Surveying the big issues.

I have been writing for professional surveying publications since 1982, and POB magazine has carried my columns for the past six years. I have lectured on a variety of subjects of interest to surveyors in all but a few states, and several countries overseas, and have attended more surveyor conferences than I can recall. The subjects of interest to surveyors are the same everywhere: standards (ALTA/ACSM standards in the United States); education; professional qualifications and licensure; ethics; case law; new technologies; and all the usual business-related issues like competition for public contracts, public relations, fees, liability exposure, insurance and so on. These all have been talked about, written about and commented on by so many people for so long, one would think there was nothing left to say. Why not compose a compendium of the final word on all these subjects for a single source of information? The answer, of course, is that there is subjectivity in all of them; every speaker and writer puts his or her own spin on the discussion, and every new generation of surveyors wants the opportunity to participate in the debate. All things considered, it is probably healthy that it is so.

Another group of subjects being talked about on the world stage commands less attention here in the States than in other countries. These are what I think of as the “Big Issues.” Global spatial data infrastructure. Mutual recognition of professional qualifications. ISO - the International Standards Organization. Globalization. Privatization. Sustainable development. Most U.S. surveyors seem to think these issues are too far removed from their practice and will have little or no effect on them in the long run, and are—for the short term—too theoretical to be of any practical interest. And, in fact, the typical surveyor whose sphere of business activity is the dozen communities within 25 miles of the office will probably never have to worry about a surveyor from Europe or South America setting up shop down the street; will probably never have to deal with standards coming out of ISO/TC211; and may be only mildly interested in the globalization phenomenon as she or he reads about 60s-style demonstrators marching up and down in front of the Waldorf-Astoria outside the current World Economic Forum. Privatization is something that happens in formerly communist countries and sustainable development is a swell idea if it can be achieved, but is beyond the influence of the surveyor trying to make a living in private practice.

Then there is GSDI. The global spatial data infrastructure is a Big Issue that is indeed big, and is a development that clearly involves surveyors, but is also seen by most as something amorphous and abstract, a development that seems to be occurring under its own momentum, a system that will grow as its individual parts develop. The surveyor whose activities comprise some of those individual parts does not expect to influence the advancement of GSDI one way or the other. If GSDI is analogous to the transportation infrastructure of this country, one need only point out that the auto industry, the oil industry and the highway system grew in parallel strides, each serving the needs of the others as demand and usage grew, all without much pre-planning. When Henry Ford began mass-producing his cars, there was little thought of the need for an interstate highway system as we know it today, nor was much thought given to the dangers of leaded fuels and smog.

The difference is that today we are trying to think how GSDI ought to be developed. A few visionaries in our profession are trying to see into the future to predict how we might all be affected, and to learn how best to direct the development of this new infrastructure. The novel idea has been proposed that we should not allow the type of mistakes to occur in development of the GSDI as we can see in retrospect in the history of the development of the transportation infrastructure. (For example most of our airports are in the wrong place, old highways are being torn down and replaced, and as I write this, Congress is about to pull the plug on Amtrack, once again setting passenger service back even as people look for alternatives to air travel since 9/11.)

The exciting thing about GSDI is its effect on, and inter-relationship with, the other Big Issues. Globalization strikes those 60s-style demonstrators as heartless and inexorable. It needn’t be heartless if a sustainable development ethic is seriously considered by governments and societies, which is what the demonstrators ought to be calling for rather than merely opposing globalization. And because it is inexorable politically, socially and economically, globalization will continue. Using resources to the best and most economical advantage in the interests of sustainable development translates into a need for current, accurate spatial data, which in turn demands internationally recognized standards. It also translates into a critical need for professionals and technicians in determining, recording and disseminating information about the tenure, value and use of land and its resources when implementing land management policies (land administration - see “Surveying and Its Place in the World,” POB March 2001). This need for people calls for more and better educational opportunity everywhere and a system of mutual recognition of expertise.

So what has tackling the Big Issues got to do with the surveyor in private practice trying to keep two field crews busy, collect those meager fees, pay for new equipment, deal with insurance and taxes, and explain to the family why they can’t get to Disneyland again this year? The answer is composed of one part professional pride, one part civic responsibility, one part business acumen and one part intellectual curiosity. Professional pride because we all want to be recognized as professionals vital to the use and development of resources. Civic responsibility because we are in a position to help direct the way the world around us develops. Business acumen because somebody has to do it, it should be us, and if we surrender the chance to be involved, we will lose more ground to other professions. Intellectual curiosity is a characteristic of the professional. It is a desire to know what is going on around one and to understand the processes of nature, science, society, politics and culture. It is what keeps us engaged as citizens and as human beings. It also adds to our worth as citizens and as human beings.