Civic Duty – A Visit to Civic Engineering and Information Technologies

A 1.550Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

We’ve shared them before–stories about surveyor fathers and the sons who not only followed in their footsteps, but took the career to a whole new level.

Clifton Ogden grew up in Gulf Shores, Alabama with a civil engineer father who enjoyed surveying. Ogden recalled his first summer in the field, spent locating wetlands. He used a T-16 and booked everything. From there, he moved on to a T-1000, gathering info in a 41CX atop a Hayes 41 Data Collector Module.

In 1998, Ogden obtained a civil engineering degree from Auburn. Afterwards he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and worked for a 200-person multi-discipline engineering and IT firm that was subbing out $1.5­2 million a year in survey work. He convinced the company to let him start a survey department, and over time, hired licensed surveyors and ended up with 5-­6 crews. In 2003, Ogden moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and in 2004, Civic Engineering and Information Technologies, Inc. (Civic) was founded, offering GIS and IT consulting services to the local market.

Today Civic has over 20 employees, and has fared quite well despite the national economic downturn. Deeply involved in geodetic positioning and GIS technology, the company has expanded into several disciplines, including municipal and state design and infrastructure inspection work, asset management, and BIM for water and wastewater plants. Ogden mentioned an APWA-award-winning 1909 pedestrian bridge in Nashville, for which Civic performs a bi-annual inspection. The firm has used GPS and GIS to create a 3-D model of the bridge to "attach" condition inspection data and photo-logs. While Civic has three licensed surveyors on staff, the firm is highly geared toward precision GIS data collection projects and only performs boundary surveying occasionally. Ogden’s wife Jennifer has a degree in geology, and a lot of experience in information technology and business management. She presides as full-time president of Civic.

Still, Ogden recalled how difficult it was to establish a reputation when they first started. This was accomplished by partnering with other firms until Civic had made a name for itself. Today’s lagging economy has put new demands on the RFP process; for example, a recent Metro Nashville annual surveying services contract, which in the past may have had six or seven firms respond, had 17 respondents, of which only Civic and two other firms were selected to receive on-call contracts.

The firm holds many certifications for IT and inspection. Early on, Ogden realized the need for strength in IT, recognizing the increased efficiency made possible with today’s digital tools. "IT allows us to integrate different systems and that, along with having subject matter experts in our company, gives us a distinct advantage in the market," says Ogden. He added, "The integration of technology and data allows automation." As an example, he used Nashville’s 311 system that Civic implemented for the Nashville Public Works Department. The FCC created 311 to take the load off of 911 call centers. Now, for any non-emergency government service (such as reporting a pothole or water main break), citizens can dial 311. In the past, when such an event was reported, a city worker would come out and look for it in the block specified. Today the worker gets an accurate GPS location, and the repair crew doesn’t waste any time searching up and down the street. Of course, this is all tied to an accurate GIS. Ogden says, "Cities are heavily leveraging their GIS data, and data creation and maintenance can be a goldmine for surveyors. For us, it might not be as fun and glamorous as boundary surveying, but in this economy we have found it to be better at paying the bills."

Ogden knew that GNSS would be critical. The company uses the Tennessee DOT’s 40-station RTN extensively. "The cell-based RTN works much better than radio-based RTK," he says. Expertise is required for maximum accuracy, and Ogden decries users who don’t understand map projections or the need to have the equipment settings right. Many GNSS users, he says, are not employing good survey practices such as checking in to a known point. Some are not localizing/ calibrating properly, nor are they using a scale factor to get from grid to ground. Some aren’t even sure what the RTN is broadcasting, for example NAD or SPC!

As an example of the need for accuracy, Ogden discussed a storm water study Civic performed: Based on an existing GIS, 80 percent of the items Civic QC’ed were wrong, and no third-party checks had been made. Because precise hydraulic modeling and system capacity is based on manhole locations and geometry for connectivity and capacity, Ogden says you don’t want interns or non-surveyors doing the location work. Simply training a person on the equipment for one day and then turning them loose doesn’t work. Furthermore, Ogden believes that licensed surveyors should be responsible for location work, or what he calls data creation. "Multi-million dollar decisions are being made based on GIS data that is assumed correct and accurate, yet there is currently no professional licensure required to create or administer this data. To me, the accuracy of certain GIS data sets is as important as a properly established property line shown on a plat."

The company is heavily involved in GIS all the way up to the state level. Ogden has been nominated to be on the board of the Tennessee Geographic Information Council. While he was still in Birmingham, the Alabama governor appointed him to the Alabama Geographic Information Council. An ESRI shop, Civic uses Cityworks (an ESRI-based asset management system) and Cartegraph (for pavement management) for its customers. Nine people on the staff are dedicated to IT, and Civic runs ESRI’s ArcGIS Desktop and Server products.

Civic has been using ArcPad for quite some time, but being a longtime Javad user, the company recently started using the new Javad ArcPad Extension (I wrote about the new extension in my ESRI User Conference recap in the August 2009 issue). Ogden still has a Javad Legacy receiver he purchased in 1998, and speaks very highly of the gear and the support he has received from Javad. He added that response to support inquiries can be as little as five minutes, but in no case has been more than 24 hours. He mentioned several suggestions that he had made regarding the Tracy software and said Javad quickly implemented them. The company is using the Javad Victor controller, running Tracy, but because Tracy only does GNSS, Civic is using Carlson software on the Victor for its total stations. Ogden sees promise in Javad’s Triumph 4X because it means that the rod doesn’t have to be plumb. He said, "The 4x mitigates the issue of "bad fixes" that can occur with (any) single RTK rover set up. Currently–for critical work–our practice is to do multiple/ separate RTK initializations and corresponding shots to mimic independent baselines. The 4x will eliminate that process due to the "real-time multiple baselines." An expert with Javad’s GREIS scripting language from before, Ogden is pleased that GREIS is now easily executed through the Tracy software.

Regarding the ArcPad extension, Ogden says that once the network connectivity has been correctly established between the controller, receiver and the ArcGIS Server, "it just works." He says the extension is quite a technological feat because not only is
the GSM modem being used for RTN corrections, it’s also enabling ArcPad to communicate directly with the ArcGIS database back at the office. With the extension, for the first time, he can now control the RTK receiver from within ArcPad and make survey-grade real-time edits to the GIS database while in the field. Additionally, multiple users can now interact with the database (no more checking out/checking in). Civic is able to see where people are working and the workers can see where co-workers are. Ogden says the real-time view is a great productivity tool. Bottom line for Civic: the extension melds GIS and RTK for GIS data collection, although Ogden feels that it does blur the distinction between GIS and surveying.

In my opinion, as a company that has successfully survived the long economic downturn as a result of wise diversification, Civic represents the future of surveying. Only indirectly tied to land development, the company has identified niches that allow it to apply its expertise to implement technology. Part of the equation is IT, part of the equation is GIS, part is GNSS, and the remaining part is just sound positioning and measurement practices.

Ogden will sit for his LS exam this fall. His father, in whose footsteps he followed, is now 80 years old, and is still active in the profession. He works as a consultant for Civic because of his vast experience and was recently invited by ASCE to go to China to be on an advisory board. The changes in technology from one generation to the next have been astounding. For any young surveyors today whose sons or daughters may follow in their paths, one wonders if even our wildest imaginations can predict where their roads will lead.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

A 1.550Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE