Thought Leader: Technology and the Demise of Surveying…Again

“Who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
—Job 38:2

This passage came to mind when I read a recent article by Stephen L. Carter in Bloomberg Opinion-Technology and Ideas, an online news and information publication. The title of the article says it all–Land Surveyors Paying the Price of Progress.1 While the article highlights the dispute between the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors and a company called Vizaline, a matter that will be adjudicated in court, it is the author’s conclusions based on an extremely simplistic understanding of the surveying profession that I found particularly troublesome.

Concluding that GPS mapping technology will disrupt the surveying profession, Mr. Carter sympathizes with surveyors and engineers along with taxi drivers, travel agents, and factory workers as examples of others who have lost income and perhaps careers because of rapidly changing technology. The article concludes “In the particular case of land surveying, I suspect that progress will be fairly rapid–and painful. I don’t know if Vizaline will win its case, but I can confidently predict that the market for surveyors will eventually be disrupted … When those who finance big projects and big houses decide that a report that relies on GPS mapping is sufficient to mark the metes and bounds of a property, the rising tide of demand will swamp regulatory resistance.”

Where to begin? Let us forgive the author for the lack of understanding of the surveying profession. Indeed, the often-heard refrain is that the market in conjunction with rapidly changing technology will make traditional surveying a relic of the past and the need for surveyors obsolete. In an article entitled The Futurist: 101 Endangered Jobs by 2030,2 Thomas Frey listed surveying as a job that would disappear in the future. His premise was that drones would do the job surveyors do now. Farfetched, perhaps? Well, yes. But it’s not the drone itself that may replace the surveyor. Rather, it is the location technology that guides the drones that may have an impact. The certainty of location will increase exponentially as new technologies emerge. (XYO Network is an example of a blockchain crypto-location oracle network that will revolutionize many industries.)3 The need for surveyors will still be there but their role may evolve with the technology.

In the case of Vizaline and the Mississippi Board of Licensure, the question to be considered by the court is whether an algorithm that uses publicly available legal descriptions to generate lines on a satellite map constitutes land surveying. (For an example of the Vizaline product go to in footnote 1.) I will leave it to the courts to decide the issue, but the result may not be encouraging. As the Bloomberg article notes, a case heard in 2016 Pennsylvania court4 determined that an unlicensed contractor could use GPS to locate and map fixed assets of a rural electricity cooperative in a 100 square mile area. One of the more disturbing statements in the opinion of the court is “As a branch of the profession of engineering, the practice of land surveying cannot be viewed as an entirely separate field.” Most of the opinion follows this tortured explanation of why the contractor was not performing land surveying even though their website offered “GPS Surveying” as a service. The dissenting judge has it right when he opines “… by definition, a professional land surveyor is not an engineer and cannot engage in the practice of engineering…” Amen.

One constant that runs through much of the dialogue concerning the use of GPS is that it is a ubiquitous technology that cannot be claimed to fall under the purview of any particular profession. True enough. However, licensing boards don’t regulate tools (or at least they shouldn’t). Here is a useful analogy. I can purchase a good surgical scalpel. But you definitely don’t want me to operate on you. The same is true for GPS. Purchasing a GPS unit does not mean that you know how to use it or when the observable results are to be questioned. So, when the claim is made that GPS mapping will eliminate the need for surveyors, I cringe.

Vizaline has counter sued the Mississippi Board of Licensure and it has a powerful advocate. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm, has taken the case on Vizaline’s behalf. Interestingly, the claim is one of free speech infringement on the part of the regulatory board by demanding that Vizaline cease and desist its activities and return all money collected from their clients.

Some argue that boards of licensure, since they are mostly comprised of market participants, are little more than overseers of licensing cartels. I think the Institute for Justice may embrace this outlook.5 Others maintain that licensing requirements are primarily designed to protect the public and failure to do so places them at risk. I have never been very fond of government regulation of the marketplace but recognize that it plays an important role in protecting the public. I agree with Thoreau that government that governs best is that which governs least and that we should be men first and subjects afterward. But I have also experienced problems created when the incompetent or the unscrupulous are let loose on the public.

Federal antitrust laws require compelling justification for any board action that in any way limit competition in the marketplace. The New Mexico Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors strive to be balanced in their approach to regulation. We are very cognizant of the consequences of our policies on how our professions function in the market place. It is incumbent upon us to act only so far as the law allows in protection of the public.

One thought that occurred to me as I considered the issue is why aren’t more surveyors developing the sort of product offered by Vizaline? In his article, Frey identified three skills which I agree will be instrumental in charting our course forward: adaptability, flexibility, and resourcefulness. We must be able to adapt to changing circumstances and influence their direction. Rigid responses to constantly changing dynamics will lead to marginalization in the marketplace. If we attempt to do business in the next ten years the way we did business the last ten years we may not be around. In the Vizaline case, a banker saw a need and filled it. If we claim that this is a surveying activity, then surveyors should be first to the marketplace.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we are competing for the future. This is a fact whether we as surveyors choose to acknowledge it or not. I also believe we can shape our destiny. In this respect I am hopeful but not naïve. Our biography is not our destiny. It’s important to know the difference between yesterday and tomorrow. Surveyors need to create their future, or it will be created for them. Professional entropy is no match for inspired innovation. The risk is doing nothing.

Glen Thurow is a licensed surveyor and member of the New Mexico Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the board.

1 See also: