Bridging the surveying-GIS gap

At the Surveying-GIS Summit, subtitled "Bridging the Gap," held during the weekend prior to the ESRI User Conference, I had an opportunity to reflect on the "gap." With all the opinions about the gap and its depth and width, it was a good thing that more than 400 people gathered to talk about how to bridge it.

Some attendees spoke about the resistance of surveyors to get involved in projects that only make positional measurements to the nearest meter. Others talked about the inability of GIS professionals to understand why plotted legal descriptions from some government departments’ database seldom match up perfectly, as if in a jigsaw puzzle.

My mind wandered back to the early surveyors in this country. As we approach the 200th anniversary of their voyage, Lewis and Clark come to mind. Many think of them as explorers. And certainly, trying to find a path to the Northwest would be classified as exploration.

But, Lewis and Clark were surveyors and mappers. They functioned in capacities to inventory natural, cultural, and geographic resources. They also evaluated the potential for development in the context of these resources, and the presence or absence of communications with the rest of the developed country.

In those days, communications didn’t have to do with the capacity to carry megabits per second along a link, it had to do with the potential for trade, population dispersion, commerce, and, yes, perhaps a few thousand bytes per day! The GLO surveyor, the "surveyors" of the Domesday book during William the Conqueror’s time (they were called surveyors too), Lewis and Clark, and any of the people referred to as surveyors through most of the 19th century all performed property boundary, engineering, and control surveys. They also worked as mappers and cartographers to prepare the results of their work for use by government, business, and citizens. They were aware that the use of the mapped information went far beyond simply knowing boundary points.

Although GIS is a modern invention, I propose that the concept has existed for centuries. As technology permitted, people used their minds, tracings, and light tables to overlay various types of spatial data made by early surveyors to simultaneously process selected data from different layers. They saw the information in ways that a single map layer couldn’t portray.

Fast forward to today. Most surveyors—although they have geographic information systems or land information systems in their offices (i.e., the old style)—have not progressed to using a modern GIS for their work. Surveyors have adopted a variety of new tools—RTK GPS; robotic total stations; digital levels; and a variety of data analysis, coordinate geometry and mapping software—yet, the selection of a GIS tool lags far behind.

To be sure, many surveyors have started using GIS. Sometimes, it is mandated by a contract. Sometimes, they see the handwriting on the wall. And other times, it begins as a simple urge to learn something new, and to discover its application in one’s business in order to expand its reach.

There is no question that the modern surveyor continues to perform the lion’s share of the surveying. What do I mean by lion’s share? Well, there’s no doubt that the new tools enable many people—who are willing to learn by making mistakes—to adopt the surveyor’s tools for their own data-collection and analysis purposes.

But of all the professionals engaged in work that involves spatially based data, surveyors have the potential to perform data collection and analysis of the measurements best. Even with professionals other than surveyors performing surveying tasks, surveyors still do most of this work.

A well-known fact slowly unfolding before us, however, is that GISs give us the ability to understand—broader, deeper, and quicker—the earth, an economy, a country, a town or city, a natural resource, or a forest fire and its aftermath. Also becoming slowly apparent is that the need for the accuracy of the positional information associated with the spatial data is increasing steadily.

If surveyors miss this opportunity to be the providers of this increasingly accurate position data, the ever-thirsty need for better representation of the information being observed, managed, and monitored is going to be fed from wherever circumstances will provide it.

Surveyors will continue to provide some of the more accurate data required to make the overall GIS more accurate with respect to spatially-based information. For example, a more accurate base map is most likely to come from a surveying professional.

But by understanding the work being done with GIS, surveyors have a golden opportunity to operate and manage GISs themselves, and to ally themselves closer with GIS professionals to acquire and manipulate the data stream that is almost always needed to make a cutting-edge GIS application, cutting-edge relevant.

And isn’t that what makes surveyors, mappers, and GIS professionals all part of the field of geomatics?

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at

Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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