“Interoperability” for the Surveying Profession

GIS Contributor


Gavin Schrock, PLS, the editor of Professional Surveyor Magazine, writes about the surveying field changing in the face of the rising popularity of GIS and other geospatial technologies.  Schrock also introduces a new publication launching in June of 2014 called xyHt, which has a goal, in part, to try and get the surveying (positioning)  and GIS communities to look over the partitions of their cubicles  and get to know each other better.

The Original Geo-Profession Seeks a Bright Future Amid the Geospatial Boom

Ahead of its time and for some it was the finest car ever made; I dig Studebakers. My folks had a 50’ Champion (resplendent with bullet nose) and I had 61’ Lark. It had innovations like no other; the Studey had that wonderful overdrive and the hill-climber clutch. Gimmick? Heck no, the hill-climber solved a real problem for those who struggled with balancing the clutch/gas/brake on a hill – that is until automatics became standard. This isn’t about cars, but more about what the era of such beloved icons heralded for the surveying profession.

The 50’s through the beginning of the 70’s was an era of tremendous prosperity (but also a lot of struggle). The prosperity part is what folks like to remember, and it was definitely good for the surveying profession. There was an almost unparalleled investment in both private and public infrastructure; the interstate highway system, the suburban sprawl, and cold-war-era infrastructure spending (remember when public spending for infrastructure was seen as a good thing?). In the pre-EDM (Electronic Distance Measurement), pre-GPS/GNSS, and pre-robotic-total-station era the crews were larger, many sites were wilder and more labor intensive, and it took days and weeks to do some tasks that might only take hours or minutes today. Now it obviously takes less time and labor to produce much more data (maybe not less time for boundary research, but pretty much for any other activity).

I recently visited a multi-billion dollar construction project; interested in seeing the surveying activities, only to find out that there were only a handful of actual surveyors involved in the project. There was though, a small army of young folks who attended the same schools many of our surveying peers, but in new programs. While some traditional surveying schools and certificate programs have been struggling, many called (you guessed it) “geomatics” are thriving (I know how many surveyors hate that word) – many attribute their success to a broader curriculum. You’ve heard this all before (and before the naysayers say it) there is more than just “cool technologies” in play. Geomatics is not just “button pushing”.

The “Studey” and other chrome festooned masterpieces of that era – don’t get the National Geodetic Survey’s Chief Geodetic Surveyor (retired) and geodesy editor for PSM Dave Doyle started on Austin Healy’s – these cars were, and are wonderful.  But I don’t think I’d choose one today for everyday use. A driver on today’s manic highways is not into practical nostalgia, and neither are today’s surveying clients. I’m not saying that technology is the demon or saviour; it is more complex than that. Technological wonders in the form of surveying or GIS mapping “boxes” are just that; “boxes”. There can be the most wonderful box ever made but it takes the skilled hand to make the most of it, and no box stands alone – interoperability with software, other gear, and workflows is just as important as individual “showstopper” features.

The same can be said of the need for an “interoperability” of surveyors. Yes, there is little or no likelihood of major changes to the nature of real-property rights, so there will always be a need for boundary surveying and, at least a fairly stable market for boundary surveyors (though many can now “fly solo” without additional crew and overall numbers of may drop). If the whole of the surveying profession was viewed as being limited to boundary work alone, then of course one could rationalize that there would be no need to change or approach the future in any other manner. We have to be realistic; the numbers needed to sustain boundary alone have shrunk and will reach some level of equilibrium; likely lower than today. That does not mean the end of the profession; more like new opportunities – if folks are willing to “survey” a few.

If other types of work, often already broadly recognized as surveying, are not acknowledged by the profession, appreciated, and promoted as much as boundary is, then we may be looking at stagnation by definition – when instead we should be looking at growth. The boom-era of past decades actually employed a lot of surveyors in areas other than boundary; a lot of areas that might be called engineering surveying, construction surveying, quantities, mapping, modelling, geodesy, remote-sensing, photogrammetry – the sort of things they are teaching in these “geomatics” programs. The higher that walls are erected  to try to exclude or ignore other types of work; those walls will only end up keeping the profession in.

To do their part in promoting the value and potential leadership  role for surveyors in the neo geo world, the team that publishes Professional Surveyor Magazine (PSM) is launching a new publication family in July of 2014 (see “whatisxyht.com”). This will be a broader view of positioning, location and measurement with solid roots in the surveying profession and geomatics, but also related geospatial sciences and industries. The geospatial and positioning communities share a fundamental bond; but often know surprisingly little about what each other does – join in the conversation to begin to bridge that gap.

A little change can be good… I’d love to have another Studebaker, but reserve it only for an occasional Sunday drive…

Related: Why GIS Doesn’t Replace the Need for Surveyors

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Guest articles from GIS professionals. Authorship information is listed at the bottom of the articles.

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