The Value of Field Notes

Why would anyone need to keep field notes in this day and age? Everything is electronically time stamped with a location pre-computed through combinations of GPS, LIDAR, imaging total stations and memorialized in the cloud through connectivity. What is left to write down in a field book? Honestly, surveyors themselves rarely measure anymore and just defer to some automated solution. Is it really necessary to write down that a machine puked out an answer for you at this position when the machine itself digitally records that event? I think it’s safe to say that automated measuring includes automated documentation of those measurements.

On the flip side the Cadastral Knights of The BLM have preserved the antiquated tradition of note keeping in the 2009 Manual of Instructions. The feds use the latest and greatest tech, so it begs the question why do they keep notes? Because they’ve done it that way for two centuries? Why is it that we can successfully retrace two-hundred-year-old surveys done by chain but struggle to figure out what happened in the private surveys of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s?

In a historical context electronic surveying hit us quickly. The baby boomers and Gen X-ers had to reinvent about 500 years of practice in a few decades in order to exploit the benefits of technology. My apologies to you Millennials. You’ll have a few issues to sort out in our wake while you continue to develop the virtual realm. Boomers are closing their traverse of life and aren’t going to be around to tell their tales much longer.

How are the future generations going to be able to retrace their work if we don’t know their methods? The growing pains of the electronic transformation have left some scars on the ground. Not necessarily blunders but small amounts of imprecision that don’t balance on the scales of naiveté. Fundamentally the art of retracement is limited to the directions and evidence left by the original surveyor. In 1968 we directly measured street centerlines, rights-of-way lines, and rear lot lines as shown on the plat. Somebody’s eyeball physically looked down those lines and deliberately set the irons precisely on that line. So a line was really set as a line. 52 years later via technology the relationship between adjoining corners on a plat is purely mathematical. Face it, you cannot tell a judge that you physically measured between the lot corners with GPS because you didn’t. Everything your GPS puked out was indirect measurement.

Let’s remember two things before we call something off a few tenths. First, our modern equipment is merely estimating an overly precise observation and secondly, monuments control. Conveying general field notes on your plat is a way to show your successors the nuances they might expect in a retracement. The BLM is spot on with this. What notes might lead someone to successfully retrace your survey? How about stating an expected level of imprecision? Perhaps noting direct or indirect observations? Do monuments, rough chaining and occupation look harmonious up and down the block? Do monuments appear to be original or subsequent? Have infrastructure and improvements changed at a certain time? Are certain fences in the block similar or different? What is the condition and height of local vegetation? How about the soil and ground? What about the road pavement conditions?

If this is starting to sound like a survey narrative, then maybe you are seeing the same opportunity that I see? Field notes are more than just a pencil sketch and numbers. The comments we present in our surveys are preserved for all of time. That incidental note about pavement or vegetation may help our successors understand why they are missing a mark.

About the Author

Jason Foose

Jason Foose is a Professional Surveyor licensed in multiple jurisdictions.