Where Are the Professionals?

Point cloud image Where are the Professionals?

Where are the Professionals is a guest article by Curtis Clabaugh.

Are the epic battles between the engineering surveying and planning/GIS professions beginning to resurface with emerging technologies fueling the fire?  I believe they are with changes in technology being the driving force.

The new tools allowing for the capture of data are likely to bring about changes to all the disciplines.  I believe educational requirements, industry regulation, statutory requirements and registration of qualified individuals need to be advanced to resolve issues amongst the professions.

The technologies used in data collection today have allowed for almost magical black box solutions in surveying and mapping to flourish.  Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, handheld devices providing both ranging and imagery capabilities, software developments providing solutions for photogrammetry and lidar, and changes in the speed of collection with advancements in lidar and photogrammetry have opened several new opportunities.  These same advancements have also given non-professionals a pathway to encroach on areas requiring direct supervision by a professional.

Quality issues, or in my world precision and accuracy, are becoming more complicated as new digital data capture technologies develop.  Quantity issues derived from speed of collection using drones, mobile lidar, and improved camera systems allow pixel and point data to be at millions of points per second.

At the same time these systems have become more user-friendly.  In doing so they provide opportunities to a host of new users that can generate results without the education and training that once were required with the more traditional tools of the trade.

I believe there is a growing disconnect between being able to produce black box results and ensuring professional responsibility for the work.  Having the skill set to understand the details of the project, being able to resolve issues, make recommendations and being in compliance with regulatory requirements should be paramount.

The requirements to be a licensed professional were established to protect the public, not to protect the profession.  Professional licensure is the standard recognized by the public as an assurance of the skills and ability to provide the accepted quality and responsibility for the work.

So, here are a few of my opinions and observations about problematic conflicts.

I believe that the land surveying community has at times been too focused on boundary work and not as much about being the geospatial measurement and data collection experts.  Legally and professionally they are the recognized people licensed to perform those activities.

It is completely understandable when the end user of GIS products finds data in public records which may be construed to represent property boundaries.  We have seen that argument made repeatedly in point – counterpoint articles.

Where I see the growing problem is when the creation of maps and georeferenced databases representing the location of assets such as buildings, roads and other man-made features, along with topographic features isn’t collected under the supervision of recognized and legally responsible professionals. These 3D georeferenced databases may have been collected by non-professionals and then the derived products provided to the public or used internally within organizations can appear to be survey grade products.

The collection and associated metadata should support the preparation and perpetuation of field note records and maps depicting these features to allow for certification of positional accuracy of maps and/or measured survey data.  A disclaimer statement should provide product users a clear distinction concerning the quality of the measurements used to create survey grade products, versus general mapping/GIS products.

With the desire to establish viable asset management solutions, many agencies have turned to the planning groups who use GIS as the mechanism to catalog and inventory data.  When used for general planning purposes, this is typically the proper approach.  The problem arises when the information is extracted and used for a higher accuracy application that it was not intended for and most likely it wasn’t collected by a professional capable of signing and sealing the work.

A stronger relationship between the surveying and mapping community and the GIS community would be the first step in addressing this long-standing problem.  Each group truly has an important role that they play in the use of geospatial data.

The next step would be the collaborative effort of both the surveying and GIS groups to have their deliverable products for planning or engineering indicate the differences.  To use information derived from the GIS world to perform engineering project development, designers need to know the quality of the data and the level of professional involvement that was used such that one application is building on the professionalism of the other.

The adage about “collect once and use many times” is becoming much more prevalent with today’s technologies.  Aerial platforms have multiple sensors capable of collecting lidar and imagery simultaneously.  Mobile lidar systems also use these same sensors but may also include sensors used for pavement analysis or sensing of underground features.  The advantage to these multiple sensor solutions is to not only support asset management applications, but to also support engineering solutions if properly controlled.  A substantial reduction in survey costs can be obtained by using survey grade equipment and professional involvement up front.

There is an ongoing effort throughout the nation for agencies to become more compliant with the requirements of the American Disabilities Act.  Remote sensing technologies are providing not only rapid asset collection for use in a prioritization strategy, but by using the point cloud and imagery a large amount of the needed survey data can be rapidly collected.  Once again, the key is to use qualified professionals in the beginning to avoid conflicts and ensure compliance.

My recommendation is that now is the time to establish model laws and regulations, so that the planning/GIS and surveying engineering professions can work collaboratively to optimize the value of each profession, and ultimately be adaptive to the new technologies and procedures that not only benefit the professions but the general public.


Curtis Clabaugh, PE, PPS, was previously with the Wyoming Department of Transportation for nearly 43 years, including 25 years as State Photogrammetry and Surveys Engineer.  Curtis is now with ESP Associates where he is doing business development, project support, remote sensing, mobile scanning and asset mapping.

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  • Excellent article in a world where data is exponentially proliferating without knowing the quality of the data thereby leading to miscalculations and poor decisions. Certified expertise/algorithms in capturing, processing, cleaning, curating and analyzing the data is a must!

  • This is a very interesting article, thank you.
    Today, massive and complex data are easier to collect, thanks to the democratization of drone, Lidar, etc., but still difficult to exploit. As you say, quality issues, accuracy, millions of points or poly… We need to collaborate to optimize the value of each professions

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