Point of Beginning

GIS Get Involved, Surveyors!

February 1, 2008
An analytical perspective on surveyors and GIS activities across the nation.



Figure 1. An NSGIC study shows that 46 U.S. states have a GIS office and/or council.

Many surveyors ask why they should get involved in GIS matters. Across the country, state and local government entities use Geographic Information Systems to hold inventory of land parcels, transportation networks and environmentally sensitive areas. The systems are also used for tax mapping, tax assessment, planning and zoning, utilities and public works, and even building setback determination. Most importantly to surveyors, many states have developed mandatory GIS-based submission standards for the submittal of spatial information. Some states, however, have established standards without the input of the surveying community.

Most states have established advising and coordinating entities whose charge is to assist state and local government in creating and maintaining productive GIS systems. Almost all U.S. states have established a GIS office and/or GIS advisory council. A GIS office usually serves as the state’s leading GIS agency for the promotion and coordination of GIS activities among the state’s other agencies, including the department of transportation (DOT), the department of environmental protection (DEP), the department of taxation, law enforcement, etc. Some GIS offices also coordinate the GIS activities of non-state agencies, such as GIS user groups, GIS specialty committees and other GIS teams. These offices can benefit from surveyor participation.

Figure 2. Since most states don't have a GIS office/council and a GIS committee within its state society, it is assumed that in at least 50 percent of the country, GIS activities take place without the official involvement of the surveying state societies.

Some states have an official GIS advisory council established by a special executive order from the governor’s office. The function of the GIS advisory council is to provide directions and guidance on GIS matters. For example, the council may be charged with developing GIS standards that eventually become the standards that service providers have to adhere to. The council can also create guidelines and recommend specifications for spatial data compilation and the format in which they are to be delivered to state and local government agencies.

Some of the decisions made by the GIS office or the GIS council can have a direct impact on surveyors and the surveying profession as a whole. For example, new standards for parcel mapping or other spatial products such as orthophotos or digital terrain models (DTMs) will have a direct impact on surveyors. If the standards specify who is entitled to provide theses data sets (e.g., any certified GIS professional), the impact will be even greater.

It is therefore essential that surveyors become involved in the activities of their state GIS advisory entities. Surveyors, as individuals or as a group, should participate in the activities of the GIS office and/or council. Individual surveyors can be instrumental in steering these advisory entities in the right direction; however, in some instances they may voice their own opinions (or business interests) on certain issues. These opinions do not always correspond to the general interest of the surveying profession. On the other hand, a surveyor’s society can participate in many more activities and have a consistent voice across the board. These groups can become members of different committees and express surveyors’ views on the matters at hand. They can represent the concerns of the entire profession rather than individual personal views or interests.

Figure 3. Only 13 states reported that surveyors actively participate in their meetings and the activities of the GIS office/council.

To become effective in providing valuable input to the GIS decision-making process and in representing the welfare of the public as well as the interest of the surveyors, it is important for surveying state societies to have GIS committees. The mission of these committees is to bring GIS issues to the members of the state society, and in turn, act on their behalf during various state GIS activities. These GIS committees can also be involved in educating their state’s surveyors in GIS, while educating the GIS community about the crucial role of surveying in constructing and maintaining an effective GIS.

While it is important that surveyors as a group become involved in state GIS activities, it is equally important that the involvement has an impact on the GIS community. The visibility of surveyors in GIS activities and the impact of their participation in committee work should be prominent. Otherwise, the surveyors’ perspective will not warrant an effect on the GIS decision-making process. The GIS community should be made aware that when making crucial decisions such as adopting GIS standards or determining who is allowed to do what in GIS, the surveying community must be involved in those decisions. But this will only be achieved if surveyors play a prominent role.

Figure 4. Twelve states that have developed GIS standards have no GIS committee within its surveying societies.

Are Surveyors Involved in GIS?

Two recent surveys on the relationship of GIS and surveying reflect the level of surveyors’ involvement in current GIS activities. One of these surveys, which was conducted by the National State Geographic Information Council (NSGIC)1, represents the perspective of the GIS state officers and officials on the involvement and participation of surveyors in state GIS activities. Another survey2, conducted as a mutual collaboration effort between the Geographic and Land Information Society (GLIS) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), represents the surveyor’s perspective on the individual’s involvement and participation in GIS activities. From the perspective of the two different groups, the two surveys determine the level of involvement of surveyors in GIS. Here are some analyses of the two surveys.

Figure 5. Eight states with GIS submission requirements have no GIS committee to monitor those requirements.

The NSGIC Study

According to NSGIC, 46 states have a GIS office or council, or both. See Figure 1. This means that in at least 46 states, surveyors should be concerned with the activities of their GIS office/council.

The NSGIC study also found that 18 states with a GIS office and/or council also had a GIS committee within its state society. Maine and South Carolina have a GIS committee but not a GIS office/council. Nine states with a GIS office/council did not know whether there was a GIS committee in their state surveying societies. It is therefore assumed that in at least 50 percent of the country GIS activities take place without the official involvement of the surveying state societies. See Figure 2. Further, only 13 states reported that surveyors actively participate in their meetings and the activities of the GIS office/council. See Figure 3. Because visibility enhances the possibility to be heard and considered, it is important for surveyors to improve their attendance.

According to the NSGIC survey, 14 states have an official seat (with voting privileges) for a surveyor on the GIS council. It is not specified in most cases whether that seat is occupied by a government employee (such as the state surveyor) or by a representative from the state surveying society. Surveying societies in the 36 states that do not have an official seat for a surveyor on the GIS council are encouraged to pursue actions to change this situation.

The NSGIC survey also found that 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) have some form of GIS standards. At the same time, the GLIS/NSPS survey (discussed below) revealed that only 19 state societies have a GIS committee. Even if all 19 states with a GIS committee also have GIS standards, it leaves 12 states where GIS standards are being implemented without the involvement of the GIS committee of that state society. See Figure 4. This situation does not serve the states well nor does it serve the interests of the surveyors in those states.

Figure 6. Only three U.S. states offer hands-on GIS seminars/workshops.

The GLIS/NSPS Survey

According to the GLIS/NSPS survey, the surveyors of 23 states have been required to submit survey products in GIS-compatible formats. In 15 of those 23 states, the surveyor’s state society has a GIS committee. This leaves eight states with GIS submission requirements but no GIS committee to monitor those requirements. See Figure 5.

However, as states, counties and municipalities embark on the creation of a GIS from submitted data, GIS compatibility requirements will become more common. Surveyors should be interested in this trend because it will affect the way they do business with local government. At a minimum, surveyors should be aware of the GIS submission requirements of their states and be able to deliver surveys in that format. This, of course, necessitates surveyors to become educated in GIS.

But, according to the GLIS/NSPS survey, only three states offer hands-on GIS seminars or workshops. See Figure 6. Advanced GIS education is offered in Alaska and 15 states offer beginner and intermediate GIS education. (The other states either did not offer GIS education or did not respond to the survey question.) From these results, it is clear that surveying state societies need to do more to prepare their members for the challenges ahead.

Time to Improve GIS

The information contained in this article provides a brief status of GIS-related aspects of state societies and their relation to the surveying profession. The results of the two studies show that surveyors should become involved in their states’ GIS activities as it will have an impact on their professional practice. For surveyors, the interpretation of the acronym “GIS” should be “Get Involved, Surveyors!”

Sidebar: Getting Involved in GIS

Action items for state societies:

    Establish an active GIS committee. The committee should become informed and involved in:

  • State government GIS activities

  • County and municipal GIS activities

  • State GIS council or office, or both

  • Local chapter of URISA, GITA and other GIS-related professional societies

  • Local GIS conferences (including committees)

  • GIS Day in schools nationwide

  • GIS education at surveyors’ conferences

  • Surveying education at GIS conferences

  • Work of state professional licensing boards to establish parameters for which involvement of surveyors in GIS activities is required

  • Dissemination of information of GIS activities, encouraging everyone in the surveying community to become involved in GIS


    Action items for national societies:

    Coordinate nationwide agenda to foster involvement in:

  • GIS base mapping standards development

  • Data development and certification

  • Local GIS associations

  • State and local government

  • Education (conferences, CEU)

  • High school competitions and National GIS Day

  • Promotion of GIS activities as a surveying society (not only as individuals)

  • Dissemination of information of GIS activities, leading to more involvement by surveyors


  • References

    1. The GLIS/NSPS survey was coordinated and analyzed by the author.

    2. The NSGIC survey can be found at www.nsgic.org/states/index.cfm