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U.S. Surveying, Geomatics, and Angst

“Not good enough damn it! Not good enough!” – Jean-Luc Picard


Jonathan Murphy, Managing Director of GoGeomatics asked me many months ago if I’d pen a guest blog entry on the question of Identity and brand in the geospatial community from my perspective in the United States.  I’m a big fan of GoGeomatics Canada; the posts, the job service, and the local geo-socials; definitely a sense of community for geo-types and this is my contribution to the discussion.


There is a scene in director John Boorman’s 1981 Arthurian epic “Excalibur” that finds the knights, having completed the uniting of the kingdom, sitting somewhat bored around the round table. Arthur tries to spark a discussion with the question “Which is the greatest quality of knighthood?”[ Eyes roll].  Professional associations, societies, and guilds over the centuries have been expending a substantial amount of their energy in defining and redefining what it is that they do and what their role in society might be. Nothing is new on that front except that it can now be done in an instantaneous and global fashion. I’m not against the discussions (I’m chiming in as well); there are always some high level discussions that help form policy (e.g.  I find the initiatives of outfits like the Canadian Geomatics  Community Round Table to be quite compelling). But then there is there are the perennial Sisyphusian toils over “definitions” – so much angst over say, the name of a college program, and not enough about the curriculum.

I’ve been following the posts, blogs, tweets, meeting notices and proceedings of various geo and surveying related organizations and media for a number of years; trying to gain some insights on the subject. Some recaps of recent events, like the Geodesign Summit (a great idea and movement) indicated that a lot of discussion revolved around the definition of Geodesign – a rebrand of long held design best practices?  New marketing angle?  Or is it a nod to the ubiquitous nature of resources available to apply to engineering/environmental design? Definition; so much energy expended on definition. Back to Jon’s question re: surveying and geomatics and our view down south of Canada. I have sought some statistics, and official statements from various organizations, but what I found more telling is what someone will reveal to you off the record when they think no one can hear – it is uncanny how similar these intimations are. I’ll get to that, but first some background.

Surveying: For many who identify themselves as surveyors, the term applies to boundary surveying – period. In history there were a great many activities that people associated with the term surveying; including surveying for engineering, transportation, mapping, exploration, resources, utilities… but when it comes to surveyors; the licensed, the registered, the certified, the laws and statutes regarding such licensing defines surveying as primarily to do with boundary, but often as well, surveying in support of the practice of engineering. Many states require a 4-year degree (a great summary here). Degree requirements can range from specifically surveying, to options for geo-science, or engineering related degrees. Experience requirements vary from none, to multiple years and often with qualifiers as to the type of work and/or acting in a role of responsible charge. There are often requirements for continuing education. Yes, licensed surveying, and boundary surveying credentials and ‘cred’ is not casually obtained.

A boundary surveyor does not get to simply slap a disclaimer on a map, they have to be able to defend what they did in court and on top of licensing requirements it can take decades of experience in researching records and dealing with boundary law to be proficient. A boundary surveyor will take umbrage in being classified as an “expert measurer”; it is the professional judgement and interpretation of evidence that makes the difference, and is why they are required to be licensed. Sage boundary surveyors are a rare breed; supreme court justices in muddy boots worn with honour,  and they are often deserving of idol-worship for what they do.  I’m a licensed surveyor and might get disavowed for saying this, but we surveyors do need to get over ourselves a bit – the work we do does not exist in a vacuum.  Surveying activities are part of something bigger; directly or by extension. This is what a lot of surveyors will reveal to you in private – many acknowledge that surveyors get so caught up in their work as to dismiss every other type of surveying or geomatics engineering as inferior and not worthy. Or that they take their work and own judgement so seriously as to quibble over a few millimeters and end up creating “pin-cushions” of survey markers at disputed boundary corners. There is a need to look beyond one’s own well-trimmed professional hedges… or perhaps suffer some stagnation through definition.

GeoMagicians: As far as I know, that term was first coined by Nicholas Duggan, a neo geo practitioner and blogger from the UK:  @dragons8mycat . There are a great many folks doing absolutely wonderful things with the wealth of geo data and geo resources – both proprietary and open-source. A few other example GeoMagicians and outfits to follow on twitter are @underdarkGIS, @pwramsey, @GeoHowTo, @PickMeUpAL, and @CanGeoRT. These geo activities are embedded in other fields and endeavours – there is a move away from dedicated GIS departments and GIS specialists to a whole new breed of geo-enabled people. Less of the “bring the data to the GIS” as it is “bring the geo to the data”. While even the savviest GeoMagicians might not be qualified to do any boundary related work, so do many surveyors lack the experience to do what GeoMagicians can do. These are not just geohipsters (though that is not a derogatory term), there is serious work going on. I find that the neo geo types often do not like the term GIS, they might say “I’m geo, I like to think I do much more than GIS”; but I do find that most geo types also have a profound respect for surveyors and geodesists. I often hear similar sentiments from the new wave of surveyors, young motivated folks, many of whom attended programs with the dreaded word “geomatics” in the title – they see surveying in broader terms, full of potential and not a dying profession – and they know and respect GeoMagicians. But much of the old biases run deep: I recently attended a planning meeting for a group trying to address the declining enrolment in one of the few remaining surveying certificate programs in their state. It was noted that there was still a two-year transfer program in another part of the state, but the conversation stopping comment was “oh, but that is a geomatics program”… And that is bad in what way?

The built and natural worlds are huge, and our understanding of them and need to manage and grow them in a much smarter way is an enormous undertaking –so many people in so many disciplines,  doing so many amazing things in measuring, cataloguing, and utilizing geodata so rapidly gathered. Boundary is an essential part of that, but so is engineering surveying, construction surveying, geospatial IT, geodesy, photogrammetry, remote sensing, hydrography, machine control, aerial and UAS – nothing is done in a complete vacuum. While the labor statistics (see “Doom or Boom?”) for some legacy categories, fields, and professions might seem stagnant, or contracting (more can be done with less people now), the worldwide boom in the use of geospatial data rolls on like a juggernaut (particularly in what used to be called the developing world). Is the divide simply generational? That angle gets cited a lot. Indeed a recent poll by one state association about succession planning, only 8% of respondents were under the age of 40. But surely the divide is driven by many other factors.


Is there a compelling reason for boundary surveyors to wish to be categorized as being but a subset of “geomatics”? For many, the answer is no. If one is engaged in boundary survey only (though by nature that is a finite market subject to the ups and downs of commercial and residential real-estate markets and many boundary surveyors supplement with other types of surveying) there may be a disadvantage to any name change.. A commonly stated position on this revolves around the title “surveyor” as being (fairly) readily recognizable, whereas “geomatics” is much harder to convey to the layperson (who might only contract a surveyor one or two times in their lifetime). Is there an advantage to the geomatics community in having surveying included under that moniker? Sure, that puts all of the geo-related fields of positioning, location measurement, analysis, and the professional aspects (where applicable) thereof under one umbrella. It is argued that the one-umbrella model is good for education, outreach, and shaping policy. If the move in recent years by US surveyors is any indication, the divide is being in some ways widened by design. The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) was disbanded, affiliations with a number of geo associations were dropped, and the national association was reborn as the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) – a bit more boundary surveying centric. But there is a glimmer of acknowledgement of the broader geo-world: the NSPS executive director does say that “GIS” should stand for “Get Involved Seriously”. I am not saying that the more narrowly focused change in the national surveying associations is a good or bad thing, but it does indicate that there are a great many surveyors would prefer not to be associated with the term (or definition) of “geomatics”, or being lumped in with any other geo-disciplines (at least many say that in public). Would a big group hug be cool? Sure, it might serve some common goals – but they’d have to agree on those first.

Back to perennial items for discussion among varied groups: Should we redefine our professions/fields? What is our role in society, and how can we convey that value to the public? Should we advocate for fewer rules to let us do our jobs? Should we advocate for more rules to prevent others from doing our jobs? Those darned button-pushers! – is new tech destroying our professions/fields? (I’ve read that Samurai worried that rifles would ruin their sword-based fiefdoms). How do we attract young people to our professions/fields? All worthy discussions, but sometimes no matter how much it gets discussed; external forces will chart a path surer and swifter than any committees can keep up with. Thou shalt not committee? (Sorry, I was itching to find a way to work that in). Much of the angst about definitions may be moot; a definition does not change the nature and need for various types of work – the types of work needed change despite the definitions we try to place on them.

Rapid data acquisition and analysis is reshaping the geo world in the form of a giant wave; there may be eddies of very specific activities that do not have to change very much to continue to be relevant and valuable. Many folks feel that surveying may be best served by staying pretty much the same as it has been – a little change from technology around the edges, but still more about the professional elements than simply measuring. So to Jon’s question about surveying-geomatics; in the US they are running on the same system of rails – but outwardly they might not wish to admit it.

Footnote: It has not gone unnoticed by folks in the business of chronicling the geospatial sciences, professions, and related industries that there is somewhat of a deep chasm between what those who do the locating, positioning and measuring (and the profession aspects thereof) understand about the geo-magic that happens to the data they provide, and what the geodata users understand about positioning, location, and measurement. Some new print and online resources are in the works to address that, launching this July. whatisxyht.com examines the concept.

8 comments on "U.S. Surveying, Geomatics, and Angst"

  1. Avatar Taran Grey says:

    I must be missing something important… why is there a picture of the robot from “Lost In Space” humping an old-school survey transit to the dismay of a bank machine and the glee of an army soldier who is in the midst of rocking out?

    1. Avatar Jon Murphy says:

      Good Question. I have no idea. Hopefully Gavin will spell it out for us.

      1. Avatar Gavin Schrock says:

        Gee, thanks for having my back Jon. Symbolism is, is not is, tis what it is…
        Those are both surveying instruments, the orange one is a not-so-old Geodimeter, not a bank machine…
        Ok, when in doubt, make something up:
        Ahem… the robot represents the high tech some surveyors fear will ruin our profession, but in the form of what folks a half a century ago thought such tech would be like, and got wrong.
        The robot is not performing an untoward act on the older surveying instrument, simply adjusting it and running it as surveyors fear that robots or the dreaded young button pushers might.
        The Geodimeter and older Wild instruments were also produced by a 3D printer, and maybe will serve as a plug for the guy that makes those as holiday tree decorations.
        The little soldier is surveying, and is seemingly overshadowed by the technology struggle in the background.

        1. Avatar Taran Grey says:

          Nice try Gavin. I know a robot humping a transit in front of a bank machine when I see one.

          The robot represents the inability for surveyors to achieve true sensory understanding of nature and therefore beauty, but rather they are depicted in a desperate attempt to please a purveyor of “currency” through untoward acts with a tool used for voyeuristic acts associated with delineation and possession. It’s all a radical Marxist take meant to inspire the creation of a vanguard party who will eventually rise up to claim private property for the public good by seizing the means of construction.

          That army guy rocking out is just an army guy rocking out because army guys rocking out are way awesome.

          1. Avatar Gavin Schrock says:

            I cannot argue with awesome. Points well taken. Perhaps there is no true meaning and it is spontaneous art stemming from randomness of junk on my shelf. I was considering adding a Miniature Kirby, a Dr. Evil, a Tardis, and Mikasa from 進撃の巨人 but I have to geek-check myself sometimes… and who knows what you would have interpreted from that.

          2. Avatar Jon Murphy says:

            See! I knew Gavin would clear that up. It’s all just plain as day now. A lot of geoawesomeness going on here.

  2. Gavin,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I cannot say much about the robot thing – but I like 3D a lot!

    I think innovations across the entire spatial realm have resulted in measurement becoming much more important than at any other time. Surveyors are only one part of a bigger puzzle we all wrestle with in many fields and disciplines that are spatial and require measurement. You are right in saying the ‘doing is more important than the naming’. I like ‘Thou shall not committee’ !

    Good work and thanks again.

  3. Avatar Yvan Bédard says:

    Good discussion ! We are all part of more focused and of larger communities, in every aspect of our life. It is not a matter of selecting one or the other, it is a matter of using the right one at the right time! I’m a Neuvillois, I’m a Quebecois, I’m a Canadian, I’m a North-American, I’m an Earth Citizen! I don’t have to choose, I’m all of this ! I’m a spatial database specialist, I’m a GIS designer, I’m a geomatics engineer, I’m also a land surveyor, I’m a GeoIT person, I’m an IT person, I’m a geomatician… I’m all of this and I like it !

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