Binary thinking is one of the quickest ways to underperform in a three-dimensional world. That there ever was a dichotomy between land surveying, or creating precision measurements of a landscape, and GIS, enabling modern applications to make optimized use of those measurements, is unfortunate. GIS pros call surveyors stodgy, while surveyors look at GIS as unscientific. Supposing that the worst of these stereotypes were true. Wouldn’t this naturally cause one to think of a collaborative effort as the way to shore up weaknesses in both philosophies?

The truth is that GIS is as accurate as it has to be to fulfill its core competency – systems integration. Land surveying is as innovative as it needs to be to fulfill its core competency – canvassing. In order to optimize the positive aspects of both disciplines, we first need to understand where the problems come from.

The War of Misunderstanding Between Land Surveying and GIS

Because land surveyors and GIS professionals are both assessing the same basic asset – land – professionals from either side may consider the way assessments are made on the “opposing” side to be pointless or inefficient. However, the purpose for which a surveyor and a GIS man would be taking stock of a parcel is completely different. For instance, a homeowner who is looking to precisely locate the boundary line around a property cannot call either a surveyor or a GIS guy. That homeowner would need to call a land surveyor specifically. A reputable GIS professional would be quite upfront that assessing land for the purposes of taxation or boundary location are beyond the scope of his jurisdiction or competence.

However, if a landowner is looking to create a suitability analysis for a construction project, the surveyor would have to take a backseat. The GIS specialist is the person to call for this type of assessment, although the surveyor may be looking at a very similar dataset.

Consider a huge rock sitting in the middle of an acre of land. Both the surveyor and the GIS specialist will be able to tell you it is there. However, only the surveyor can tell you if the rock is completely within the boundaries of your land parcel, and only the GIS guy would be able to assess the tools it might take to remove the rock to put a house there.

Surveyors may automatically assume that anyone calling himself a “geographic information systems” professional should have the same capacity as the surveyor. GIS pros may assume the same thing. The truth is that both disciplines are far too complex for either to master the other without specialized training. This will only become more true as technology improves and becomes more demanding of its human monitors.

A Varying Scope of Precision

Both GIS professionals and land surveyors become incredibly precise, but at two completely different times and for different purposes.

The land surveyor may not be as precise when measuring the horizontal coordinate of a topographic feature. However, the surveyor is incredibly precise when placing this feature in relation to other features. The GIS professional perceives location as the single most important aspect of every topographic feature that it measures, and its relative position is less important.

Matching Technologies

According to some GIS-survey hybrid professionals, GIS tech has yet to catch up with the amount of data that a surveyor can generate. The original purpose of GIS was for natural resource management, and hardware development companies are only beginning to see returns from investing in other applications. The scale of data that surveyors currently create is also better served in a database, a cultural shift that GIS pros have yet to fully implement.

At the same time, 3D tools, HD imagery, terrestrial scanning and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) are, at times, giving surveyors more than they can handle. Surveyors should not overlook the fact that they are perhaps expecting GIS tech to expand at a rate faster than surveyors themselves have been able to cultivate. For instance, GIS is making CAD obsolete on some projects requiring full-scale system management of assets – a shift that many surveyors are less than willing to acknowledge, much less implement.

Land Surveying and GIS – Two Complementary Disciplines

Surveying and GIS are fraternal twins growing up beside each other, play fighting in the sandbox to the greater end of improving the strength of both. When both of these brothers grow beyond their training stage and realize they better serve each other in cooperative tandem, we can expect to see some incredible strides forward in environmental surveying. Hybrid technologies are already being established that foreshadow this stage of technology.

The markets that can fully employ HQ survey data are increasing – legal land surveys are no longer the only application of elite surveying efforts. Volumetric modeling, 3D visualization, architecture measurement and precision farming are relatively new disciplines that will require the cooperation of surveyors and GIS professionals to get to the money. Governments have also begun to require hybrid tech efforts to complete huge projects, including the European initiatives SESAR and ERTMS and America’s Gen Air Traffic Control and Positive Train Control.

New economies are driving new technologies. Open standards, such as those advocated by the Open Geospatial Consortium and Open GIS, are being used more often to generate a higher degree of interoperability between systems and less time spent porting applications. GIS technology is quickly applying itself to niche surveying techniques, most notably LiDAR.

GIS is the already preferred philosophy/technology for managing data culled from modern surveying tech – mobile mapping, LiDAR and laser scanning. As these tools become more precise, surveyors will have no choice but to rely on the only technology with the scale and power to handle them.

In short, leaders in the surveying and GIS industries are all beginning to recognize the opportunities that come with cooperation. For those professionals on both sides who are looking to expand their horizons, it is time to embrace this partnership.

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