Clarifying the Surveyor’s Role in GIS and a victory for the private sector.

Clarifying the Surveyor’s Role in GIS

There may be some significant progress being made in the debate that questions which aspects of a Geographic Information System (GIS) should require the participation of a professional surveyor and the extent of the legal responsibilities for surveyors in the creation and maintenance of GIS-based maps and/or data. GIS specialists believe that there is potentially threatening language in the current National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) Model Law that could lead to attempts to require registration of lay-person GIS practitioners, although it hasn’t yet. Surveyors on the other hand see the potential for abuse of GISs if property owners believe that they represent authoritative boundary locations when they in fact often do not carry this level of accuracy. There are many horror stories to be heard from surveyors about damage resulting from inappropriate map use. Whether these stories are credible or not, surveyors’ perceptions of the potential for misuse are real.

In October of 2000, a Task Force issued recommendations for clarifying respective GIS roles and responsibilities. The Task Force was comprised of representatives from the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM); the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS); the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS); the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS); the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC); and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA).

The recommendations were sent to NCEES with the objective of changing the national Model Law, a document from which most state surveyor licensing laws are derived. The recommendation for modifying the Model Law was passed by the full NCEES Council (comprised of representatives from each state’s Board of Registration) this August. The process of implementing the revised language into the NCEES Model Law and Regulations will occur at the NCEES committee level throughout this year. The final passage of that language and adoption of the revised Model Law and Regulations will occur in the summer of 2003.

Regarding land surveyors’ involvement in GIS, the Task Force used the guiding principle that activities and functions must be restricted to a licensed professional when public health, safety or welfare is at stake. It found that the use for a GIS was an important factor to consider when determining this. Accordingly, GIS databases prepared to be simply referential, representational or diagrammatic portrayals of existing source documents should not automatically fall under the requirement for supervision by licensed professionals unless they require certification as to accuracy or are intended to serve as authoritative public records for geographic location. On the other hand GIS-based databases intended to be used as an authoritative document for the location of parcels, fixed works, survey monuments, elevation measurements, etc., must be accomplished under the charge of a professional surveyor. The Task Force also recommended that GISs contain an explicit statement of intended use and disclaimer from other uses. Bruce Joffe, principal and founder of GIS Consultants in Oakland, Calif., and a member of the Task Force representing URISA, particularly liked the phrase used in the San Diego Water Company’s GIS, “Caution: objects in the GIS may be closer than they appear.”

A notable section in the report sent to NCEES was Appendix B, which listed examples of practices related to GIS data that should be included in, or excluded from, the definition of the “practice of survey” for which licensure is required. Included within surveying practice were activities that must be accomplished under the responsible charge of a professional surveyor, such as the creation of maps and georeferenced databases representing authoritative locations for boundaries, the locations of fixed works or topography by either terrestrial surveying methods, photogrammetric or GPS locations. Original data acquisition, or the resolution of conflicts between multiple data sources, certification of positional accuracy of maps or measured survey data, GIS-based parcel or cadastral mapping used for authoritative boundary definition purposes, and adjustment or transformation of cadastral data to improve the positional accuracy within a GIS are all practices that would remain solely within the realm of land surveyors.

A Victory for the Private Sector

The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) and the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS) experienced an important legislative victory for the private sector in late June. The two groups, among others, had been working to defeat a TRAC-like amendment introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy to the Department of Defense Authorization bill, S. 2514. On June 25, the Kennedy amendment was successfully defeated 50-49.

Kennedy’s Amendment would have imposed three new statutory requirements on the Defense Department. It would have required a public-private cost comparison on any activity currently performed by Department of Defense (DoD) personnel before that activity could be outsourced to the private sector and a public-private cost comparison on any new requirement that DoD wished to obtain from the private sector. The new bill would have also mandated public-private cost comparisons on activities currently being performed by contractors equivalent to the number of such comparisons performed on in-house personnel, thus introducing the concept of “in-sourcing.” The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), the Corps of Engineers and other DoD agencies’ contracts for commercial imagery, surveying, mapping, hydrography, GIS and other services could have been taken away from the private sector and given to government groups.

The groups opposing S. 2514 argued it would be costly, burdensome and unprecedented in its sanction of government competition with the private sector. Currently, outsourcing decisions are made at the discretion of the DoD. According to MAPPS, a number of geospatial activities outsourced by NIMA, the Corps of Engineers and other DoD agencies have been accomplished without conducting public-private cost competitions.

Defeating this bill was important to ACSM because they feared the bill would have put a burden on the DoD by forcing it to go through grueling comparisons of government employee and contractor performance before the DoD could contract out with the private sector. Also, the possibility of mandated Defense Department studies on “in-sourcing” could have moved activities currently performed by non-governmental contractors into the government. According to ACSM, in essence, while President Bush is calling for a smaller government, the Kennedy amendment would have expanded it.

ACSM aided the effort by faxing letters to senators urging them to oppose the amendment. Laurence Socci, ACSM’s government affairs consultant, personally visited and met with staff from the offices of several senators. Socci felt it was important to visit the senators personally, as he says “members of Congress and their staff get hundreds of faxes, letters, phone calls and E-mails every day. They often don’t know one person, organization or issue from the next. By personally visiting them, I can sit down with them, advocate our issue, answer any of their questions and most importantly see their body language. You can’t get that with any other form of communication.”

Socci, along with Curt Sumner, executive director of ACSM, and ACSM Government Affairs Committee Chair John Matonich concurred on ACSM’s position related to any TRAC-type legislation, such as the Kennedy Amendment. They believe that the Kennedy Amendment as it appeared was not good for the public, the government or ACSM members—many of whom are independent businesspeople who often compete for government contracts. “ACSM is comprised of a membership that includes professionals practicing in both the public and private sectors,” Sumner said. “Therefore, we always approach issues with regard to how they have the potential to affect all of our members. In the case of TRAC-like legislation, the fact that it typically attempts to undermine the provisions of the Brooks Act, and does not encourage truly fair competition, means that it would negatively impact not only our members, but the public interest in general.”

ACSM expects there to be considerably more TRAC-like amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill before it is finally passed. It plans to continue monitoring the legislation to make sure no extreme amendments are added to the bill.

Associate Editor Emily Vass compiles “The Latest News.” If you have a timely, newsworthy item, contact her at 248/244-6465 or Also visit for daily news updates.