I have heard and seen a lot of things relative to surveying and the land surveying profession over these many years, but one thing I have heard constantly and one thing that I have not heard bother me the most. The one thing I have heard from the start of my career is the land surveyor’s lament that we, as a profession, are misunderstood by the public and even other professionals we deal with. That people don’t understand what we do, how we do it or why we do it. Maybe it bothers me even more that, collectively, we’ve done little to nothing about this. That’s what I haven’t heard.

My observation over a career spanning nearly 40 years is that this profession hasn’t put into a few words a statement that capsulizes the essence of land surveying.  We don’t have a 30-second sound bite that explains why we do what we do and why the public needs us. Maybe because we don’t know why ourselves. Another observation that I’ve made over the past decade traveling across this grand country of ours is that there is a great deal of diversity of opinion over just what it is that we are supposed to be doing, how we are supposed to do it, and the conversation is almost devoid of why we do it.

There was one message out there and I have used it myself upon occasion. We are “expert measurers.” Unfortunately, if that’s all we’ve got, we’ve got nothing moving forward. There’s already an app for that.


I know why they do what they do

The big-three professions—the clergy, doctors and lawyers—don’t need to tell us what they do, how they do it or even why they do what they do. That’s because virtually every person in America has a personal relationship with an individual from one or all of these professions. And that relationship is a special relationship based in service and founded in trust—an almost sacred trust.

With the clergy we entrust our spiritual well-being, the doctors are entrusted with our physical well-being and the lawyers, when the occasion arises, we trust with our legal well-being. All of these areas of our lives can, and often do, have life and death consequences and there can be great amounts of money involved as well. That’s why they are the big three. 

There are many other professions out there, as we all know, and many are deemed important enough to regulate in order to protect the public from unqualified practitioners. Land surveying falls into this category and the language used in the enacting legislation (if not the reasoning behind the legislation) is almost universal. Land surveying is a regulated profession in order to protect the health, safety, welfare and property of the citizens of the state. This is the basic “why” of land surveying.

But in reality we have very little to do with the health, safety and welfare aspects of protecting the public. That’s what the big three do. But this does raise an interesting question. When a person’s health, safety and welfare are taken care of by the big three or, put another way, when your personal being is OK, the family’s taken care of and the dog’s happily chewing away on his bone, what other treasure do most Americans have on this earth?

For most Americans, it’s their little piece of God’s green Earth. Most Americans don’t have a huge stock portfolio, large savings accounts or a golden parachute. They do have a home and maybe a piece of land to go with it. This is the American dream. This has been the American dream from the inception of the country. This is what made America the greatest country on the face of the planet—private property ownership. Of course this raises another interesting question. Why aren’t land surveyors part of the big four?

Since we deal with the greatest treasure that most people have on this earth, save their personal well-being, why aren’t surveyors in the same category with the clergy, doctors and lawyers? It’s simple; we’ve lost the trust of the people. They don’t trust us with their property. We have demonstrated over a long period of time that we can find their property problems, create problems that never existed before, but we can’t fix them. They have to go to the lawyers for their fix. But this wasn’t always the way it was with the land surveying profession and I’ve gone over that ground many times before in this column. 

Nevertheless, this current practice model that we have of finding people’s problems and letting the “chips fall where they may” is no longer sustainable, if it hasn’t already dealt the fatal blow to the traditional purpose of the land surveyor and we currently find ourselves just limping along in the final throws of life. 


Saving traditional surveying

Everyone reading this column knows that I never write about technology because my focus has and is on the legal aspects of land surveying. Those legal aspects deal primarily with property, tort and contract law—those aspects of land surveying that hinge on our dealing with property and the associated property rights, and the reasons we are a regulated profession. That’s what I refer to as “traditional surveying” or surveying as we currently know it.

I’m not going to even discuss the self-inflicted wound that causes this aspect of surveying to be some of the cheapest services in the geospatial community. I’ve done that already on many previous occasions (see for example “Maintaining Relevancy in the 21st Century,” Feb. 2012).

Here’s what I will say about technology in the present context; it’s good, it’s moving rapidly and surveyors need to be on the cutting edge, but all of this new technology is not the exclusive domain of the land surveyor. In the near future, who’s not going to have a drone? Who won’t have a smartphone that can measure accurately? Anybody can acquire the tools, gather data and manipulate that data for any needed purpose. Google, MicroSoft, Esri, Garmin and others are already doing that at a massive scale.

Here’s my fear of technology and big data moving forward; it’s akin to mapping the world. Once upon a time, mapping the world was the exclusive domain of the explorer-surveyor and it was a lifetime job. Esri has mapped the world three times while you’ve been reading this column and the maps and data are free. Just open your browser and take all you want for whatever purpose you need. The big-data providers will become like the big-box stores that are putting all of the mom-and-pops out of business—and you’re the mom-and-pop.

Start with why

If we are interested in saving traditional surveying then we have to re-brand ourselves and that re-branding has to start with “Why.” Why does society need land surveyors?

I recently saw Simon Sinek on a TED1 talk video entitled “Start with Why.” Sinek is an author and may be best known for popularizing what he calls the “golden circle.” (See photo.) Sinek’s argument is that most sales pitches (or whatever message you are trying to convey) start with what you do, how you do it and then the one being persuaded will understand why you do it. But this is exactly the reverse of the approach that needs to be taken, argues Sinek. His arguments are good and they make a lot of sense. As he explains, Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t tell his followers what he was going to do, he told them he had a dream. As Sinek repeats over and over in the video; “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The “why” is your passion—you do what you do because of why you do it, not the reverse. 

I see passion for this profession in the vast majority of surveyors I encounter. Without it, they wouldn’t be land surveyors. You could certainly make more money doing something else. We’ve got to channel that passion into why we do what we do. That discussion has to start with the word “because.”

“Because land surveyors are the stewards of the nation’s property boundaries.” That’s why.

Surveyors defend property boundaries, maintain the status quo, safeguard the peace and harmony between neighbors, bring order to chaos, solve your property boundary issues, mediate boundary disputes, bring solutions to the table, surveyors render service—in short—Surveyors Ensure the American Dream. 

Here’s a 30-second sound bite:

“Because land surveyors are the stewards of the nation’s property boundaries our duty and responsibility is to help ensure the American Dream of real property ownership by providing property boundary location services. No one can locate your property boundaries on the ground, map and certify that location except for a state licensed land surveyor. Do not entrust the most valuable asset you have on this Earth, your real property, to chance. Call a licensed land surveyor today.”

Now if we could just convince surveyors that this is what we are supposed to be doing and then—well—actually do it.


Convincing land surveyors

Our biggest obstacle ahead of us in saving surveying as we currently know it, is convincing surveyors that we need to change. Buggy-whip makers were also a hard bunch to convince.

The general public already has the idea that land surveyors tell them what they own. But they also have the idea that no two surveyors can ever agree on a corner, surveyors are always looking for ancient controversies, a survey of property may result in a lawsuit, the surveyor might tell them they need to move their fences and/or that surveyors generally don’t know what they are doing (e.g. pincushion corners); therefore, they are wary when the surveyor arrives on the scene. Least we not forget, landowners also know that if they call around to enough surveyors, one of them will eventually do the job for nothing.

None of this is good and all of it needs to change. Why? Because ….   


1“TED is a platform for ideas worth spreading.” See ted.com.


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.