Guest Essay: A Spatial Science

This young PhD candidate from “down under” offers his insights into the role of surveying in what he sees as a boom in “geospatial sciences.” Grant Hausler is completing his PhD at The University of Melbourne and Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI). His research explores technical, commercial, and governance issues affecting the development of a National Positioning Infrastructure (NPI) in Australia. Grant assisted Geoscience Australia in preparing an NPI plan for the Australian government in 2012.

I first joined the surveying fraternity in 2004 as an undergraduate at The University of Melbourne. Surrounding me was a small group of students whose friendly and supportive nature typified our industry. We fit the traditional surveying mold perfectly. Or did we?

In our modern world, traditional careers in land surveying are less attractive to those leaving school, especially with spatial information now literally available at our fingertips. To remain relevant and exciting at a time when spatial literacy is growing, the surveying profession must be dynamic and respond to technological shifts across the diverse disciplines it supports. If we define our industry by the skill set of traditional land surveying, our profession will continue to lose its appeal, particularly to young people looking for a vibrant and challenging career that exploits modern technology. If nothing else, the term “spatial science” better encompasses the diversity, flexibility, and breadth of career opportunities that are built on fundamental principles owned and held dear by the surveying profession. Spatial science can align our core values with a wider and more informed audience to revitalize the surveying brand with a modern identity, provided we take a united approach. And technology will deliver the science of surveying to the broader spatial market.

Constant innovation makes hardware and software cheaper, faster, simpler, more reliable, and more widely accessible. Our friends in IT have elevated mapping to the mainstream. Spatial science is to me what Google Maps is to my friends: a conceptual and physical paradigm shift in our ability to access and interpret surveying information. I don’t bother explaining complex and abstract concepts such as datum or cadastre; I show them. Spatial science provides the vision. Governments, businesses, and communities are now exposed to our skills directly where third-party referrals may have been required previously. Crowd sourcing will drive demand for spatial scientists who can build the hard and soft infrastructures needed to integrate, map, and analyze data and evaluate its quality. Connecting to datum will be a given; you’ll always be connected.

Complex challenges often come from outside traditional surveying and spatial industries. Clever, rigorous, and efficient solutions come from within.

But how do we meet ongoing demand for qualified land surveyors when spatial science appears less focused on our traditional identity? Recognizing that undersupply stems from stringent certification procedures that require tertiary qualification is a first step. This traditional approach overlooks the value of vocational training as a suitable training option in a modern spatial market. Few university graduates view traditional surveying as a progressive and challenging career, but we understand and promote the fundamental principles of surveying across other markets. Alternatively, tradespeople with first-hand industry experience now have the opportunity to acquire surveying skills that were previously unattainable without modern technology. This is successful education: applying fundamental surveying principles to develop reliable and autonomous technology to support broader training and professional development programs. Measurement standards must accurately reflect technological progress.

It’s not surprising that few students from my year level became surveyors. Many saw an industry where the mold was set in stone: a career path defined for them, not with them. More appealing was the opportunity to build the identity of land surveying as a broader spatial science. And word spreads fast in a booming information economy. Fortunately, our survey colleagues will always be a friendly phone call away.

Some additional thoughts: Build the spatial brand to bring people in the door and then demonstrate the importance of surveying as a technology and science that will continuously evolve. Don’t structure the degree to produce surveyors; this significantly narrows our vision and limits opportunities for innovation across a wide range of disciplines.

A strategic outlook is needed to encourage students that spatial science has a bright and dynamic future in terms of technological development and diverse application.

We’re approaching a time when connecting to datum and cadastres could some day become ubiquitous; you could always be connected. So our core service will become data management. Society will conceptualize and visualize issues they never knew existed. Don’t constrain progress with issues of pride.

Our traditional equipment, skills, and practices will be rightfully challenged as GNSS and other positioning infrastructures create a uniform and integrated spatial world. We should set our goals as high as possible: seamless indoor and outdoor positioning systems referenced to dynamic, centimeter-accurate digital maps available in real-time. Think of the data-collection and processing technology (old and new) required to consolidate and visualize this information—spatial fusion at its best. Land surveying will be just one component of a much larger spatial system, but spatial scientists will understand and apply its core principles. 

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