How to Secure Your Position in the Changing Geospatial Markets

by David O'Brien, PSM, CFedS, LEED AP

2 years and 6 months ago

Tags3d, gis, gps, laser scanning

The geospatial industry is changing at a rapid pace. In our cities, towns, planes, boats and cars, we are becoming a georeferenced world. How many times has an app on your smartphone or tablet asked for permission to use your current location? Every cell phone made today has GPS built in. This begs the question: If at some point in the future every manmade or natural object has precise positioning, will there still be a need for surveying?

Counties across the country are already in the process of establishing state plane coordinates on every property corner. I know what you’re thinking: “County GIS employees determining boundaries? How can that be good for the general public?” Some counties have a licensed surveyor in charge of these projects. Even so, accuracy and reliability may prove to be a problem in the early stages of this process. But what about five, 20, or 100 years down the road?Isn’t it likely that at some point every property corner will have been accurately located and stored in a public or private GIS? It’s also very likely that those coordinates may have already been challenged and successfully defended, making them the legal monument for the property corner. At some point in the future, even boundary determination (the holy grail of surveying) will be challenged or eliminated by technology. If this can happen to boundary determination, isn’t it plausible that it will happen to topography, elevations, easements, etc.?

I believe this transition has already begun. Take Google Earth, for example. How many of us 10 years ago would have believed that in a single decade we would be able to view aerial images of any area of the U.S. or the world over the Internet in “real time”? How many of us saw Google Street View coming How long will it be until Google has real time streaming topographic, point cloud or even boundary data? Google already has many of the property appraiser parcel lines plotted for much of the U.S. Now, let’s combine modern Google tools with the counties that have accurately mapped property boundaries, and what do we have? An accurate cadastral GIS system, free and readily available to the general public. How long until they have precise scan data on every manmade or natural object that can be seen from a roadway? How long until we can click on any item on the screen and get an x,y,z position?

Some may laugh at this notion and say it will never happen, but I wonder if that’s what our predecessors said in the 70s, when they were pulling a chain for distance and measuring angles with a theodolite. Look at how the industry has changed over the last 30 years!

Surveyors traditionally have been on the cutting edge of technology, and we still are today. But now numerous competing industries and professions are scrambling to take control of the acquisition and manipulation of geospatial information. Could a surveying firm still exist in today’s market using that same chain and theodolite? Obviously, the answer is no. Therefore, there is an important lesson to be learned from that simple fact. We must embrace the changes and carve out a niche in the advanced geospatial industry, or we will find ourselves out of the industry. 

That statement may seem harsh, but the signs of this transition are already around us. Much of what we do as surveyors is already viewed as a commodity by the public and even the engineering and construction industries. Many clients want the lowest cost survey because they believe that every surveyor’s services are the same and there is no added value associated with the cost of quality work. Often only after they have been burned numerous times do clients realize that they are getting what they paid for.

Additionally, surveying tools are becoming increasingly easy to use. Static and network RTK GPS and 3D laser scanning can now obtain in minutes the data that once took hours, days or even weeks to acquire, and these tools can be used by just about anyone. Some state surveying boards may try to stop unlicensed individuals from “practicing surveying,” but what is the definition of surveying? Such a debate is likely to be settled in the halls of Congress or state legislatures by the lobby that has the deepest pockets. I have a hard time believing surveyors will have the deepest pockets.

The good news is that our profession is no different from any other profession or industry. If you have read any of the great business books, such as “Built to Last,” “Good to Great” or “Who Stole My Cheese,” you will see one consistent theme. Great companies need to constantly re-invent themselves and never sit back on their laurels.

How many of us change our own oil, fix our own brakes, do our own carpentry work and even do our own IT work? Why? Because we prefer to do it ourselves, and we have the knowledge and tools to perform the work. There may come a time when anyone can purchase a low cost network RTK GPS unit, turn it on and have precise and accurate positioning without even setting up a base station. There may also come a time when anyone can go online and download precise scan data for any object with a simple click of a mouse or tap on a mobile device. As the world becomes smaller and spatial information becomes free and readily available, we must adapt and learn to provide services that add value.

What will these services be? Only time will tell. One service that is already becoming a reality is the 3D world. Engineers, architects and even construction companies are all beginning to work with 3D data in the design, as-built and maintenance phases of projects in the form of 3D renderings and building information models (BIM). Collecting 3D data has become increasingly less rigorous, but the true skill set lies in the manipulation and creation of 3D datasets, whether in MicroStation, AutoCAD, Revit or some other software.

The bottom line is that there is only one way to secure our position in the changing geospatial markets: By learning to provide the services that other professions deem too costly or too difficult so that our clients gain substantial value.

David O'Brien, PSM, CFedS, LEED AP

David O'Brien is a co-founder and president of SurvTech Solutions Inc., which was founded in 2004. He is a professional surveyor and mapper (PSM) licensed in 10 states, a certified federal surveyor (CFedS) and a LEED AP.


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