Chris Gibson of TrimbleAt times, the speed of change can seem overwhelming. It’s not just that the technologies available to geospatial professionals are changing—that’s nothing new. What’s impressive is how the rate of change is accelerating. Compare the centuries required to migrate from measuring sticks and ropes to chains, then tapes, and then to the early electronic methods pioneered by Geodimeter. Then, in just a few decades, distance measuring tools evolved from the cabinet-sized devices of the 1940s to chips and lenses that integrate easily into a compact telescope or handheld device. GPS needed only 20 years to evolve from static-only receivers the size of a suitcase to easily portable units capable of real time, centimeter accuracy. Today, LiDAR, inertial measurements, unmanned aerial systems and computing technology are evolving at ever-faster rates.

Even in the face of such rapid, revolutionary advances, many things haven’t changed much at all. At the core, much of what we do still revolves around gathering and utilizing information about objects and features in and on the Earth. When collecting and managing data, a geospatial professional considers three primary questions about an object: (1) Where is it; (2) How does it relate to other objects; and (3) What else do I need to know about it?

Let’s look at the questions in more detail. The first deals directly with positioning and measurement. The second question requires the ability to combine different types of observables and to apply professional judgment to produce a big-picture view. The third question calls for collecting a broad range of additional information; it may be historical data, numeric or textual information, a photo or movie, a barcode or a reading from a gas meter. Surveyors commonly collect and manage data such as the species, size and health of a tree; the height and condition of an electric transmission line or tower; or the location of natural features, rivers, ridges, streams in relation to boundaries. 

As geospatial professionals, we are skilled at gathering answers to these questions. But to grow and add value to our services, we must be able to answer—and solve—one additional item: Who needs the information I have gathered, and how and where will they use it?

This last question, “How and where is the information used?” represents a new source of value we can provide to our clients. By knowing how data will be used and shared, we can increase the efficiency of both our and our clients’ operations. For example, information that a survey crew collects during a utility right- of-way survey including the utility structures may find its way to the utility’s maintenance department. There, the data are used in preparing work orders, navigating repair crews to the proper poles or structures and ensuring that needed tools and parts have been loaded on their vehicle. By efficiently gathering, managing and moving information throughout the enterprise, we can have a direct, positive effect on the client’s bottom line.

Trimble R10 GNSS
Advanced RTK GNSS can collect positions in seconds that once required several minutes or even hours of observation.

The tools for these activities are among the fastest-evolving technologies today. Measurements can be taken quickly and efficiently. In just a few seconds, RTK GNSS can collect positions that formerly required several minutes (or hours!) of observation. In those same seconds, a 3D scanner can capture thousands of points with millimeter precision. Communications, database management and integrated sensing and measuring systems allow rapid exchange and development of multiple types of information. Exciting new tools provide real-time visualization, process management and information exchange to end users, managers and decision makers. As a result, the analysis process can be based on more complete and timely information. Decisions are faster, better informed and closer to the point of work.

These improvements make it easier to gather and deliver data, which might appear to open doors for non-surveyors to compete with existing surveying organizations. But the payoff comes not from only collecting data. The true value of the qualified surveyor or geospatial professional lies in his or her ability to interpret, analyze and develop data into useful information, and to share and apply that information to the benefit of his or her clients. Often, this information goes into decisions that impact property rights, as well as public safety and well-being.

To illustrate this, think about a cadastral surveyor who measures the position of a monument or natural feature related to a property boundary. The surveyor must also examine and utilize the broader record that includes adjoining parcels, previous surveys and ownership rights. Only then can he or she make a definitive statement about how the monument is related to a parcel’s boundary. Similarly, a surveyor may collect field data to create a topographic map or digital terrain model that is used to design new or upgraded facilities, roads or utilities. During the ensuing construction, automated machine control has radically changed the surveyor’s role. Much of the construction surveyor’s work now consists of establishing and verifying and calibrating models and processes to ensure that the machines accurately create the desired design. During construction, measurements to monitor nearby structures may be straightforward, but the surveyor’s specialized knowledge and skills are needed to interpret, analyze and apply the results. 

As a third example, consider the efforts of a highway department to maintain its road signs. A geospatial data collection system can gather the position of the signs and enable technicians to perform visual inspection to determine the type and number of signs as well needs for repair or replacement. The data can even drive the purchasing and scheduling that support the maintenance activities.

These examples illustrate our roles as geospatial professionals: We capture geospatial and related data, and then carry it through the processes for analysis and conversion into actionable information. This new role as geo-data manager is a significant evolution—and opportunity—from our earlier roles. It calls on us to develop a broader set of skills and services.

The technologies to support this change are in place today, and new approaches will continue to emerge. But the real driver for change is the innovation that each of us use when fulfilling our clients’ needs. As you work in collecting and managing data, ask yourself: “How can I best use this information to provide value to my client?” The answer—and the new questions it generates—may surprise you.

Share your answers to this question in the comments section below.