GIS & Surveyors—The Long and Winding Road

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My father loved talking to people about land surveying. Among other things, he would often say, "When I started in this business, I used the same instruments as George Washington." He would further explain that over the years everything changed. He would then click down the list: calculators, theodolites, USGS topographic maps, aerial photos, EDM’s, total stations, GPS receivers, computers, etc. He would then switch to the office side of the business and talk about drawing plats by hand and how that is now done on computers.

In discussing the changes he had seen in land surveying, I don’t think he ever included geographic information systems in that list. In fact, I don’t think he ever figured out where GIS fit into a Land Surveyor’s toolbox—or if it really did.

Who are we?
I came into management of my father’s company at a time when responsible management practices required business executives to think more broadly about the businesses they were in. As an example, it was said that the managers of the railroad companies of the early twentieth century thought of themselves as "being in the railroad business." We were told that these managers should have thought of themselves as being in the transportation business. It was said that if they had done so, they might have transitioned to become aviation companies as well.

Encouraged by these management theories, we took a broader view of our company and our work. After a lot of meetings and soul searching, we decided that we were a geographic information company. We even developed a mission statement that said so:

"In order to be a leader in the geographic information industry, we must be committed to constantly improving our services and our expertise. We must provide accurate information in many forms to a diverse customer base at a fair price…"

Looking back, I think it’s reasonable to ask: Was the soul searching and subsequent mission statement a worthwhile exercise?

From the reflection of decades of hindsight, we can easily say that the answer is: Definitely yes. The exercise was worthwhile, because it required us to think about our products. It required us to take a fresh look at the plats we were sending out. It caused us to think about providing data to our clients in new ways. It required us to work at being compatible with the computer systems of our clients.

As was reflected by our mission statement, we thought of ourselves as a geographic information company. As such, when intelligent mapping systems came along, they fit into our view of who we were. We wanted desperately to learn more about these systems, but we just couldn’t justify a pricey workstation and the expensive software that went with it.

When GIS for PC’s became available, we jumped in with both feet. We became zealots. We hosted seminars and offered GIS training. We sold GIS systems. We were a dealer for a time for both Autodesk and ESRI. We assisted several clients with their GIS implementations. We were enthusiastic missionaries for this new technology. We had enough vision to see the benefits that our customers could expect from GIS. We worked hard and were dedicated, but that didn’t mean all was well.

As with many others of that era who sold GIS, our track record with installations was mostly a string of disappointments. Most of the time our clients got what they were promised, but all too often the technology was too complicated for their end users. It became a running commentary within our group that the people who were supposed to benefit from GIS didn’t want anything to do with it.

After banging our heads against the wall for a number of years, we dialed back our GIS zealotry. We decided to let the market and our clients show us where to go.

Like fine wine…
While we weren’t watching, GIS was maturing. The systems were becoming easier to use, and their costs were coming down. Digital maps were becoming an important part of nearly everyone’s life—even coming to our cell phones.

Regarding our internal GIS…
We can’t help but look at all the new uses for computer maps through the prism of our GIS experience. Taking something as complicated and huge as maps of the world and making them simple to use for even the most non-technical person is amazing. I have to tip my hat to the developers and geographic data specialists who made that possible. They have provided a wonderful service to mankind.

We had to think smaller. We had to figure out how this technology made sense for us. Maybe not surprisingly, we think the most significant benefit we’ve gotten from GIS is the use of it internally.

One example is our database of survey control. Keeping track of all the surveys we’ve done over the years has been a neverending challenge. As our footprint has grown, the problem has gotten significantly worse. For the first few decades of our existence, "found" corners were plotted on USGS quads. That worked and was actually fairly innovative. But over time, the maps became overcrowded with information. At a point we started using AutoCAD drawings to catalog our control, but that has limitations as well.

Now we use an Internet-based, internally-developed program called LandScape. This GIS is the brainchild of our on-staff lead GIS professional. Contract programmers under his direction for the past several years have created and refined its capabilities.

Once a land surveying project has been completed, its CAD files, GPS data, and related project information are added to LandScape. Once added, it can be instantaneously accessed by those who need it. Whether it’s a year later, two years later, or ten years later, we’ll know where we’ve previously worked.

LandScape is also used by some of our clients. At times, it has been a good way to interface with them and better manage their projects. We have found that different size clients have different needs. Landscape has proven to be flexible enough to be used by big and small clients alike. We have found that small clients cannot justify the expense of maintaining their own GIS. Landscape can be a viable solution for them.

Landscape is also scalable. Clients with highly advanced GIS systems of their own can communicate and consume GIS data directly. Most of our advanced clients never log into Landscape but still consume its data through their own mapping applications.

The new GIS paradigm for us…
GIS has become a core competency for us. Significantly, somewhere between a quarter and a third of our land surveying work comes to us because we are good at GIS. Since we are knowledgeable and experienced with GIS, we can be responsive to our customer’s GIS needs. We have learned to provide our products in digital, GIS friendly formats.

(I don’t really like the word "formats". I don’t think it describes well enough the robustness of what is needed by our clients.)

For us, GIS is a wide variety of deliverables. GIS has become a product in its own right, not just something we convert our real product into. As an example, we have plat/alignment sheet products. These are the deliverables the clients are buying. They aren’t going away, but fewer clients actually receive a piece of paper from us. They want PDF’s.

We have had to remain nimble and flexible. We are constantly redesigning our work processes for the GIS era. The time is coming—and for some clients is already here—when PDFs are not enough. They don’t want just a picture; they want the geography and the intelligence behind the picture. They want it all, and they want it to be easy.

With my qualification for Social Security well-earned and my Medicare card safely stashed in my billfold, I feel like I might have earned a soapbox. And my opinion is this: It’s time for surveyors to grab the brass ring of professionalism and understand where we fit into the information society. As land surveyors, we need to stake out our territory as the undisputed champions of geographic accuracy. We must ever promote the benefits of accurate, on-the-ground measurements.

We need to see ourselves as the land surveying component of the geomatics discipline—sharing that space with GIS and geodetic professionals. If there are remnants of that time when land surveyors were fighting GIS professional, we need to get over it. If there are lingering doubts about GIS, it’s time to get past them.

Surveyors can’t be GIS professionals. GIS professionals can’t be surveyors. Each discipline is too broad and too deep. Mechanical engineers are seldom chemical engineers. Chemical engineers are seldom mechanical engineers. Do they overlap? Yes. Do they understand the difference? Yes. Are they both professionals? Yes.

Let’s make sure that we appreciate the professionalism that a GIS expert brings to our projects. Working together, we can continue to be relevant in an ever evolving high-tech world.

J. Robert Keating has been CEO of Topographic, Inc. since 1990. Founded by his father in 1958, Topographic has become one of the largest land surveying firms in the nation. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, it offers land surveying and GIS services to energy companies and currently has active projects in 11 states.

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A 3.587Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE