A Body of Knowledge, or BoK, for any discipline is a basic study to establish a benchmark of concepts, principles and practices that any given discipline deems necessary for competent practice. Ostensibly, this BoK, once established, would be the blueprint for curricula that would be developed for undergraduate study in that given field.

My first eye-opener was that land surveying doesn’t already have an established BoK. Not being an academician myself, I don’t know exactly what is being taught to undergraduate land surveying students or why. However, having spoken to thousands of land surveyors all across the country, many of whom are graduates from various surveying programs, my perception is that surveying education is all over the map--no pun intended. From this perspective, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that surveying does not have a recognized or standard BoK.

The committee to study the surveying BoK was apparently formed two years ago by ACSM. The presentation at the summit was headed by Dr. Joshua Greenfeld of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and presentations were given by a few others on the committee. The entire session was relatively short--about a couple of hours in length--and the proposed BoK was presented in outline form. Greenfeld also wrote an article on the subject in the June edition of the ACSM Bulletin.

Identified in the presentation and in Greenfeld’s article were five core subjects that should constitute the land surveying BoK: GIS, positioning, imagery, land development and law. According to Greenfeld, this is the micro view of the BoK. At the macro level, the BoK includes the humanities and social sciences, computer and informational sciences, math and statistics, physical science, communication and leadership, engineering, law, and business management. By all accounts, this would be a well-rounded education for anyone in the geospatial occupations. But as Greenfeld notes: “There is no single professional who can master this vast knowledge base.” The idea is that specialists would emerge in the core subjects of GIS, imagery, the law, etc.

The basic definition of surveying utilized by the committee to aid in the formation of the BoK was the eleven point “activities” performed by surveyors, adopted by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). FIG acknowledges that the activities it defined as the surveyor’s professional tasks “may be carried out in association with other professionals.” A review of these activities indicates that all but one can be, and presently are, being carried out by other professionals with and without the participation of land surveyors. The one FIG-defined activity that, at least in the United States, can only be carried out by a licensed land surveyor is the “determination of the position of boundaries of public or private land.”

At the broader Esri International User Conference, however, were 15,000 GIS users who, with the aid of satellite imagery, aerial photogrammetry, cartographers, urban planners, environmentalist, and federal, state and local officials, are presently carrying out all 11 activities with and without the aid or participation of the land surveyor. The FIG definition does not say the position of boundaries “on the ground;” it simply says the “position of boundaries.” This definition would ostensibly include both the positioning of boundaries in paper space (GIS) and the positioning in dirt space (land surveying). Has anyone drilled down to a site location on Google lately in “map” mode? In many locations, the boundary lines are indicated on the map. This, I believe, fits the broad FIG definition of the “determination of the position of boundaries.”

Like the FIG definition of surveying, the proposed surveying BoK is not restricted to land surveying. GIS principles and practices are being taught to many others in formal and informal ways all across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of 2008, there were 857,000 geospatial occupations in the United States. When positioning and imagery occupations, such as land surveyors, survey technicians, and remote sensing specialist are subtracted from the mix, there are 572,000 practitioners involved in GIS and GIS-related functions. According to this same source, there are only 58,000 licensed land surveyors in the United States. I could not find the statistics for the number of land surveyors who are also GIS practitioners, but I would venture to guess that it is a fraction of the 58,000 licensed surveyors. Even if all surveyors were directly involved with GIS, we would constitute barely 10 percent of the GIS practitioners. Land surveyors are very small fish in a large GIS pond.

Positioning has always been an essential element of land surveying. For centuries, land surveyors were considered to be the expert measurers when it came to positioning features above, on and below the earth. That is no longer the case. Anyone with the right tools and technology can now be an expert measurer and can determine the position of features above, on and below the surface equally as well as, if not in some cases better than, the land surveyor. Positioning information and technology is not proprietary to the land surveyor or the land surveying profession. Those same labor statistics indicate that there are 350,000 practitioners involved in the positioning sciences, including land surveyors and survey technicians. Land surveyors are slightly bigger fish in the positioning pond. Including our technicians, we comprise nearly 40 percent. This is far from being the expert measurers.

Imagery is not a traditional function of the land surveyor, even thought the land surveyor’s role in developing and utilizing imagery is increasing. Our same labor statistics indicate that of all of the geospatial occupations in the United States, 104,000 are involved with capturing, analyzing or manipulating imagery, not including land surveyors. Even if all licensed surveyors specialized in imagery, we would not dominate this field at barely one-third. Other professionals would be able to do what we do equally well, and there would be no need to license land surveyors for this function any more than there would be a need to license remote sensing technologists.

I don’t need the statistics to discuss the surveyor’s role in land development. Many surveyors are involved, and many are not. There is little doubt that the land surveyor is not alone when it comes to land development services. Engineers, architects, attorneys and owner/developers are all involved, as well. Although there are always exceptions, the general case is that the land surveyor most often plays a supporting role in land development, subordinate to or taking direction from some or all of the aforementioned. Certainly educating land surveyors in land development principles and practices can significantly increase the land surveyor’s role in land development projects, but unless the land surveyor can also design the infrastructure and represent the owner/developer, these other professionals will always be involved.

That leaves us the discussion of the law BoK as it relates to surveying principles and practices. The foregoing discussion was not meant in any way to minimize the importance of those core subjects relative to the surveying BoK. They are a vital and necessary part of an overall, well-rounded surveying education. However, they are in no way unique to land surveying and have absolutely nothing to do with the one and only reason land surveyors are licensed.

Even though I’m not an academician, you don’t need a PhD in Geodesy to read course descriptions on university websites. My unscientific perusal of some of these websites confirms my perception of what is being currently taught to land surveying students. Most of the existing programs are heavily laden with computer applications, computations, imagery sciences, geographic information sciences and measurements sciences. They are all very light, if not negligently so, in teaching student land surveyors how to deal with property boundaries. When the sum total of what is taught as boundary law is a semester studying Evidence and Procedures,1 licensed land surveying as we presently know it will be totally irrelevant in the not-too-distant future.

The reason these programs are configured the way they are is not too hard to figure out. I don’t mean this as an indictment of anyone running or involved in these programs, but when the professors have no better understanding of property law than the average land surveyor, this part of the academic program will understandably receive the short shrift in favor of the “important” computer-based programs and sexy doctoral programs like geodesy. After all, you can get a PhD in geodesy; I don’t think you can get a PhD in boundary law for the simple fact that it is not an academically recognized “major subject,” at least not in the engineering schools where these programs are generally housed. Besides, who would run the program? Who would be on the dissertation committee--geodesists?

My fear for the surveying BoK currently under development is that it will be heavily laden with computer-based programs, GIS, imagery sciences and positional sciences, and that property law--specifically boundary law--will receive the also-ran treatment. This is already apparent in the outline of the BoK as shared by Greenfeld.

For now, it’s just an outline. The committee is supposed to be putting together a preliminary draft of the surveying BoK that, in the words of Greenfeld, “will be shortly made available to the surveying community for comments and discussion.” I encourage all land surveyors to pay attention to this committee and be on the lookout for the preliminary draft report. (For my part, I recently submitted some suggestions to the committee for consideration.)

If we aren’t going to teach surveying students how to deal with property boundaries, then graduate surveying students either aren’t going to deal with them or will deal with them in ways that will be detrimental to our exclusive licensing privilege. When the land surveying profession can’t deal with property boundaries without continually setting new monuments and sending landowners into litigation over irrelevant issues, then society will eventually decide that a new system for property location is needed. This is when land surveying’s exclusive dominion over property location in dirt space will be turned over to others with a better understanding of property law or will be turned over to the location-in-paper-space professionals who will be seen as a quicker and cheaper vehicle for going straight to litigation, completely bypassing the need for an on-the-ground survey. This, by the way, is already happening.


1. Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location, Robillard, Wilson and Brown (various editions).


Neither the author nor POB intend this column to be a source of legal advice for surveyors or their clients. The law changes and differs in important respects for different jurisdictions. If you have a specific legal problem, the best source of advice is an attorney admitted to the bar in your jurisdiction.


FIG Definition of the Functions of the Surveyor

Detailed Functions

The surveyor’s professional tasks may involve one or more of the following activities which may occur either on, above or below the surface of the land or the sea and may be carried out in association with other professionals.

  1. The determination of the size and shape of the earth and the measurement of all data needed to define the size, position, shape and contour of any part of the earth and monitoring any change therein.
  2. The positioning of objects in space and time as well as the positioning and monitoring of physical features, structures and engineering works on, above or below the surface of the earth.
  3. The development, testing and calibration of sensors, instruments and systems for the above mentioned purposes and other surveying purposes.
  4. The acquisition and use of spatial information from close range, aerial and satellite imagery and the automation of these processes.
  5. The determination of the position of the boundaries of public or private land, including national and international boundaries, and the registration of those lands with the appropriate authorities.
  6. The design, establishment and administration of geographic information systems (GIS) and the collection, storage, analysis, management, display and dissemination of data.
  7. The analysis, interpretation and integration of spatial objects and phenomena in GIS, including the visualization and communication of such data in maps, models and mobile digital devices.
  8. The study of the natural and social environment, the measurement of land and marine resources and the use of such data in the planning of development in urban, rural and regional areas.
  9. The planning, development and redevelopment of property, whether urban or rural and whether land or buildings.
  10.  The assessment of value and the management of property, whether urban or rural and whether land or buildings or landed interests.
  11. The planning, measurement and management of construction works, including the estimation of costs.

In the application of the foregoing activities surveyors take into account the relevant legal, economic, environmental and social aspects affecting each project.

Source: www.fig.net/general/definition.htm