Redefining Who We Are

Geospatial professionals come in many varieties, from surveyors to photogrammetrists and mapping scientists. These people—and I explicitly include many GIS professionals—are full-time employees in the geospatial industry. We use a variety of tools and techniques to compile, report, and analyze data. There are also numerous members of other professions who use the same geospatial data tools. Collectively, the full-time and part-time users of these tools comprise the geospatial community.

Whereas full-time geospatial professionals are almost uniformly competent (hold that thought), the part-time folks possess a wide range of competence in the use of "our" tools. Geospatial professionals, whether licensed surveyors, certified GIS professionals (GISPs), or something else, understand the issues that can be present in the data and have the knowledge required to properly apply the tools and the data to solve a problem—or to know when the data or the tool is not adequate to the task. These professionals are also guided by ethical rules that preclude them from practicing in areas where they lack the required competence. Members of other professions may not have the requisite understanding or skill in application of geospatial knowledge, what has been called geospatial information science and technology (GIS&T).

A GIS&T Body of Knowledge was developed by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science and published by the Association of American Geographers in 2006 (see it online here: It lists 25 core knowledge areas for all geospatial professionals. Among these areas is land surveying and GPS, which means that there is an expectation that all geospatial professionals will understand the principles and practices of these topics. It also means there is an expectation that persons specializing in this field will know much more. Similarly, GISPs need to know about a wide variety of data collection methods and analytical techniques, from surveying and lidar to photogrammetry and map algebra.

With regard to that thought you have been holding, geospatial professionals understand the problem areas and know when to be cautious. They will not, for example, enlarge a map well past its original scale and start taking measurements to a thousandth of a foot with a ruler held against a computer monitor, nor will they believe they have sub-meter accuracy with a handheld GPS unit just because the location is shown to four decimal places. The often-quoted tale of a planning technician telling an applicant he cannot develop his land because it is 987 feet from a school based on his 1:2400 GIS-derived map is not a geospatial professional. Regulating the entire geospatial profession as if all its members were surveyors will not fix this problem.

Surveyors work at a 1:1 scale, which requires great precision of measurement. Most of the rest of us work at much smaller scales and do not need to be so precise. Those professions that use spatial data and GIS&T tools have developed methods that meet their needs. They have defined "good enough" for the information they use in the practice of their professions. A planning technician who misuses spatial data in making regulatory decisions and the professional planner who supervises the technician are violating the practice standards of the planning profession.

Somewhere in this mix, the 50 states have individually drawn a line between those professionals who require state licensure and those who do not. Photogrammetrists are increasingly on the side of the line with licensure, and some GIS professionals are also starting to appear on that side of the line. There is even discussion in some circles of the potential usefulness of a separate licensure path for the GIS profession, although certification is in place and appears to be meeting the market's needs today. About 2,000 people are now certified GIS professionals, and the number is growing. We who are GISPs are rapidly approaching the point where most of us will have no idea what we can and cannot do legally in the practice of our profession. This situation is not good for any of us.

I recently tried to evaluate the various state rules and laws governing the practice of surveying to identify those that impose constraints on the GIS professional. Most statutes are, at best, ambiguous, and many are not enforced following a strict interpretation of what they appear to say. For example, South Carolina just conducted its first test for the GIS Surveyor license. How we got here is an interesting story for another time. Where we go now is my concern, not just for South Carolina, but also for our profession nationwide. Here is what the South Carolina law says:

The practice of TIER A surveying consists of three separate disciplines: land surveying, photogrammetry, and geographic information systems. A surveyor may be licensed in one or more of the disciplines and practice is restricted to only the discipline or disciplines for which the land surveyor is licensed. … A geographic information systems surveyor creates, prepares, or modifies electronic or computerized data including land information systems and geographic information systems relative to the performance of the activities described in subitems (a) and (b). [from s. 40-22-20(24)]

Those two subitems are (a) land surveyor and (b) photogrammetric surveyor. Put it all together, and it could mean a GIS surveyor is someone who can enter and edit electronic data originally compiled by land surveyors and photogrammetric surveyors, but may not actually do land surveying and photogrammetric surveying. Under this first interpretation, it would also be saying that land surveyors and photogrammetric surveyors could not enter the data they compile into an LIS or GIS because cross practice is prohibited. The law would seem to specifically prohibit a land surveyor from loading total station data into a computer electronically or photogrammetrists from doing softcopy photogrammetry.

However, it could mean that a GIS surveyor can do land and photogrammetric surveying under the verb 'creates' and also enter that data into a computer database used for GIS and LIS applications. This, again, suggests that land and photogrammetric surveyors cannot enter data into computer databases; only a GIS surveyor may do such work. If land surveyors and photogrammetrists can put their products into an electronic form, then what does a GIS surveyor do that's different?

Then we get to s. 40-20-290(2), which exempts from licensure "the transcription of existing documents or land records into geographic information systems/land information systems by manual or electronic means," and 40-20-290(3), which exempts "the transcription of public record data into a cadastre (tax maps and associated records) and the maintenance of that cadastre by either manual or electronic means, including tax maps and zoning maps." This means that you do not need a Tier A license to be able to create, prepare, or modify electronic data representing the work of a land surveyor in an LIS or GIS. It looks like the only work requiring GIS Surveyor licensure is electronic data entry of photogrammetric surveying products. Yet, such products are almost exclusively produced today through the use of computers. How can photogrammetrists do their job if they cannot use computers? None of these various interpretations seems to make sense.

You might think that all I need to do to settle the matter is to call the regulatory agency and ask for clarification. Anyone who has attempted to do so will know that things don't work this way. I have called and written to more than one state for such a "bright line" distinction between what is and is not allowed. Not one has ever provided an answer. Once I got a call from the agency's general counsel seeking to clarify my question. Another state went so far as to notify other states not to answer my letter.

This "I'll know when I see it" approach to professional regulation isn't working, not for the public and not for the profession. What I want to propose is a different approach to the issue of licensure and certification: allow the data user to specify the accuracy, precision, and resolution required. In other words, let the market decide.

Now before you hit that Send button to tell me why this is a bad idea, let me clarify what I mean. Those of us in the surveying profession have worked hard to eliminate price competition from the marketplace through licensure and state regulation. I am not proposing to change this, because the client who pays is not the customer for land boundary surveys and plats. The customer is the state, and it is appropriate for the state to specify the quality of products it requires in statute when such a product is not purchased by the state.

States actually specify two geospatial products. The first is the boundary survey, which is the subject of state regulated surveying and mapping. The second is cadastral mapping for property taxation, which uses surveying and other geospatial products as inputs. Boundary surveys are intended to be authoritative with respect to the location of real property. Cadastral products are intended to be representative. We must not confuse the two; they are different uses with different spatial requirements. Thus, the market for surveying products has already decided what data quality is required, and the state customer has encoded its requirements in statute. All I am suggesting is that we allow the other geospatial data markets to set their own standards for data quality.

Surveying, photogrammetry, and other data sources supply information to the geospatial community and to data users outside this community. Many of these users then use these data as inputs to a variety of analytical and reporting processes that are defined within their professions. Their standards should not be defined in statute. These users and processes need to specify the data they need, and then we need to allow them to choose the best products in the marketplace. This is already underway in the handheld GPS, online mapping, and many other geospatial products.

There is no data quality or "protect the public" justification for including all geospatial data products and their use under state surveying legislation. Neither the providers nor users of in-car navigation systems or online services like Google Earth and Map- Quest are currently covered by state surveying licensure laws, so we cannot deny that a line has been drawn between surveying and non-surveying data and applications. All we have ever argued about is where that line is drawn. GIS&T practice areas exist on both sides of that line.

Rather than make all geospatial professionals become licensed surveyors, a path that will treat geospatial professionals in at least 50 different ways, we should create a national geospatial certification or licensure program for the technical aspects common to all our jobs. The states would then handle the licensure of land boundary surveyors, which requires knowledge of the specific property laws in each state. Photogrammetrists, GISPs, and other geospatial professionals who apply only the common GIS&T knowledge, plus the additional knowledge required by their own areas of specialization, would not be subject to state regulation under surveying statutes. The use of GIS&T by other professions, like planners, cadastral mappers, and foresters, would be contained within the requirements of those professions.

What I am suggesting is that we treat the shared knowledge of the geospatial profession in a common way, and then recognize the differences in an appropriate manner. As the surveying profession moves toward a general requirement of a four-year college degree for licensure, the opportunity exists for surveyors to acquire the additional foundation knowledge now necessary for photogrammetrists and GIS professionals. This would make South Carolina's GIS surveyor a land surveyor who is qualified to manage GIS and LIS, which is a definition that makes sense. I will explore this idea next time.

About the Author

  • J. Allison Butler, GISP, AICP
    J. Allison Butler, GISP, AICP
    Al Butler is capital program manager for Ocoee, Florida and operates a part-time GIS consulting business. He is the past-president of the GIS Certification Institute.

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