In a traditional survey firm, data are collected as needed for each project. The surveyors provide clients with standard deliverables that they think the clients should have--generally in a CAD drawing or blue line format--at the price they think their work commands. The data are then stored with the project details in some type of file. While such files are increasingly digital, they are usually maintained separately. New projects performed in the same area often require new survey work because the other data is either inaccessible or incomplete. The work is handled as needed on a per-project basis, and these projects generate the firm’s income. This has long been the accepted business model for the surveying profession.

Now, imagine that a new firm opens across town. This firm specializes in geodetic surveys and custom deliverables. The owners don’t think in terms of projects; they’re focused on building a data system. They work closely with each client to identify their needs and develop solutions to meet those needs. The surveyors in the field feed all of their data back to a centralized GIS database within the firm in real time so that post processing is minimized and the data can be quickly and easily harnessed for other projects. They develop relationships with officials in city and county government offices and other professionals who soon view the firm as valuable experts in data collection, management, analysis and interpretation. The firm’s services come at a premium price, but its costs are relatively low because less field and office work is needed compared to traditional processes. The surveyors are highly trained and use advanced equipment and software. In an economic downturn, the firm can easily lower its prices yet still make a decent profit. The company is continuously expanding into other areas of geospatial data collection and analysis as the owners identify new needs that their data can address.

Which firm do you think is more likely to succeed long term?

The ideal work flow is one in which the data is authored once, centralized in a GIS server and used multiple times in variety of different ways.

The Challenge and the Opportunity

Technology is changing the way we collect and use data. As GPS devices have become less expensive and more commonplace, they have rendered the use of coordinate systems obsolete. Meanwhile, real-time networks have become more precise so that GPS users now have confidence in positions at subcentimeter accuracies. Modern projects require higher precision, cover much larger geographies and must be completed in substantially shorter time frames than in the past. As a result, information is being leveraged from a wide range of sources, and GIS data are being used in a variety of systems, many of which are relied upon heavily.

The challenge is that many of these trends have occurred so rapidly that the technology is now ahead of the primary users. Inexperienced and inadequately trained individuals gather positions with GPS without understanding how these coordinates tie into the geodetic system, and GIS data are now used in ways that were never intended when the systems were designed. Costly errors--such as an ambulance driving to the wrong address or a new retail establishment being built in a less-than-ideal location--are made as a result. Additionally, vast amounts of data that could be used to improve the operations side of a process are wasted because few people understand how to apply this information.

This challenge presents an opportunity for surveyors who embrace new technologies and processes. Surveyors are data experts. To perform a survey, we pull in data from a variety of different resources and analyze it to determine its value in the decision-making process. A firm that is focused on individual projects and assumes traditional coordinate values of 5,000 or 10,000 can’t leverage the value of its data beyond each existing project. However, firms that georeference their data and merge them into centralized data management systems can build GIS databases that are highly accurate and extremely useful for both internal and external applications. As more data are deployed and made transparent through Web portals, municipal Web sites and other resources, an increasing number of people are beginning to understand the value of these highly accurate GIS resources.

When a GIS database is connected to a survey network, the data incrementally improve with record measurements.

Making the Leap

For any firm that wants to capitalize on these new opportunities, technology is key. The ideal work flow is one in which the data are authored once, centralized in a GIS server and used multiple times in variety of different ways. The technology exists to capture accurate data and manage them in a server environment. This can even be done in real time so that incremental improvements are constantly being made to the system while at the same time being fed back into the field to streamline survey processes.

For example, a surveyor with access to centrally managed georeferenced data could be in the office with five 52-inch plasma screens. As crews collect data from the field and transmit it in real time to the office, the surveyor could lay the data on orthos and guide the field crews to gather the exact data needed for the project. He could say: “Crew 7, you missed the southeast corner of that building. Crew 5, hold tight for an hour. Let me do this layout and some calculations, and I’ll send that information right back to you so you don’t have to go back to the site tomorrow.” Rework and secondary post processing are eliminated. With this level of efficiency, a process that used to take weeks could be shortened to just a few days or perhaps even a single day.

In another example, a surveyor in the field might complete a project early. Rather than heading back to the office, the surveyor could do a quick geographic search to see if anyone in the area needs anything located. Perhaps a municipality has been looking for a good price on manhole locations. If the surveyor understands the GIS technology used by the municipality, he or she could provide that service at a lower price than a firm that would have to send someone out specifically for that project, and both the municipality and the surveyor would benefit.

Many surveyors are already using GPS and wireless communication devices that make the real-time transmission of data possible. The next step is to begin gathering all of the data into a centralized system so that it can be repackaged and redistributed in different ways. While some firms might want to centralize their own data and create GIS services within their own company, others might prefer to build strategic partnerships to leverage a wider range of data across multiple organizations. Once the data have been harnessed in a system and are being continually updated with each new survey, the potential applications are virtually limitless.

A centralized GIS database can be used to reduce operations and maintenance costs over the life of the structure.

A Competitive Advantage

Many surveyors are beginning to think of GIS as a way to improve their existing services. But forward-thinking firms are discovering how to take it much further by leveraging the power of GIS to build comprehensive data assets that give them a competitive advantage. More than just service providers, these firms are viewed by their clients as trusted advisors, and they possess strategic data assets. Filling this role requires embracing new geospatial technologies and new business models.

Sidebar: GIS Opportunities for Surveyors

• Infrastructure management
• Asset management

• Utility distribution systems
• Transmission systems

• Facilities management
• Industrial facilities

• Environmental analysis
• Feasibility analysis

• Tax mapping
• Parcel management

• Zoning maps
• Addressing

• Emergency vehicle routing
• Land use planning

• Public safety
• Other

Sidebar 2: Beyond Spatial Accuracy

A truly useful GIS database requires accurate data. While surveyors typically think of accuracy in terms of spatial accuracy, other accuracies are considered in a GIS database. These include:

• Topological - how features relate to each other;
• Attributive - nongraphical information about features;
• Temporal - how current the data are; and
• Relative - how accurate objects are relative to each other.

Accurate feature identification also comes into play. All of these data must be maintained in a structured environment.

Sidebar 3: Leveraging GIS for Infrastructure

Seventy-five percent of the cost of infrastructure is in operations and maintenance over its useful life. Only 25 percent of the cost is in the design/build phase--yet this is where surveyors have traditionally focused on providing services. Much of the data that is collected in the early phases of a project is wasted because it is not centralized in a practical GIS system.

In a traditional process, designers and engineers plan the project. They hand the planning information to the surveyors, who collect the necessary data and then hand it back to the engineers for analysis. But surveyors don’t share all the data; they only provide what they’ve been asked to deliver or what they think the client should have. Engineers do the same when they provide data to the construction contractors. While more data are gathered in the as-builting process, much of it ends up buried in various project files. Disconnects exist throughout the process.

Surveyors can provide a crucial link in bridging that disconnect by packaging and transferring data through a centralized GIS database in ways that can apply over the life of the structure. However, being successful in this effort involves more than simply handing off larger amounts of data. It requires an in-depth understanding of the client’s business and the flexibility to provide services beyond what might be considered the “traditional” work of a surveyor to meet the client’s needs.