A vigorous debate is brewing in the geospatial community over issues of licensure, government procurement of services, training and education for those entering the field, accreditation of college programs, and the classifications and terminology used for surveying, mapping, geospatial and GIS activities. At stake could be the professional recognition many leaders of the community have been fighting for over many years.

On one side are those who believe surveying is part of a more expansive geospatial profession that has its roots in the broad engineering field. On the other side are proponents of surveying as a geospatial industry that is part of information technology.

What is "Geospatial"?

The U.S. Department of Labor has launched a High Growth Job Training Initiative that has targeted the geospatial community as one of 14 areas in the U.S. economy where a significant demand for new jobs will be created in coming years.1 The Bush administration’s program seeks to focus on new and increasing job opportunities in high growth, high demand and economically vital sectors of the American economy. The geospatial sector has been identified as one where jobs and solid career paths are left untaken due to a lack of people qualified to fill them. The High Growth Job Training Initiative targets worker training and career development resources to help individuals gain the skills they need to build successful careers in growing job markets. Some $6.4 million in grants has been committed to create a geospatial career development infrastructure. Federal investment to turn the tide and attract more young people, as well as retrain workers from declining fields for careers in geospatial markets, has been widely praised in the community.

In his article “On Licensure Issues: NCEES efforts for protecting the profession and the public,” (POB, September 2006), Martin Pedersen, LS, past president of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, highlighted the need for recruitment into the workforce. He noted the number of individuals sitting for the professional surveying licensure examination fell 3.6 percent for the October 2005 and April 2006 administrations.

Pederson quoted the NCEES rationale that led to changes in the NCEES Model Law, namely that “the existing definition of the practice of land surveying is a very narrow and outdated one. It does not recognize the expanding current practice of surveyors. Neither does it recognize that [many] states either already have or are working toward a four-year degree requirement for surveyors.” As a result, NCEES’s new Model Law now includes an expanded definition of surveying, which is included in the sidebar on page 58. (For more background on this topic, see also “From the Ground Up: Photogrammetry, surveying and the Model Law,” POB September 2003.)

Compare the NCEES definition of surveying in the sidebar with that of the U.S. Department of Labor, which states that the “geospatial industry is defined as an information technology field of practice that acquires, manages, interprets, integrates, displays, analyzes, or otherwise uses data focusing on the geographic, temporal and spatial context.” The Labor Department goes on to describe “apprenticeships” as the recommended way of entering the field. Describing the geospatial industry in a manner that fails to recognize the modern practice of surveying could result in severe unintended consequences for the profession. Its impact could be wider than those subject to the NCEES definition, or similar descriptions in the states’ licensing laws for surveying.

Dumbing Down the Profession?

Is there a move afoot to “dumb down” the geospatial profession? The late senator, ambassador, professor and scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote a critical essay, “Defining Deviancy Down: How We’ve Become Accustomed To Alarming Levels Of Crime And Destructive Behavior” (American Scholar, Winter 1993). In his essay, Moynihan wrote that defining deviancy down meant “a theory that clearly implies that there are circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished.” He commented, “it appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation … the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”

Defining geospatial disciplines, including surveying, photogrammetry, GIS and others, as an “industry” rather than a profession, as part of information technology rather than engineering, which is entered through an “apprenticeship” rather than education and experience gained through internships and other forms of training, could indeed have unintended consequences.

During the Reagan administration, ACSM and ASPRS were successful in having the job titles “land surveyor” and “photogrammetrist” removed from the Labor Department’s List of Apprenticeable Occupations. Recently, however, the department added occupations such as “drafter, cartographic,” “geospatial specialist,” “photogrammetric technician” and “surveyor assistant instrument” to the list, without consultation with organizations in the field.

In an interview with David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Vienna, Va., that studies union influence, he told me, “Almost all apprenticeships are run by state apprenticeship boards, which are dominated by the unions.” He warned that the Labor Department’s classification of positions in the surveying, mapping and geospatial field is “a foot in the door to unionism.” Denholm added, “Even some community colleges that attempt to operate apprenticeship programs outside of union influence are constantly at war with the unions.”

Historically, surveying, mapping and geospatial activities have been classified as part of the broad field of architecture and engineering (A/E). For example, the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), the U.S. government’s definitions of all industries and professions, defines surveying and mapping as 541370 Surveying and Mapping (except Geophysical) Services, in the same section as A/E.

Unintended Consequences

The Labor Department’s new nomenclature raised a number of important issues, which the agency has not yet resolved. The Internal Revenue Code defines surveying and mapping as part of the broad A/E field, qualifying certain firms to use cash-based accounting. Will the department’s classification of geospatial as information technology, rather than architecture and engineering, result in tens of thousands of dollars in new taxes on small surveying, mapping and GIS firms? Similarly, most states that levy a sales tax apply such tax to products but not services. In those states, surveying, mapping and related activities are considered professional services exempt from sales tax. Will classifying geospatial as an “industry” in “information technology” result in new taxes on geospatial data deliverables?

Liability insurance for the geospatial field has long been considered in the A/E family by leading insurance companies. Will the new information technology industry classification result in a new, and higher, risk and rating system, causing firms to lose their insurance coverage or face significantly higher premiums?

And what about government procurement of such services? Surveying and mapping services have long been considered part of A/E in federal law such as the “Brooks Act,” state law and the American Bar Association Model Procurement Code for State and Local Government. These qualifications based selection (QBS) statutes apply to A/E services, not IT. Will the Labor Department’s new classification mean government contracts at all levels now go to the lowest bidder? The pending litigation MAPPS et al v. United States of America, 1:06cv378 presented the differences in licensing, state law definitions of surveying, and procurement processes among members of several geospatial organizations, such as the Association of American Geographers (AAG), Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA), the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), all of which have filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in Federal District Court in opposition to the lawsuit, claiming that GIS and geospatial activities are not part of the broad architecture, engineering, surveying and mapping field.

As NCEES’s Pedersen pointed out, licensing as a surveyor is tied to graduation from an EAC/ABET-accredited surveying engineering group program. Will the new Department of Labor definition disrupt university curriculum or accreditation? UCGIS has issued a statement noting, “state-regulated professions like architecture and engineering typically require university degree programs to be formally accredited by organizations like [ABET Inc. (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology)]. Recognizing that most of the diverse GIS&T programs offered by its member institutions are not subject to, or even amenable to such regulation, UCGIS is on record as opposed to accreditation.”

None of these questions were considered by the Labor Department when it came up with its new definition and classification of geospatial. But words matter, especially in law and government. The Greek philosopher Plato is often credited with the observation: “The punishment of wise men who refuse to take part in the affairs of government is to live under the government of unwise men.” The surveying profession must get involved with the government to ensure its professional image status.

Sidebar: NCEES Model Law Definition*

The term “Practice of Surveying,’’ within the intent of this Act, shall mean providing, or offering to provide, professional services using such sciences as mathematics, geodesy, and photogrammetry, and involving both (1) the making of geometric measurements and gathering related information pertaining to the physical or legal features of the earth, improvements on the earth, the space above, on, or below the earth and (2) providing, utilizing, or developing the same into survey products such as graphics, data, maps, plans, reports, descriptions, or projects. Professional services include acts of consultation, investigation, testimony evaluation, expert technical testimony, planning, mapping, assembling, and interpreting gathered measurements and information related to any one or more of the following:

a. Determining by measurement the configuration or contour of the earth’s surface or the position of fixed objects thereon.

b. Determining by performing geodetic surveys the size and shape of the earth or the position of any point of the earth.

c. Locating, relocating, establishing, reestablishing, or retracing property lines or boundaries of any tract of land, road, right of way, or easement.

d. Making any survey for the division, subdivision, or consolidation of any tract(s) of land.

e. Locating or laying out alignments, positions, or elevations for the construction of fixed works.

f. Determining, by the use of principles of surveying, the position for any survey monument (boundary or non-boundary) or reference point; establishing or replacing any such monument or reference point.

g. Creating, preparing, or modifying electronic or computerized or other data, relative to the performance of the activities in the above described items a. through f.

From the NCEES Model Law, 110.20, Section B, Number 4, revised September 2006.