions between attendees and panelists proved to be quite vigorous. (A complete account of the discussion would fill many columns in this magazine.) I was particularly struck by one track of the discussion that dealt with answering the questions “What is GIS?” and “Who is a GIS professional?” One of the attendees pointed out that GIS software is an application, similar to Excel or CAD software. To paraphrase him: Why should we be concerned about whether someone using this software needs to be licensed? Shouldn’t we be concerned instead about how this software is used?

This reminded me of a discussion that has occurred and perhaps is still occurring in one or more states among surveyors. Some believe that centimeter-level GPS, whether RTK or static, should only be sold to licensed surveyors. My question is: why? Even if surveying activities such as construction surveying and topographic surveying are licensed (regulated) activities, why should the technology be limited to only licensed professionals? We know that GPS (RTK or not) can be useful for centimeter positioning of snowplows operating in blizzards, oceangoing ferry-docking systems, farming machines and earthmoving machines. While surveying might be an important part of being able to implement these applications, I think most would agree that the bulldozer driver, harvesting machine operator or ferry pilot is not engaged in surveying. Why not apply these kinds of tests when it comes to GIS?

For instance, consider the marketing uses for GIS. Using varied methods, GIS can be used to help sell everything from CDs to greeting cards to pizzas. One method is to track customers by location and target mail to their homes. Another is to identify customers’ neighbors, assuming that people from a locality might have similar interests or tastes. A more sophisticated analysis might research the possible routes customers could take to get to a store, and factor in distance and time to figure out when to increase staffing. Surveying isn’t retail or fast food, but surveyors can use GIS to manage their businesses, improve their marketing and help them to better communicate with their clients and potential client base (see “More Than Just a Plan,” POB June 2007). A possible GIS application for a surveying firm is tracking previously completed surveys so that estimating, generating proposals and researching nearby control monuments and documents can be done more easily. GIS can even be used to generate a list of potential clients who might be served in the process of performing a survey for a current client.

But GIS can also be used in activities that fall within the purview of surveying. If any activity defined as being surveying is accomplished using a GIS software package, then it becomes regulated … it is that simple. This principle applies for CAD and even applies for Excel, so why not for GIS software? In surveying organizations, we employ many people who function as technicians or paraprofessionals. These people use many or even all of the surveyor’s tools, including centimeter-level GPS. They aren’t licensed, either. It is up to the licensed professional who supervises them to make sure that the work being done by them is at the appropriate level; he or she reviews all the essential parts of the work that are regulated.

It is true that there are GIS professionals (sometimes licensed or certified) who do work that is construed as surveying. There are other GIS professionals, for example (sometimes licensed or certified) who help DOTs manage the tracking of potholes and the scheduling of their repair, or who help market research companies examine the location-based buying habits of teenagers.

As a rejoinder to this type of discussion, some people remind us that a GIS--whatever its intended purpose--can be used to show parcel maps. They warn that the insidious dangers of placing GIS in improper hands will appear as soon as we make it available to non-surveyors. My reply is that we need to manage that through good communication--with the public, with the press, with professionals in other areas of practice and within our own profession. Most of you will probably admit that, as a group, we don’t qualify as great communicators. We tend not to see our responsibility to help maintain the credibility and authenticity of our profession through public speaking; participation in public bodies such as boards, councils and committees; and personal and public communications advocating for a reasoned, analytical approach to these issues with legislators, public officials and whomever else needs to be informed.

We’ve had paper maps portraying parcels of land that have never been considered by their makers to be definitive (for property boundary location purposes) that continue to be construed otherwise due to lack of information, background and communication. We’ve dealt with such erroneous conclusions in the past. We surveyors are the ones who must figure out new ways to deal with those same erroneous conclusions today--but not by banning the tools that make access to maps and applications based on those maps feasible.

When we have discussions about our profession, let’s focus on what surveying is and how it should be done--and not whether a technology is capable of misuse (by anyone).