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Surveyors and their global role as humanitarians

March 2, 2021  - By

Every year, surveying associations worldwide celebrate Global Surveyor’s Day during the third week of March. This year is no different (even during a pandemic) and will be recognized on Tuesday, March 23.

While this past year has been full of challenges, the role of the surveyor on a global scale has continued to grow. As a professional land surveyor in the midwestern portion of the United States, my surveying experiences have been wide-ranging at times.

For those who know of me and/or have followed my writings here in GPS World, you probably understand how my perspective for the surveying profession has come to be. For those who have no clue about my background, let me give you a brief refresher:

  • Second-generation surveyor, born and raised in Central Illinois, United States
  • Surveyed in rural, suburban and urban environments
  • Began writing for GPS World in 2015 to share my surveying perspective

Even though my surveying career has spanned several decades, my experience has been limited to the areas described above. From my early days of spending hours in the county recorder’s office pouring through tract index books, all the way to viewing parcel shapes, scanned documents and high-resolution aerial imagery in today’s world, it seemed at face value that my experience covered most of the duties of the typical land surveyor.

My career has encountered robotic total stations, all iterations of GPS/GNSS data collection, laser scanning, and now UAV data collection. Throw in the development of the personal computer, COGO and CAD software, the Windows operating system, pen plotters, and countless software breakthroughs, and my perspective of the surveying profession had been front row for all the great things we now take for granted.

However, these advancements, in tandem with growing up in middle-class America, did not prepare me for a recent experience with a surveying/geospatial group new to me.

VCSP Wisdom Workshop

VCSP logoA virtual workshop was recently held to discuss the Volunteer Community Surveyor Program (VCSP) instituted in 2017 by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) and the FIG Young Surveyors Network (YSN). More than 125 attendees from worldwide locations logged into the sessions to learn about the program and how to become involved.

The program, titled “Sustainable Solutions for Land Based Community Problems: Tools and Modern Approaches,” spanned two days and two four-hour sessions. Before we jump into the specifics of the program, first we will offer another brief refresher on FIG and its YSN.

The Fédération Internationale des Géomètres, now known to English speaking nations as International Federation of Surveyors, was founded in July 1878. It has grown into a worldwide non-governmental organization representing more than 120 countries and their surveying/geomatics professions.

FIG logoThe National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) is a member organization and participates at various levels throughout FIG.

The FIG Young Surveyors Network (FIG YSN) was initially established in 2006 as a working group, and upgraded in 2009 to network status due to its rapid growth. This group of young professionals and practitioners worldwide has worked with groups such as the United Nations, World Bank, National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and Council of European Geodetic Surveyors (CLGE) to promote the profession, increase opportunities for young professionals, and be an agent for social and climate change.

This YSN workshop set lofty goals, including providing information about the VCSP as well as informing participants of the current means and methods of surveying in underdeveloped countries. For context, here are the program topics covered over the two days:

DAY 1: Community problems, land tenure and tools for land management

  • Experiences and opportunities of humanitarian surveyors (past volunteer community surveys)
  • Land management, community development and open technologies
  • Identifying the relationship between land management and community development
  • The skills of a humanitarian surveyor
  • Introduction to STDM and Cadasta tools
  • An implementation of the STDM and Cadasta tools for land management

DAY 2: Building capacity and implementing modern land-management approaches

  • Leveraging land-management tools for problem solving and decision making
  • Designing country-scale solutions for land rights and tenure security issues
  • Gathering resources for land management projects
  • How much have land rights and tenure insecurity impacted your country?
  • Documenting and publishing experiences
  • What’s next? Parallel sessions by FIG region

Introduction to the humanitarian surveyor

Like most land surveyors in the United States, our role has been well-defined for generations. We establish and/or reestablish parcel boundaries (that is, original or retracement surveys). While our duties have expanded based upon technology, the central responsibility of the surveyor has been established as an expert measurer and provider of boundary information.

In the 200+ years since the westward expansion and formal establishment of most of the United States, the role of the surveyor has evolved into more of a commercial purpose. A surveyor’s principal responsibility is to protect the public, but that meaning has much different connotations in lesser developed countries.

FIG Volunteer Community Surveyor working with locals to discuss parcel possession. (Photo: FIG Young Surveyors)

FIG Volunteer Community Surveyor working with locals to discuss parcel possession. (Photo: FIG Young Surveyors)

In the recent past, surveying efforts in many developing countries have been like the early General Land Office surveyors in the 1800s. A surveyor in these regions is out in front of development of unclaimed lands, observing natural and manmade boundaries to guide the decision-making process in establishing parcel rights. The methods and procedures used to date in many lesser developed countries are much like 19th-century surveying — primitive instruments and crude maps sketch property claims with little to no authority.

Surveying: The Next Generation. Here is where the concept of the community or humanitarian surveyor comes into the picture. A new generation of surveyors is using modern technology not just to map existing boundaries and improvements, but also to collect additional data that will be analyzed to help improve living conditions. With the introduction of GNSS technology, establishment of parcel boundaries now takes an accurate and precise shape in GIS databases created for improving conditions in these areas.

Additional attributes are collected to determine utility needs, communication availability and access to medical care.

The easy solution seems to be that, as a larger part of the surveying community, we send teams of surveyors to these countries to locate and establish boundaries as well as perform site studies to determine living conditions and potential improvements. If it were just that easy…

Local government: Friend or foe?

Often, these surveyors are going into regions where the local or national governments do not agree with empowering their citizens with property rights and allowing them access to basic utilities. Part of the humanitarian surveyor’s role is to get to know the “lay of the land” when it comes to local order.

Many remote places are controlled by local gangs, tribes or other factions. These groups forbid the population around them to own their property. Even though it may seem like these physical parcel boundaries exist, most of these people do not have title or land tenure rights. This is partly because of the local control situation, but can also be due to the lack of sophistication within the local or national government.

Communication hurdles. Another hurdle for the humanitarian surveyor has nothing to do with their professional capability — it relies solely on appearance, body language and ability to bridge a communication gap. For example, most first-world nations rely strictly on communication skills and the competence to effectively work with other people. We often easily trust those who present evidence of competency with no previous interaction.

In third-world countries, however, locals do not trust outsiders and place competency on those who have built long-term relationships with them. They also rely heavily on body language and facial expressions to convey trust. Local citizens in these areas are less likely to trust visiting older generations who are not able to understand these visual cues.

Combining the factors of trust of the local citizens with the unsteadiness of government and/or lawlessness, the humanitarian surveyor must also be able to determine common property lines, locate lines of occupation, and remain neutral in providing guidance to adjacent neighbors. These conditions often include areas for crops and livestock, as well as places for food growth and development.

With little to no money and lack of commerce available, many of these regions are food poor. Locals are forced to harvest their own food, so having a plot of land to grow these crops is critical.

The surveying procedure for the VCSP. (Image: FIG Young Surveyors)

The surveying procedure for the VCSP. (Image: FIG Young Surveyors)

In more established areas, it can be challenging to determine land tenant rights with many shanties and lean-tos being joined structurally. It is equally difficult to determine if any common utilities exist in these areas, such as stormwater channels to help with rainfall.

Add to these improvement location duties the need for better census data to help with government analyzation of population to apply for aid from other countries.

The good thing is that technology has progressed in creating tools for geographically locating all these entities, including population, with a multitude of attributes to complete proper analyzation. But there is a catch.

Technology challenges worldwide

One of the biggest issue surveyors face when providing services in these areas is the lack of advanced technology and computers. These areas may not have reliable utilities, such as electricity or running water, much less viable internet or Wi-Fi. If computers do exist with local government, they are often years behind in computing power and software. Even operating systems like Windows are a rarity in many of these countries.

Networking accuracy needed. Most humanitarian surveyors will bring their own equipment and computers, so that problem can be averted. But what about geographical locations? Yes, GNSS constellations are available worldwide, but accuracy using just satellite signals is not sufficient for location of parcels and improvements.

To get survey-grade accuracy, the surveyor will typically utilize a correction service or base station on a known value. Most of these corrections are based on Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) or similar established reference stations, so creating a georeferenced datum for the surveyed location takes time and knowledge. Once the network is established, lots of work and oversight is necessary to provide quality control on the data being located.

Tackling parcel management on a global scale. (Image: FIG Young Surveyors)

Tackling parcel management on a global scale. (Image: FIG Young Surveyors)

To add to these issues, most of the staff necessary to complete the surveys must be brought in due to the lack of education at the location. The role of the humanitarian surveyor will also be to teach the craft of surveying to locals, who will continue to expand the area cadaster after the volunteer surveyor has left.

Open-Source Software. However, affording the necessary equipment, computers and software to continue the newly established system is also a hurdle for the community. While the price of computer hardware has greatly reduced over time, the advancement of software and cost of upkeep provides a greater monetary challenge.

Enter open-source software, based upon Linux and other free computer operating systems. This software has been developed with these situations in mind. It allows for customization to each user’s specific need. There are several GIS and data-collection platforms to fit the needs of these budding communities and countries. Open-source and public-domain software allow even the most basic of cadaster needs to be completed efficiently.

Young surveyors network to the rescue

From a technology standpoint, it makes sense that the FIG Young Surveyors Network began this program to help underdeveloped nations begin to create simple cadasters for assessing their property and improvement needs. The younger generation has grown up with technology and can easily teach someone how to embrace it and trust the results.

This younger generation is also the developer of open-source software and tools and sees the value in providing low- to no-cost applications to those who need it most. While the hard part is collecting the data and working with the locals to establish common boundaries, count the population, and determine the utility needs, they take pride in being part of a solution for a segment of the world that may not have any other chance or choice.

Participants in the Volunteer Community Surveyor Program (VCSP). (Photo: FIG Young Surveyors)

Participants in the Volunteer Community Surveyor Program (VCSP). (Photo: FIG Young Surveyors)

One of the interesting portions of the workshop was the breaks between segments. While it was a time to step away from the computer/tablet/phone, the organizers broadcast videos of musical groups from around the world and encouraged the participants to stand up and dance, with their cameras on. While I did not partake in the dancing (it was 4 a.m. at my home), I applaud the Young Surveyors for providing a welcoming atmosphere where each person could be themselves. Several of the participants were in Africa and Asia on cellphones, so creating a workshop environment that worked for all levels of engagement was fascinating.

What I learned

My biggest takeaway was simply learning about the term “humanitarian surveyor.” My earlier reference trying to relate these volunteers to the GLO surveyors, while in the same vein in establishing land boundaries, misses badly in terms of overall contribution to the communities in which the volunteers visit.

The work they perform is truly humanitarian. While I have tried to comprehend the conditions they are facing, I again fall short in fully experiencing what the role has to offer.

One of the testimonials was regarding a group that went to Nepal following the 2015 earthquake to help re-establish towns and parcels. The pictures were stunning, and the memories shared were heartfelt. To be one of these volunteers is truly a humanitarian effort.

Well done, FIG Young Surveyors Network and the Volunteer Community Surveyor Program. I will do my best to not take life here for granted anymore.