The surveyor and the mapper — sharing the same stage

November 4, 2020  - By

The world of mathematics has always been a mysterious one. It is universally loved by those who enjoy STEM-related fields and occupations, while being generally loathed by those who prefer the arts and humanities (similar to the argument with cats versus dogs, but let us not go down that rabbit hole). It would be easy to believe that if each side sticks to their side of the road, there would be peace and harmony in the world.

While I cannot speak for the art and humanities group, I can say with certainty that the STEM-related mathematics professions have been known to disagree with each other on various roles within the surveying and mapping world. While surveying has been around since the beginning of time, various forms of organized mapping systems began in earnest in the 1960s.

When attempts were made to bring the two professions together, each side bristled at being mentioned in the same breath as the other one. The surveyors were the outdoor cowboys with theodolites and tapes, measuring properties and improvements with low precision and accuracy. The mappers, now beginning to be known by the acronym GIS (geographical information system) technicians, were the office computer nerds with punch cards and slide rules.

Each side did not care much for the other — mostly because they did not understand each other’s role in creating the modern infrastructure database. This relationship would last for decades with no relief in sight.

Early (and unresolvable) differences

Each side brought a good argument to the table regarding why the other side was not as important to the authoritative role of map/plat making. For instance, here are the typical stances of each side in the 1970s, before the introduction of personal computers and electronic data collectors.

  • Surveyors worked on the ground and with actual monuments and improvements. They measured angles and distances to collect the pertinent data and drew by hand said information graphically on paper. Because of the accuracy and precision of the field measurements, adjustments were made to the calculations to resolve the unknown errors within the data collection.
  • GIS technicians used a combination of hand calculations, drafting and primitive computers to depict information obtained by existing maps and plats. Because the information being reviewed was not obtained through field methods, parcel lines were forced to fit, improvements to be shown with 90-degree corners, and ambiguities with most data issues to be dismissed.

Each side stood their ground (in the field or the office) and maintained the distance and differences until more technological revolutions began to infiltrate their vision. At first blush, one could assume these advancements would bring the two factions together; one would be wrong.

Would you like to play a game?

Photo: RyanJLane/E+/Getty Images

Photo: RyanJLane/E+/Getty Images

The 1980s are known for many things, but for the surveying and mapping communities, it brought a new way of reviewing and storing spatial data. The introduction of the personal computer and vector-based software in the early part of the decade set the pace for rapid and revolutionary upgrades to each profession.

It was now possible to see on a computer screen what had only been previously possible through manual computation and drafting. As the decade went on, computing speed and storage continued to increase along with the features of software packages.

However, these advancements did little to bring the surveying and mapping professions together; in fact, the technology has been blamed for causing even more of a divide between the two.

Again, each side has their reasons for maintaining their hold on being recognized as the authority on the creation of the cadaster layer.

  • Surveyors continued to insist because they worked on the ground and with actual monuments and improvements, the process of putting the data into a computerized format only solidified their position.
  • GIS technicians continued to insist that the refinement of their previous calculations of drafting and mapping into a computerized version further extended their expertise in the mapping world. Also, because many in GIS were specifically trained on computers in college, the work being produced by these members was superior to surveyors.

Even with the improvements in technology from computers, the divide between the two grew. The relationship between surveying and mapping was at an all-time low, so there must be nowhere to go but up, right? Not so fast.

GPS + spatial = data custody battle?

Photo: Magellan

Photo: Magellan

Through the 1990s and beyond, the introduction and subsequent rapid implementation of GPS/GNSS gave new meaning to a previous but rarely used term: geospatial data. Only geodesists and higher-end scientists truly worked with geospatial data because of their professional environment and expertise, but now anyone with a GPS receiver became a geospatial data collector.

Previously, surveyors would measure on a global scale (latitude/longitude and/or state plane coordinates), but this would typically consist of solar and lunar observations under ideal conditions. GIS technicians could only rely on data provided to fit within the location parameters of their projects, which has usually scaled from quadrangle maps.

However, this new technology was being used with data collectors programmed for almost anyone to use with little to no geodesy experience. Turn it on, press a button and voila — a geospatial location in a variety of coordinate systems. No more sun shots, lengthy traverses from obscure NGS monuments, or scaling from the quad sheets.

Finally, the surveying and mapping communities have common ground to work on! It would be easy to assume that walls came down and the two professions mended their fences. The short answer is no; they once again did not. Here is each side’s general take on geospatial abilities:

  • Surveyors (once again!) continued to insist that because they worked on the ground and with actual monuments and improvements (though now with improved positioning), the process of putting the data into a georeferenced format only solidified their position.
  • GIS technicians now contended that they, too, could collect the necessary field data using GPS and bypass the need for surveyors. Also, because many in the GIS field were specifically educated to work with spatial data, the information being produced by these members was superior to surveyors’ data.

We now find ourselves flipping the calendar pages well into the 2020s, with little movement on resolving this relationship. But we can change that if we introduce a little friendlier dialogue.

In this corner, the surveyor. In the opposite corner, the GIS technician

When it comes to high accuracy/high-precision data collection for locating existing properties and improvements, there will be little argument that this role is strictly designated to the surveying profession. Technological improvements have made our work more precise and accurate; all while being collected in a georeferenced system. The relationship between the surveyor and geospatial data was previously discussed to demonstrate the importance of our work and determining existing conditions, (see GPS World July 2020 column). The surveyor’s ability to be able to collect an enormous amount of geospatial data for surveying purposes is not being questioned, but the line to where the work encroaches into GIS territory. Spoiler alert: Practically everything the surveyor collects can be considered GIS information as well.

Let us look at the relationship from the GIS perspective. The input and oversight of the parcel layer must rely on the licensed land surveyor to provide, while the GIS community is charged to collect necessary information to include into their database. It would make sense to update existing infrastructure information using current technology or historical archives in which the position of the data can be verified. Either way, it is now going to be referenced by its geospatial position rather than a relationship to a parcel line.

Also, the GIS technicians have the same or better capability to utilize data collectors with GNSS receivers for locating existing improvements for inclusion into their system. Most of these technicians have access to the same sources providing the GNSS equipment and coupled with their education and skills, they can collect the data as well as any survey crew. B

ut does this data collection by a GIS technician fall under most state statutes for surveying without a license? Spoiler alert: The short answer is yes, it does if any data collection includes parcel monumentation and could depict a relationship to a parcel line.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Before both parties of this discussion get their pitchforks and torches to have a “talk” with this author, let us take a step back and reassess where we are today with technology and looking toward a future together. The common element here is the data, but how each party uses the data does vary.

The surveyor typically uses geospatial data for several applications; boundary determination, existing planimetric and topographical conditions, and physical depiction of proposed improvements. The surveyor’s data should be considered as a snapshot in time of the conditions of a particular site or project area.

Because of emerging technology, it is not just manually collected survey points using conventional equipment; it can be point clouds and 3D photographs not possible 20 years ago. The surveyor can be considered a high-tech record keeper and can update information as sites change. All because the collected geospatial data is timestamped and memorialized in a digital database.

GIS professionals, on the other hand, require similar information but for many different purposes. Attributes play a much bigger role in the geospatial data requirements than surveyors because the information found within tells them an important story.

Photo: aydinmutlu/E+/Getty Images

Photo: aydinmutlu/E+/Getty Images

The biggest improvement because of the increasing accuracy of the data is infrastructure. As aging utilities require replacement, locating old facilities can be difficult based upon old mapping. Geospatial data collection provides more reliable locations once old facilities are found, existing conditions are reported, and crucial information about its lifespan is collected for future consideration.

Newly installed utilities will have the luxury of significant attribute data applied to each structure to help with future monitoring and maintenance. These are some of the factor that apply to effective asset management and can be applicable to both public and private clients.

While the surveyor and the mapper use geospatial data for similar yet different uses, the product is generally the same. But this discussion is not just about merging data into one big global database; we need to dig a little deeper on how to grow each side of our professions together.

Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together

The surveying and mapping professions have been at a crossroad for some time and both sides continue to ignore each other. Both believe that geospatial data is theirs to control, and they both are right. However, each have a different stake in this geospatial data discussion and need to learn to respect each other’s role. Each side brings a different perspective how to grow and advance our world through effective and efficient surveying and mapping, but they must start talking to realize how much they can grow together.

With a little more focus and education of each other’s roles on both sides, an overlap of responsibilities could mean faster approach to modernizing many aspects of our respective professions. For instance:

  • Cross training of surveyors in GIS software, data collection requirements, parcel modules, and layer nomenclature
    • Encourage surveyors to apply for GISCI Certified GIS Professional (GISP) testing
  • Cross training of GIS professionals and technicians with survey technician programs
    • Encourage GIS personnel to apply for NSPS Certified Survey Technician (CST) testing
  • Both surveyors and mappers cross training with data collection systems capable of collecting geospatial data containing specific positional information and attributes
    • Identifying limitations of various equipment and techniques (i.e. using the right “tool” for the job)
    • Understanding of positional tolerance (precision versus accuracy) and metadata
    • Comprehension of coordinate systems and zones, including low distortion projections (LDP)
    • Distinguishing between surveying and mapping data collection (i.e. boundary/right-of-way determination versus infrastructure collection for inventory)

Light at the end of the tunnel

Technology has introduced our world to many advances not thought possible for our entire existence. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (see GPS World July 2019 column) is now taking aim at industries like surveying and mapping through automation and artificial intelligence capability.

Data is crucial to everything and our respective professions are in the center of the revolution. 2020 and our worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 has been (unfortunately) perfect example of how data affects our world in real time. The more critical and accurate data that is collected, the better we can make assessments of situations.

Surveyors and mappers are doing the same thing with data; survey data helps design our world through establishing accurate conditions, while GIS data helps to evaluate our current conditions and plan for future situations. Both professions rely heavily on data, collected in similar methods, but for separate but similar uses. Each has their strengths to bring to the collective table and can increase the effectiveness of digital modeling going forward.

Photo: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Photo: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Let’s make a plan

The world is moving toward digital twins, augmented and virtual reality along with autonomous travel; it would be in our best interest that the data used to identify the surroundings for those advancements be correct and seamless from all sources. Let us begin by dropping all the delusions of grandeur for our respective professions and formulate a plan to move forward together. The clock is ticking, and time continues to march on.

Technology continues, and soon Generation Z will be trying to do our work with their laptops and smartphones from the coffee shops without our help. Because they can. See, it is important, isn’t it?