Many surveyors think GIS is some New Age idea. It isn’t, really! How many times have you heard questions like “What’s the difference between LIS and GIS?” Or “Whatever happened to the multipurpose cadastre?”

Even the staunchest of critics agree that GIS has “invaded” our lives as surveyors beyond the point of no return. What is surprising, though, is how many surveyors think GIS is some New Age idea. Actually it isn’t, really! How many times have you heard questions like “What’s the difference between LIS and GIS?” Or “Whatever happened to the multipurpose cadastre?”

Perhaps we should take the last question first. In 1979 the National Research Council commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel with the prestigious title of Panel on a Multipurpose Cadastre of the Committee on Geodesy in the National Research Council’s Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The group made a one-year study focused on defining a federal role “in the development of a multipurpose cadastre applicable on a national basis.”

Though the thrust of this study was federal in nature, the panel correctly recognized that “Much of the work in developing and maintaining a multipurpose cadastre will occur at a local level.” Their recommendation was to create a local agency called an Office of Land Information Systems to be located in local government offices. Some of the candidate locations spelled out in the report were the offices of the Tax Assessor, Recorder and County Surveyor. The state of Wisconsin has established “The Office of Land Information Services.” It appears to be the only one using a version of the recommended title.

The Multipurpose Cadastre Model (1980).

Panel Makeup

The makeup of this body is interesting to say the least. The choice for chairman, George E. Jones of Chevron U.S.A., New Orleans, seems to be almost a reflection of the economic conditions of the period. Most of the other members represented academia and consulting firms. The liaison members were department heads representing several major federal agencies. These member agencies were either already involved in land issues or could be considered to be affected. Bernard Hostrup of the Bureau of Land Management is the sole identifiable surveyor anywhere in the mix.

Though the report contains references to local government participation, strong local government representation does not emerge anywhere in this milieu.

The Executive Summary opens with this modest proposal:

There is a critical need for a better land information system in the United States to improve land conveyance procedures, furnish a basis for equitable taxation, and provide much-needed information for resource management and environmental planning.

Elsewhere in the Executive Summary the panel listed these elements as the “Components of a Multipurpose Cadastre”:

  • A reference frame consisting of a geodetic network;
  • A series of current, accurate large-scale maps;
  • A cadastral overlay delineating all cadastral parcels;
  • A unique identifying number assigned to each parcel that is used as a common index of all land records in information systems; and
  • A series of land data files, each including a parcel identifier for purposes of information retrieval and linking information in other data files.

LIS: Land Information System

A Land Information System in its fundamental form is much older in concept than the Multipurpose Cadastre (MPC). The locus classicus most scholars use to fix its origins place it as far back as biblical times, and the MPC report supports this view. In its original format the Land Information System was simply that of a basic land ownership or occupation record repository. Somewhere during the ensuing centuries and millennia the twin concepts of planning and management were introduced.

Land Management

The concept of Land Management is much newer but has also been around for some time. The MPC study describes it as “a broad range of activity that revolves around land-resource assessment, planning and regulation process including zoning.” A really effective method of managing land use on a large scale wasn’t initially available. Early systems were collections of paper maps often interpreted by accompanying written reports that took months or years to prepare and were then tracked by bound volumes of records.

Computers were introduced into this mix in the 1960s. This is the point at which the “worlds begin to collide.” The terms Multipurpose Cadastre and Land Information System are often used interchangeably at this juncture in the development of what will eventually become known as GIS.


In the 1979 study, the panel identified what they saw as some of the inherent problems associated with creating a data warehouse of such immense proportions. They concluded it was likely there would be duplication. They were right. Another thing that concerned them was accessibility. What is interesting is why they thought this was going to be a problem. They opined that much of the existing data was “structured in poor classification systems with data arrangements and files that limit access to existing information.”

Their explanation for this situation was equally interesting. They basically conclude that most large organizations with multiple divisions weren’t sufficiently perspicacious to grasp the value of sharing information between those member units. And in many cases the wrong people were managing that information. Fortunately for all of us we have that all fixed in 2002. Well, maybe not exactly all fixed.

Qualified Personnel

The study also recognized the need to develop a staff fully prepared to operate the complex operational structure the panel anticipated. “There is considerable concern that qualified personnel required to perform the functions inherent in a comprehensive land information system will not be available at all levels of government and in the private sector. The panel believes that means must be found to develop qualified personnel and to encourage and support university research and development activities and programs.” The panel goes on to suggest the federal government establish “learning centers” to this end.

As many of us are well aware this is the part of the plan that has received the least attention. There are no federal learning centers for GIS. That is, unless you count the map digitizing that goes on in the Bureau of Prisons as “vocational training.”

The task to train the future operators of these systems was left foursquare on the collective back of the university system at large without much of a formal plan. Four-year degrees with the title Geographic Information Systems have only recently become obtainable. And the programs that offer those degrees depend heavily on input and support from the industry to develop them.


The next step in the evolution of Land Information System to Multipurpose Cadastre to GIS is modeling. As the various layers began to take shape and the attributes were attached the planning process leaped forward. Once geographic information could be integrated with non-geographic information (sometimes referred to as “Vertical Integration”) analysts could plot and project trends. They could create network models for emergency vehicles, make traffic forecasts, plan changes and expansions to school districts based on population models, develop urban runoff models for storm water conveyances, determine land use balances for zoning configurations and much more.

A Star Is Born

By 1992, the term GIS had more or less been adopted as a general heading for all projects and systems that involved land management. URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association) and its associated groups offered its own version of “Fundamental Elements Of a Multipurpose Land Information System” in a publication titled “GIS Guidelines For Assessors.” These fundamental elements for what had now become known as Geographic Information Systems were given as:
  1. Geographic Control Data
  2. Base Map Data
  3. Cadastral Data
  4. Attribute Data

Not only are these remarkably similar to the “Components Of A Multipurpose Cadastre,” but the authors cite the 1980 work in their publication.

So then: Whatever happened to the Multipurpose Cadastre?

The logical genesis of the development would seem to be incarnate in the NILS project. The National Integrated Lands System advertises itself as “a joint development project.” There are four partners in the NILS Project: The Bureau of Land Management (U.S. Department of Interior), The U.S. Forest Service (Department of Agriculture), The Parcel Consortium, and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).

The Parcel Consortium is basically made up of all of the interested parties. It includes the involved federal agencies, several state and county level members, plus private sector business partners. Active recruitment for additional partners is still underway. Jack Dangermond, founder of ESRI, describes the effort this way: “This public/private partnership is the embodiment of FGDC’s (Federal Geographic Data Committee) vision for a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI).”

Not surprisingly, the engine selected to drive this ambitious effort is ESRI Arc8X technology. There are four “distinct yet fully integrated modules” currently identified for implementing this strategy: Survey Management, Measurement Management, Parcel Management and GeoCommunicator.

The GeoCommunicator,, is a web portal with “a searchable database of links to current land information.”


What one could reasonably conclude from all of this is that Land Information Systems, or whatever they may be called have been with us for a while. They use whatever tools the current technology provides. And it is highly unlikely they will be going away any time soon. I’ll sum it all up with a quote from Jack Dangermond: “With GIS technology we are starting to measure virtually everything on earth,” a modest proposal indeed.

Need For A Multipurpose Cadastre, National Academy Press, 1980.

Urban Regional Information Systems Association and International Association of Assessing Officers, 1992 GIS Guidelines for Assessors, Washington D.C. and Chicago Ill., p11-13.

Modeling location for cadastral maps using object-oriented computer language. Papers from the 1986 Annual Conference of Urban Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) 1986.