Engage! The 2012 Survey Summit: ACSM/NSPS, Esri, and Soul Searching

By Gavin Schrock, PLS

By “Engage!” we’re talking about a Captain Picard-like directive. The warp drive is already engaged for many, and the seventh Survey Summit, held in temperate San Diego and co-hosted by Esri (ancillary to their huge user conference) and the ACSM/NSPS, served as a prime indicator that this is already so, underscoring the key message that our industry must also continue to engage.

Although this was the smallest Survey Summit to date, many in attendance characterized it as one of the best content-wise. The Summit was also host to many informal gatherings around break tables with lively conversations about the future of the national association, our industry, and a rightful place for surveyors in this geospatially charged world. I had never heard so much introspection and soul searching at a survey conference before, not at this level.

The “lightning talks” of the plenary session on the first day included an impassioned speech by NSPS’s Curt Sumner encouraging said engagement, an update on the NSPS student competition (more engagement), a recap of GPS Day activities (still more), examples of new frontiers in surveying (aptly presented by Frontier Surveying … more power, Scotty!), and some meaty subjects appealing to surveyors such as a recap of 200 years of the GLO. The plenary saw the first in a steady stream of talks and discussions examining unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Despite the last-minute scuttling of a full NGS track (due to current federal travel sensitivities), those from the NGS who could attend crafted a compact but timely and splendidly informative geodesy track. NGS’s Dr. Dan Roman demystified the subject of geoid models and modeling, focusing on GEOID 2012, and Michael Dennis gave a marathon session on what goes into a new realization of the NSRS. The NAD83-2011 passive adjustment involved 29 years of observations and processing of 426,977 vectors. The NGS also demonstrated a suite of GIS tools. Agencies like NOAA and the NGS openly admit they are behind the curve in GIS and web adaption, as NOAA’s geospatial information officer Tony Lavoi intimated in his keynote speech—but there are great things being accomplished with limited resources—free stuff.

Geodetic consultant Joe Paiva, who has recently worked directly with a UAS company, concentrated on the finer points of UAS: practical considerations in both operations and aviation regulations. Joe says of the boom in UAS, “The toolbox had to get bigger to support all of these new uses.” Among the top ten list of sage advice from Emmet County, Iowa, engineer Roger Patocka’s presentation on low-distortion projections was, “Strive to understand the relationship between a feature’s measurement, its purpose on the map, and how the information will be used.”

There were plenty of examples of innovation in building a strong future for surveyors, sometimes from unlikely quarters. Ralph Busch, Dave Grossman, and crew from the California Polytechnic University MBA program were finalists in an innovation competition that is providing mentorship and seed money for their startup that seeks to develop solutions in surveying ergonomics and field workflow (with the help of a licensed surveyor, of course). We’ll keep an eye on that team.

Though a bit small and understated, the exhibits area was the gathering and kibitzing center of the event; it didn’t hurt that this was the best food of any summit so far. But seriously … how is it that so many dedicated people threw an amazing party and only around 250 chose to attend? Certainly we can cite economic factors, competition for attendees who have strong state association resources to fulfill CEU requirements, or the booming vendor conferences that offer the hardware- and software-specific needs of their respective users—and last but not least that many of the resources for which past surveyors turned to a national organization are readily available in that “cloud” so many speak of.

Some speculate that even the name “Summit” evokes (wrongfully) an outdated GIS/survey “us vs. them” theme. The ACSM/NSPS role in the Summit as well as that of co-host Esri were the subject of much side chatter and introspection. Some even wondered why certain ACSM/NSPS organizational meetings were not bundled to boost attendance and serve by example to those they wish to attract to the organization.

One cannot ignore the omnipresence of the 15,000-attendee monster next door: the Esri User Conference. Taking place following the Summit, the Esri UC tops attendance for geospatial events held in the United States, and that number included over 1,000 educators. (An amusing note: the huge comic book Comic-Con gathering the week before at the same venue drew nearly twice the attendees.)

The keynote by Esri president Jack Dangermond never fails to inspire the geo-masses: he offered, “We have to create better maps to create better outcomes,” and had end users demonstrate GIS analysis and mapping projects live. This included students enrolled in a “GIS Semester” program at Washington Lee High School in Virginia—they made online map-making and -publication look as simple as sending a document to the printer. Jack also announced upcoming 64bit functionality, ArcGIS Online (that “cloud” thing), mobile 3D, and the merger of GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, poised to add near-worldwide 30cm imagery for online Esri users (adding a new high-precision, georegistered twist to that which Google helped pioneer).

There is so much data, accessible to nearly everyone, with ever simpler but more powerful tools, so ubiquitous. That notion does weigh heavily on the minds of surveyors, but a great perspective was offered at the Summit closing session by David Totam, who is taking over the helm from outgoing Esri AEC/cadastre/survey manger Brent Jones (moving to a new position concentrating on cadastre). Totam spoke of the “unwarranted trust” that many have in so much geospatial data, and that surveyors are uniquely suited to “take on the role of assuring trust.” Totam also called for direct feedback and ideas, for surveying products and organizations of any future Summits—engagement!

Amidst all of the conversations, presentations, reorganization charts, and numerous emails on the subject of a national organization for surveyors, troubling news to some investing so much energy in preserving a national organization and voice is the reality that many surveyors admit they still have no idea what this transformation holds for them. Even more troubling are admissions that many are ambivalent about it. Consider the hand wringing over certain aspects, like a name for a national organization. Some see “ACSM” as having legacy name recognition and that the very name evokes a broader range of industry sectors. Others wonder if an organization carrying “professional surveyors” in the title may seem not inclusive to the broadening skills and disciplines of our industry future.

If a national organization is to be seen as an imperative, then wrangling over topics such as names may seem like a distraction. The key to success offered for all of the ideas and reorganization initiatives could be boiled down to one word: Engagement! Engagement by state associations in a national organization, engagement in surveying education, and encouraging further engagement in this geospatially charged world. PSM will engage in helping the process along as best we can. Keep the conversations going, provide the feedback to the organization, and above all, engage!

Gavin Schrock, PLS is a surveyor, technology writer, and operator of an RTN. He’s also on our editorial board.

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