Robert W. Foster, PE, PLS, of Hopkinton, Mass., is in private practice, offering professional consulting services nationally in arbitration, dispute resolution and litigation involving surveying and civil engineering issues. He is currently president of the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG).
A new wave of technological innovation is allowing us to capture, store, process and display an unprecedented amount of information about our planet and a wide variety of environmental and cultural phenomena. Much of this information will be georeferenced. The hard part of taking advantage of this flood of geospatial information will be turning raw data into understandable information.

Those words were written by then Vice-President Al Gore in his paper “The Digital Earth.” However one might feel about Mr. Gore and his abortive attempt to rise to the next level of governance, we in the geographic information community ought to welcome his acknowledgment of the importance of what we do. For those of us who are surveyors, “georeferencing” is merely a $10 word for measurement and positioning. “Geospatial information” is the subject and product of our work whether we are surveyors, photogrammetrists, cartographers or geographers. How is it that after all these years the subjects of our concentration have come to the attention of world leaders?

Sustainable Development and Surveying

The fragile nature of our Earth, and the risk that we might wear it out, have been argued by scientists for several years; now even governments are entering the debate. The climate conference held last fall in The Netherlands was an example of government attention on the subject. Another example was the Bathurst Workshop on Land Tenure and Cadastral Infrastructures for Sustainable Development held in Australia in October 1999, organized by the United Nations and the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). In my article, “Sustainable Development in the New Millennium,” which appeared in the April 2000 issue of POBmagazine, I drew the connection between the concept of sustainable development—defined as the utilization of the world’s resources in order to meet our needs without inhibiting future generations from meeting their needs—and surveying. Sustainable development is all about resources and how we use them.

Water, air, minerals, forests, wildlife, fish and agriculture are the major resources that make up our environment and sustain us as occupants of this Earth; and land is the common resource to which all the others relate. Any concern for these resources must begin with an inventory of what is available and an assessment of the rate at which they are used and replaced—or exhausted. Our job is to “georeference” resources. The new technologies of GPS and high-resolution satellite imagery make it possible for us to gather data in, in Gore’s words, a “flood of geospatial information.” We turn “the raw data into understandable information” by application of geographic information systems.

Spatial Information

Agenda 21: Programme for Action for Sustainable Development* and the Habitat II Global Plan of Action** address the need for information, the development of appropriate databases and the exchange of information as conditions for creating the basis for sustainable development in the world. A global society faces enormous problems from urbanization and the influence of urbanization on coastal zones, and environmental conditions in general. Spatial information is an indispensable part of the basic infrastructure in any individual country, and it is generally accepted that spatial information affects 80 percent of all decision making. One of the developments driving the need for good spatial information is what is referred to as globalization.


In a globalized world, political, economic, cultural and social issues become interconnected due to information and communication technologies. Events in one part of the world have an impact on people and societies in other parts of the world. Not everyone in the United States is happy to accept the effects of globalization (witness the protests in Seattle last year during the World Bank conference), but we have to recognize it is happening and would do well to widen our perspective from the local to the global level. A positive effect of globalization can be an improvement in the quality of life of people everywhere; that is the objective of initiatives like Agenda 21, Habitat II and the Bathurst Declaration.

Land Administration

As surveyors our primary resource concern is land and its attributes. Another term we have not used often in this country in the vocabulary of surveying is land administration, defined as “the process of determining, recording and disseminating information about the tenure, value and use of land when implementing land management policies.” These are surveying activities as surveying is defined by FIG. (Valuation is not considered surveying in the United States but is a major component of surveying in the FIG definition. The American Appraisal Institute is a Member Organization of FIG.)

Referring back to Gore’s statement, I make the argument that there is a major role for surveying in what is perhaps the most important initiative of this new millennium: the attempt to preserve our planet and our way of life for future generations. We are the geoinformation specialists and the land administration experts; we have a right to define ourselves in those terms.