Land Surveying and GIS Revisited: An Unnecessary Drama

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Anyone who has worked with surveyors and GIS professionals may perceive a well-known stigma that goes along with the two. It’s a touchy subject, and both sides can be pretty stubborn about it. Surveyors may feel that GIS professionals are careless with the way they use their data. GIS professionals may insist that surveyors don’t welcome innovation. Any party who holds either belief is greatly misinformed. The fact is that when spatial data is well documented and used for the application that it is suited, conflicts and misunderstandings regarding these two geospatial practices fade. Furthermore, one may contend that there isn’t a better partnership than surveying and GIS.

Where Does the Confusion Come From?

I have had the privilege of working under exceptional land surveyors and GIS professionals. Early in my work experience, I heard grumblings from surveyors and engineers about GIS. Even back then, I didn’t understand where the tension came from. Perhaps, because I learned under both practices, I didn’t notice a conflict. I believe the apparent turbulence is born out of a lack of knowledge of each discipline.

For example, assumptions made about public data and its intended use often lead to more questions than answers.

Consider parcel lines on a map. When someone sees an aerial image of their home online depicted with a box around it, they assume that means something authoritative. If that box is labeled, “property line,” it may as well be set in stone. I have held a couple positions in which I have worked very closely with landowners. Because of my surveying background, it was just instinctive for me, a GIS guy, to have to explain that I wasn’t even in the capacity to determine property lines and that any property lines portrayed in our printed maps were not legal representations. Due to the nature of our business, many of our maps even included disclaimers explicitly stating that message. I realized that I could show a landowner where his parcel was located, but only relative to the parcel on the other side of the line. It would be up to a professional land surveyor to determine precisely where that line is. Does this mean that GIS products and services shouldn’t make parcel data visible? No it doesn’t. In my case, I was ready to deal with this simple, yet rampant, misconception. Essentially, I had a solid understanding of the difference between a survey and a map.

The Scope of Precision Varies

You wouldn’t hire a GIS consulting firm to do a boundary survey, nor would you hire a land surveyor to conduct suitability analysis for your planning project. Both land surveying and GIS are concerned with the preciseness of location as it is suited for the application of data. While one task may require exactness, another may need less precision. Land surveyors understand that there is some wiggle room for the horizontal location of an elevation benchmark or a feature in a topographic survey, and there are many instances when a GIS specialist might need to collect or acquire survey-grade data for analysis. In GIS, location is the most important quality, but still only one attribute of a piece of data. The array of fields in an attribute table may each require its own degree of precision. This is why metadata is essential. When GIS professionals correctly utilize metadata, data precision isn’t ambiguous. The bottom line is that data should be well documented and used for the purpose that it is intended. Land surveying and GIS are two different professions that deliver their own unique products to their clientele. It would serve a GIS professional well to see things from a surveyor’s perspective. Likewise, any surveyor who is well-informed about GIS sees an invaluable tool at their fingertips.

Like Apples to Apple Pie

Land surveying and GIS are complementary. The contribution to GIS by surveying is obvious. GIS is built on the measurement of location provided by the science of surveying and geodetic measurement. At the same time, surveying consultants have the opportunity to harness the power of GIS to be able to provide far more services as technology advances.

I was in a meeting the other day listening to a presentation. I heard the speaker reiterate the truth that intelligence is “actionable information,” and that GIS is providing a convergence of data to be able to identify problems and provide solutions. This is the benefit that GIS makes available for everyone, and land surveyors are no exception. Many firms have caught onto this. Groups like Sunde Land Surveying, LLC in Bloomington, Minnesota have used GIS as an in-house project management resource. Referencing a database of attributed geometry, surveyors follow hyperlinks to documents relevant to past jobs. Timesaving innovations like this keep costs low and productivity high. Furthermore, as technology like LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) becomes more mainstream applications of survey grade data in GIS do also. And what surveying consultant wouldn’t want a piece of that pie?

It seems that the integration of land surveying and GIS can be a clumsy takeoff. However, adequate knowledge by both camps and a greater public awareness prove it doesn’t have to be. Surveyors are one of the biggest contributors to GIS technology. The limitless capabilities of GIS couldn’t be a more perfect catalyst for any surveying consultant. It is clear that a partnership, if managed correctly, between these two practices truly applies information and yields intelligence, not contradiction.


Bormann, Ryan. 2006. The Development and Implementation of a GIS system for Sunde Land Surveying, LLC. Volume 9, Papers in Resource Analysis. 7pp. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota Central Services Press. Winona, MN.


Guyton, John B. “Why GIS Doesn’t Replace the Need for Surveyors.” GIS Lounge. N.p., 19 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Shrock, Gavin. “Interoperability” for the Surveying Profession.” GIS Lounge. N.p., 23 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Smith, Dave. “Epic Battles: GIS vs. Surveying?” Surveying, Mapping and GIS. N.p., 5 July 2008. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

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