GIS? Show Me the Money!

A 1.317Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

There is a lot of talk about the role that GIS plays in business, and in society at large. I’d like to talk about what GIS means to surveyors, at least to this surveyor: my experience with GIS technology, and the way it has performed for me, convinces me that it is an excellent tool for any surveyor to have in his toolbox. Not only does it make a lot of sense for our spatially-oriented projects to use a consistent geo-centric coordinate system, but having all the relevant data and metadata associated with a project in one interface improves the efficiency, accuracy, and profitability of our work, and also increases client satisfaction. It’s an excellent business management tool and adds value to our deliverables. Let me relate how I got started with GIS, and why I think it can be the engine that drives a survey company.

The vision I had for my surveying business was to use mature, accepted technologies, like GIS, to keep up with jobs and to increase the velocity of every project step from the client placing the order to the transmittal of deliverables and invoice. I further envisioned the use of NGS control as a way to work with repeatable coordinates and the incorporation of GIS data and metadata into each plat and legal description produced. There were a lot of reasons I was thinking this way, including the dictum, "Follow the steps of the original surveyor." I wanted my footsteps to be easily retraced by future surveyors. And of course, in some cases, the "future surveyor" would be me or my coworkers, returning to a project or working near a past project. We have continually refined our methods as we learn more and better ways to meet these goals, and have seen extremely positive financial impact on our business. And there was an unexpected benefit: as word got out that we were actually implementing progressive technology, we attracted higher quality employees who wanted to work at a progressive firm. In turn, some of these employees became leaders and pushed us to the next levels of GIS use, and the use of other new technologies.

GIS is not a fad, and has been around since before Roger Tomlinson invented the term in the 1960s. Why, ESRI has been in business for 38 years! So GIS is here to stay, and if you’ve been thinking you should get into it "one of these days"” then maybe today should be the day. There’s no right or wrong time, all you really need is the interest and desire to make it happen. One of the great things about continuous learning is that we get to build on what we know and increase the speed of the "business flywheels" that are already spinning.

Let me give you some facts and real life experiences, and some opinions that you may agree or disagree with, but which will hopefully get you to thinking about the potential value of GIS to your business. I think the applications are endless, and the more I use GIS technology, the more I think that any business that deals with clients, facilities (like plants or offices), or databases can benefit from incorporating spatial data into their systems ­ and that’s a lot of businesses. I’ve worked with GIS very seriously for some time, making substantial investments of time and money, and I continue to be in awe of its seemingly limitless applications.

Just nine years ago I was in a unique position to implement my vision, due to three factors:
1) In 1994 I purchased a set of two dual-frequency GPS receivers.
2) I had good computer systems, including printers, plotters, and appropriate CAD and GIS software.
3) I was able to buy an existing survey business with good records covering several counties, and most of the projects were on Texas State Plane Coordinates. This was made possible by a surveyor who ­ before GIS and GPS! ­ saw the value of State Plane Coordinates and got very adept at using his own portable survey tower and doing resections from NGS monuments and other traverse points based on NGS control. Basically, he densified the existing network for his own use.

So these three factors were in place, and I was ready to implement my ideas, but one thing was still missing: skilled GIS talent. Fortunately for me, Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, Texas, offers a four-year GIS and Geomatics program. Over the years I have benefitted greatly from its students and graduates who educated me about the potential for managing a business with spatial data. Texas A&M was one of the first such programs, but there are many more. It’s worth checking to see if there is one near you.

In my opinion, as professionals we are obligated to provide the highest quality products and services possible to our clients. There are many tools we can use to get results, and using the right tool for the task at hand is very important. In today’s business climate, we have to work hard and we also have to work smart. Integrating GIS and surveying is a good example of working smart. That said, there is no substitute for moral and ethical behavior, which must guide the use of any specific tool. Even an excellent GIS is not a substitute for paper field notes, high quality research, a good knowledge of survey practice and case law, and regional knowledge.

GIS can be an invaluable tool in most if not all areas of a survey business. In our firm, the first thing we do when taking in a new project is enter it into the GIS as accurately as possible, using research and information from the client. Then we can obtain all relevant projects in the area, recover existing control that may be helpful, find useful NGS monuments, get quads and aerials, and more, all before the crew is even scheduled for field work. This pre-planning, plus a sketch, helps us to follow in the steps of the original surveyor ­ sometimes we can even calculate "navigate to" coordinates for the crew. This is an incredible tool that gets better and better as your GIS is populated with projects and associated information. In turn, field work refines the available information and increases the accuracy of the GIS.

The real fun starts when people in your company start buying in and get interested in improving and using the GIS. The basic principle is, the more you get in there the more useful it is, and the more efficiently you work. And as people see the usefulness of the GIS increase, they’re motivated to add to it, making it yet more useful ­ it’s a nice feedback loop. As an example, crews will start tying in points ­ like right-of-way monumentation and existing control ­ that they might previously have dismissed as extraneous. And they’ll note more and better information about things like monument condition, accessory monuments, and whatever is relevant in your region.

There are, of course, potentially problematic GIS issues that need to be considered. It’s fine to use published coordinates, for instance, but be very aware of datum, projections, calculations, etc. And some areas will be harder than others to tie in to your system, mainly due to GPS limitations in areas with obstructed horizon. But we’ve found that the extra effort to bring in grid coordinates is well worth it. In our case, we work on NAD27 because that’s what the Texas oil and gas industry works on. We have to be aware of the conversion from GPS’s more commonly used WGS84 datum, and we always store raw GPS vectors to facilitate conversions and to ensure the quality of our base mapping.

In addition to project planning and research, an in-place GIS system also helps with project management. We use our GIS to track jobs and keep them on schedule by noting if it’s in progress, completed and not invoiced, or completed and invoiced. Also, the project number is a good way to link and keep track of relevant files
and folders, as I will explain in detail in a future writing. For now, it’s important to realize that having an up to date database tied to a spatial coordinate system is a good way to track all sorts of relevant information. For instance, I regularly query the GIS for all projects that aren’t invoiced, and can also see who’s assigned as project manager, who’s the client, where the work is located, what research has been done, completion status, and much more. It helps me to see where I can pitch in to keep projects moving along. This sort of reporting, together with follow up, really improves the internal communication at our firm and reduces unwarranted assumptions about who is doing what, and what has been done ­ after all, it’s all in the report… or should be.

The database can also be used to send e-mail to the workers producing deliverables, and remind them that products and invoices have been sent out. These transmittals can then be followed up on to ensure client satisfaction. There are two advantages to this, which are not truly GIS related (they’re not spatial in nature), but they’re implemented by the GIS. The first is that your employees will get feedback on the work they’ve done, and usually this will be positive, building morale. And also, it serves as a gentle reminder to the client that the invoice is now due and payable. This has had a good effect on our company’s cash flow and economic growth, and it could do the same for you.

GIS has proven its value for the investment of time, energy, and money to our company. By sharing this information, my goal is to help others who are looking for a competitive edge.

Robert Young is president and principal surveyor of Young and Associates Surveying and Mapping, and co-owner and Senior Vice President of Digital Mapping Services, LP, a GIS company. He holds a BS from Tarleton State University in Agriculture Economics. He is actively involved in the Texas Society of Professional Land Surveyors and other groups, and regularly conducts courses for surveying and GIS applications in Texas and other states.

A 1.317Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE