By Brent Jones, PE, PLS
When I graduated from college several decades ago, a retiring drafting professor said to me, “The things that are going to change during your career are difficult to comprehend. I wish I was going to be around to be part of it.”
It was a long time ago. In school, we worked with experimental GPS satellites, tried to understand object-oriented programming, and worked with mainframes attempting to build computer-mapping systems. We programmed relative and absolute adjustments for aerial photogrammetry and experimented with close-range using 35mm film cameras.
We were lucky to have one of those old clunky HP EDMs to use. We used transits and field books for land surveying classes. Law classes covered everything from the Colonial Ordinance and Jefferson to the rules of evidence and the PLSS. I attended the ACSM (American Congress on Survey and Mapping) conference with over 3,000 attendees. Since then, everything has changed exponentially, except the law.
Surveyors have a rich history that is highlighted in almost all surveying magazines with incredible stories ranging from alligators encounters to scaling the highest mountains in the world. What comes along with a surveying career is difficult to capture in a short sentence, but it fundamentally involves collecting and analyzing data, applying legal and scientific principles, and making judgments and issuing opinions. It involves delivering trusted products to clients who rely on them and enduring all of challenges of the physical world to make it happen.
This hasn’t changed, but the tools and techniques have. In fact, the tool-box is overflowing so much that nearly everyone is using some of them, and new professions have emerged that take advantage of these new tools by doing new things.
Market economies have a habit of creating specialties. More mature economies have high degrees of specialization and less mature economies have lower degrees of specialization. We can see this in all elements of the economy. For those of us with a little age, we are finding out there are types of doctors that we’ve never heard of. There are restaurants of every type. There are engineers for just about everything you can think of from chips to ships. There are shops that only change your oil and companies that deliver sausage to your door.
Specialization is part of capitalism. New opportunities are created from a wide variety of circumstances from invention and infrastructure to convenience and comfort. Market efficiencies are created through specialization.
Some specializations are focused, like processing lidar data or using artificial intelligence with satellite imagery to determine the amount of land in agriculture use. Other specializations combine several technologies like collecting street-level imagery, GPS, and lidar to produce applications for data collection and visualization.
Even other specializations use this collected data and apply machine-learning tools to extract the locations of fire hydrants, utility poles, and any feature the imagery and lidar can observe. These specializations create massive efficiencies for government and the private sector. Sharing this data publicly is a force multiplier to these efficiencies.
The tools used are in the surveyor’s toolbox. But these tools are in the toolboxes of others, too. Policemen use total stations for accident scene mapping, foresters use GNSS to map the location of trees and forest plots, autonomous driving cars use lidar, and nearly every mobile device has GNSS for use in a limitless list of apps, from reporting pothole location to optimizing driving routes. Inherent in its name, GIS (Geographic Information
Systems) uses more spatial or geospatial tools than most other industries.
GIS evolved leveraging other technological advancements along with innovation in GIS itself. Data from all sources — lidar, imagery, GNSS, drones, crowdsourcing, census, traffic, and many others combined with the rapidly evolving computing infrastructure, including cloud, mobile web services, big data, distributed computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and integrated with GIS innovation such as real-time data management, advanced analytics, visualizations, and mapping in 2D, 3D, and 4D deliver a market specialization that has created new opportunities, new industries, and a new profession.
In land surveying its complicated to collect and analyze data, apply legal and scientific principles, and deliver judgments and opinions. It’s also complicated to understand all the data types, projections, datums, databases, geodatabases, web services, cartography, apps, dashboards, portals, parcel fabrics, modeling, and all the methods of spatial analysis. A lot of the tools used by land surveyors and GIS professionals are the same, and that’s OK. It’s an ‘and,’ not an ‘or.’
One of the challenges with a new and rapidly growing professions is defining exactly what it encompasses. As new technologies, tools, and capabilities are used, what it encompasses grows and evolves. Surveying continues to grow and evolve. GIS continues to grow and evolve.
With long-established professions, registration and licensure are institutions to demonstrate minimum competence. With land surveying, this is done by the states. With relatively new professions that involve specific technologies, demonstration of minimum technical competence is often done with national certifications. Notably are CST (Certified Survey Technician), CFedS (Certified Federal Surveyor), CP (Certified Photogrammetrist), and GISP (GIS Professional). CST and CFedS are sponsored by NSPS (National Society of Professional Surveyors), CP is managed by ASPRS (American Society of Photogrammmetry and Remote Sensing), and GISP is sponsored by the GISCI (GIS Certification Institute). GISCI is comprised of several member organizations — AAG (American Association of Geographers), NSGIC (National States geographic Information Council), UCGIS (University Consortium of Geographic Information Science, GITA (Geospatial Information and Technology Association), and URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association).
It’s notable that these professional associations sponsor these professional certifications. Each of these organizations represent specific professionals. Just as there overlap in the use of tools, perhaps ‘geospatial tools,’ there is overlap with geospatial professionals and what their certifications/licenses demonstrate as minimum competence, and the services they can provide. There are differences what opinions and judgments are made from data collected. Among other products, land surveyors give legal opinions for decision making, and GIS professionals deliver analysis, modeling, and visualization for decision making. Overlap, but different.
Professions have evolved and new professions have emerged. Professional associations are growing and evolving to meet new professional challenges. Some surveyors are members of both URISA and NSPS. Some licensed professional land surveyors are GISPs. Some state land surveyor organizations welcome GISPs as peers to professional land surveyors. Just as we share some of the same geospatial tools, we share some of the same business challenges and our professional organizations help us with resources, certifications, and networking opportunities to address them.
This is only the beginning. Specialization is how market economies mature and grow. Predicting the future is difficult, but change is a certainty, and it will only accelerate. There will be new tools for existing professions, and new professions will emerge. There will be overlap, and that’s OK.