Geolocation and the surveyor: Looking back to the future

January 5, 2017  - By

The surveyor has been known throughout history for many things: part expert measurer, part historian, part lawyer and part geographer. These attributes have led the surveyor to become a trusted member of the mapping community, on both the public, and private sides.

Through the use of technology and associated mapping knowledge, the surveyor has provided the base layer for almost all physical ties of modern-day mapping commonly known as geolocation.

The term has become a common word in today’s lexicon and is defined as follows:

The physical location of an object in the world, which may be described by degrees of longitude and latitude or by a more identifiable place such as city or residence.

Modern GPS receivers have allowed the surveyor to establish positions of important land and governmental monuments throughout the world. However, as technology has moved forward and introduced faster and cheaper ways to utilize GPS measurements with many electronic devices, applications for its use has expanded greatly as well.

Recent uses of technology and the lower cost of entry into the geolocation world, however, is forcing governmental agencies to review uses of this data and potentially restrict its use due to privacy concerns. Let’s first review how we got here:

Maps: Windows on the world

Mapping has been part of civilization since the beginning of time. Early man marked out his discoveries and territorial limits on cave walls and flat rock surfaces. The invention of papyrus in the mid-2500 B.C. by the early Egyptians revolutionized how mapping data was created and retained. Keeping track of what lands had explored and being able to pass along this information provided the early incentive for map makers but crude depictions soon gave way to scientists and historians developing methods to accurately create the world around them.

Introduction of cartography

The art and science of mapmaking started as early as the Babylonian era, producing the first versions depicting a flat earth. The biggest revolutionary strides were by Greek philosophers Aristotle and Ptolemy several centuries later with the introduction to depicting the Earth as round and not flat per previous beliefs. With larger expeditions headed off into oceans and on to foreign lands to seek out new worlds, cartography became more important not in just recording history but accurately depicting the world around us for future exploration.

By the 15th century, hand-drawn maps were being slowly replaced by printing procedures using wooden blocks to ease duplication. It was also during this time that new versions of the Earth were being created to present it as truly spherical and depict the “New World” findings of Columbus and fellow explorers.

The next big enhancement to world mapping occurred in the mid-16th century when a cartographer named Gerardus Mercator of Belgium determined that our spherical Earth could be mapped by using a cylindrical projection to establish accurate latitude and longitude lines on a flat map. His projection method is still used today and is the basis of many more enhancements to world measurement systems made well into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in conjunction with extensive exploration and thorough record keeping.

Modern mapping and the geographical information system

The 20th century introduced the scientific world to several major inventions, with the electronic computer among the biggest ones. During the 1960s, Canada was leading the way with the development of a layer-based geographical information system (GIS), with the U.S. Census Bureau following closely behind.

This race to establish GIS dominance led to significant enhancements in mapmaking capability; more specifically, the ability to collect and display large amounts of data in a graphical form. By combining existing tax mapping with aerial photography, utility information and a state-plane coordinate system, local GIS databases began to appear but at a significant cost and effort to both the government agency and parties that wanted to use the information.

Harvard Laboratory Computer Graphics is credited with the creation of vector-based computer graphic in the mid-1970s that allowed the visualization of GIS data through electronic means. The late 1970s/early 1980s also introduced the personal and small computer systems and allowed many more opportunities to begin working with GIS databases.

Esri opens for business

We were also introduced to a little company that started in 1969 in California as a land-use consulting firm, which would end up dominating the GIS software world: Esri. Jack and Laura Dangermond founded the company to better organize geographic and development data for future planning. Little did they know that Esri would eventually become the GIS juggernaut it is today.

By the late 1990s, computer companies with large resources began to see the possibilities of large-scale databases of geographical information along with high-resolution aerial and satellite photography. Microsoft was the first one to offer an online service when it combined current and historical U.S. Geological Survey orthorectified photography to create Terraserver, with more than 2 terabytes of georeferenced data, in 1997.

This was closely followed a small group named Keyhole, which utilized the original Terraserver data as its framework. As this company expanded and the service grew, an upstart search engine firm called Google bought the company and turned the entire site into the early version of Google Earth. The rest is history.

Surveyor’s role in geolcoation

The late 1990s also brought significant enhancements to real-time kinematic (RTK) equipment for the surveyor and the ability to easily produce data within a variety of coordinate systems for use in GIS. (See my earlier column for additional information.) It is also through the survey world that an incredible network of existing static monuments and continuous operating reference stations (CORS) exist to allow the high-accuracy measurement of the precise location of any type of dataset.

Many of these monuments were installed in historical or remote places that were deemed “safe” from being destroyed by future improvements or developments. It is this marriage of high-accuracy equipment and extensive network of survey monuments — along with the education, training and working knowledge of measurement and coordinate systems — that geolocation of existing features has become a surveyor’s specialty.

Access to this information and monuments is paramount to our profession as we would be limited greatly by eliminating the ability to utilize and reference them.

Not all who wander are lost

Because of the technology and miniaturization of GPS-capable devices, location capable electronics has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is almost impossible to not have a device with you at all times that will know where you are and how to get where you want to go.

Everything from cars to phones and computers to fitness trackers and watches has a GPS receiver to assist and track your every move. But it’s not just the GPS receivers that have revolutionized our world today; a big part of the geolocation system explosion was created due to the computer and innovative programming paired with it. We all know the application names: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Google Maps and so on.

These applications work so well because they know where we are based upon geolocation. Where’s the nearest McDonald’s or Starbuck’s? Any number of apps will show you and help you find the quickest route to get there.

Geolocation has also enhanced how people drive with apps like Waze and Google Maps using phone and car location data along traffic routes to gauge traffic speed, flow and congestion. Technology has improved almost everyone’s ability to travel, find places more efficiently and help bring people together at any location. Theoretically, possessing a GPS-enable device should eliminate ever being truly lost.

Was George Orwell right? Is Skynet next?

Technology, along with bringing good uses for applications and devices into our everyday lives, also brings possible issues as well.

Privacy advocacy groups are not a new concept, but the exploding use of electronic devices with GPS and geolocation capability has brought new life to their arguments regarding intrusion into our private lives. People sharing every detail of their lives opens up opportunities for identity theft and robbery by allowing critical data to be shared with the internet and all who use it. But the geolocation issue became a big privacy target with the phenomenal success of a smartphone app in the summer of 2016.

The humble beginnings of Pokémon started in Japan in the late 1980s with an arcade game created for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console. The object of the game was to collect pocket monsters or Pokémon in various areas played within the game console. It became the second best-selling character-based game system ever, with more than 280 million copies sold on various platforms. Over the years, the game turned into a worldwide sensation featuring comic books, trading cards and even a popular television cartoon. It was this base knowledge of the characters and the concept of the game that led to the exploding sensation of Pokémon GO during the summer months of 2016.


Photo: Pokemon Go

This was the first mainstream app that blended a popular game with geolocation capability and a real-world environment, all tied together in an exercise to “catch ’em all.” The latest smartphones with high-speed streaming data provided the perfect game console for this new achievement for gaming with geolocation being a critical yet key component. Part of the lure of the game was catching many of the Pokémon in public parks and recreational areas, as they were placed there by game designers to allow easy access for players to find and collect.

Many of these public places were also historical, so local officials along with private citizens began complaining of large masses of players descending upon these sites and not being respectful of their surroundings. Stories of littering, vandalism, loitering and harassment were published nationwide, yet the game continued to draw players in by the thousands. While its popularity has waned toward the end of 2016, the concept of geolocation-based games left an indelible mark on the public and lawmakers who represent them as something they don’t want to see repeated.

Enter big bad government

Here in Illinois, lawmakers introduced proposed legislation in November 2016 to curb the use of various public and private locations from within geolocation-based video games on smartphones and handheld devices. Listed below are excerpts from the proposed bill language:

Section 1. Short title. This Act may be cited as the Geolocation Information Protection Act.

Section 3. Purpose. The purpose of this Act is to preserve the personal privacy of Illinois citizens when it comes to their highly sensitive geolocation information and to allow Illinois citizens to maintain control over the collection and disclosure of that information by private entities. This Act is also intended to provide real property owners, managers, and custodians with an easily accessible procedure for removal of ecologically sensitive sites or locations, historically significant sites or locations, sites or locations on private property, or sites or locations otherwise deemed as dangerous by the real property owner, manager, or custodian from location-based video games.

“Ecologically sensitive site or location” means an area designated by federal, State, or local government for protection from development or damage due to the presence of endangered species or threatened species as defined in Section 2 of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act

“Geolocation information” means information concerning the location of a device that is generated by or derived from, in whole or in part, the operation of that device and that could be used to determine or infer information regarding the location of a person. (Bold added for emphasis by author.)

“Historically significant site or location” means a site or location that has been designated by federal, State, or local government for preservation as a landmark, or any other site or location that the federal, State, or local government may designate as historically significant.

“Location-based application” means a software application that collects, uses, or stores geolocation information. (Bold added for emphasis by author.)

Section 20. Collection, use, and disclosure of geolocation information from location-based applications.
(a) A private entity may not collect, use, or disclose geolocation information from a location-based application on a person’s device unless the private entity first:
(1) informs the person in writing that his or her geolocation information will be collected, used, and disclosed;
(2) informs the person in writing of the specific purpose for which his or her geolocation information will be collected, used, and disclosed; and
(3) receives the person’s informed, written consent (including through an electronic means using the Internet) in a form distinct and separate from any form setting forth other legal or financial obligations of the person before collecting, using, or disclosing his or her geolocation information.

(For full details:


Logo: Illinois Surveyors

A voice for the surveyor was spoken loud and clear when the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association (IPLSA) contacted the bill’s sponsor regarding the content. We expressed our deep concerns with the limits this legislation would place on our profession, on our efforts to serve the public and eliminate the use of thousands of historical monuments throughout the state. The various state and national surveying associations and societies will continue to press our legislators for reasonable legislation that allows the public protection they request, yet will allow the professional surveyor to complete their jobs and serve that same public.

The bottom line is that privacy issues will continue to be a concern for most while technology progresses forward. Our environment is on the cusp of autonomous automobiles, virtual assistants and robotic equipment completely replacing our workforce.

Yes, we have gained many new exciting technological advancements with computers and programming, but also have given up a lot of information in the meantime to make it work for us. It is virtually impossible to have one without the other, so we will need to make a choice.

I hope we choose to continue progressing forward, yet realize we still need to have a memory of the past. A surveyor’s craft is heavily woven around the past, so let’s work together to make sure the critical stitching stays in place.

This is posted in Opinions, Survey

About the Author: Tim Burch

Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985.