Point of Beginning

MAPPS President's Perspective: The Role of Surveyors in GIS ... and MAPPS

August 31, 2011


The broader GIS, mapping, photogrammetry and geospatial markets, while certainly not robust, have not been hit as hard. In my 35 years as a licensed professional surveyor, I’ve seen my share of economic ups and downs. But this one is different, and it caused me to contemplate why.

Over the past 30 years, the GIS, mapping, photogrammetry and geospatial markets have dramatically changed. While photogrammetry in particular was much like surveying in the 1980s--heavily dependent on the real estate and construction market--today’s mapping market is much more diverse. Firms providing photogrammetric services now work in navigation, environmental protection, emergency response, homeland security and national defense, telecommunications, marketing and other place- or location-based services. This diversity in the market has provided a degree of insulation from the current recession. Surveyors, for the most part, have not enjoyed that cushion.

A number of state licensing laws now define certain GIS activities as the practice of surveying. So why aren’t more surveyors involved in GIS?

A poll of surveyors in the mid-1980s indicated that not many surveyors were involved in GIS and, if they were involved, the surveyors’ role was limited to establishing control. I know some surveyors joke that GIS stands for “get it surveyed.” And I know control is important to the positional accuracy of a GIS. But it is my observation that if the same poll were conducted today, the results would not be much different. That conclusion was affirmed when a major state GIS conference was recently held with no presence by the state surveyors’ society, little attendance by licensed surveyors, the absence of the state licensing board, and little discussion of surveying issues, technical or otherwise, in the conference sessions. MAPPS recently invited every member of a state surveying society to attend a national conference held in their home state, and none accepted the offer.

As the newly elected president of MAPPS, I’d like to see that trend change. Although the association’s member firms represent a broad and diverse cross-section of geospatial services and data products firms, a number of active participants in MAPPS are licensed surveyors. While some achieved professional licensure through formal education in engineering or surveying and experience in traditional boundary knowledge and experience, others obtained their license by being “grandfathered” in recognition of their background and competence in photogrammetry and other disciplines. Some other firm principals active in MAPPS are unlicensed but are professionals nonetheless through achievement as a certified photogrammetrist (CP), certified GIS professional (GISP), certified hydrographer, and other designations.

I’m not suggesting or advocating that all GIS must be performed by a licensed surveyor. What I am suggesting is that too many surveyors still fail to see the market opportunity in GIS.

I’m also old enough to remember that before the term “geographic information system” was widely used, the profession instead used “multipurpose cadastre.” Is there any doubt that the files and records (paper or electronic) in the office of every land surveyor in the United States are really a mini-cadastre? Is there any question that the current mortgage foreclosure crisis in America could have been prevented, or at least recognized early and minimized, if we had a national parcel system?

The point is that the economy for geospatial professionals in other disciplines is somewhat better today than it is for many surveyors because of diversity of markets and the embracing of GIS.

Accurate data in a GIS, tied to survey control and including a parcel layer, is of extraordinary value to businesses, government at all levels, and individual consumers. The economic opportunity for surveyors is in the billions of dollars.

Surveyors, GIS developers, photogrammetrists, remote sensing scientists, engineers and other professionals need to come together to learn, network, promote legislation and policies, and build a better community. There is more that unites surveyors in private practice with firms engaged in photogrammetry, LIDAR, mobile mapping, BIM, remote sensing, and GIS than divides us. Individuals from firms in all these professional disciplines (and numerous others) actively participate in MAPPS. I encourage my fellow professionals in the surveying field to broaden their scope of services, embrace the explosion of GIS, and enroll their firms as active members of MAPPS. The business of MAPPS is the business of maps. Together, we can build a better profession.