My Survey of Geomatics

Hi there! Intern Hallie here.

I’ve had the privilege of working at AE2S for about four months now, and I must say: it’s a lot different than I was expecting. I didn’t really know exactly what “Geomatics Intern” entailed when I signed on, and it turns out it means Surveying + GIS together. My time has been split between assisting our surveyors and assisting our GIS team (collectively, the Geomatics people).

My degree falls on the GIS side (Geography/Spatial Analysis), so before I came to Grand Forks I’d had almost no exposure to surveying. I’d heard of it, of course – George Washington and several other presidents were surveyors. I’d seen people on my college campus using survey equipment, but I couldn’t name the equipment or tell how it worked. And even though I studied City & Regional Planning AND Geography, somehow the history and practice of modern land surveying wasn’t included in any of my courses, which also means I couldn’t have said why surveying is important to GIS work. Beyond the vague notion that ‘surveyors collect data’, I simply didn’t know.

So, what has surveying taught me about GIS?

#1: How you start matters.

Yes, it’s true that surveyors collect data. But they do a lot more than just pushing buttons on a GPS. The information that they research, collect, and verify serves as the starting point and foundation for construction work, legal land descriptions, engineering plans, and data systems. Notice I just described a three-step process: research, collect, verify. That’s about three times more work that goes into surveying than I realized, and each step can be very labor-intensive.

The outcome of this process is used for very real-world scenarios such as construction staking, determining who can legally do things on specific land, making extremely detailed building plans, managing infrastructure, modeling potential disasters or improvements, and making maps. Thus, having accurate, well-organized, thorough data is extremely important. And since it gets disseminated to several different parties, the easiest time to build a good foundation is at the beginning. This means being systematic, applying previous experience and outside knowledge, double- and triple-checking, and not being tempted by “the easy way” to fix an outlier data point.

#2: Technology is a double-edged sword.

Living in the technological age can be very cool. It makes GIS possible, which I think is fun and wonderful. Having all these neat and shiny pieces of survey equipment, however, can be a big pain in the butt. With all the advancements in remote sensing and computing in general, I was slightly surprised we still had to physically go places and manually push buttons. I know, silly me – but hey, I’m part of that anything-is-possible-with-technology-I-was-practically-born-with-an-iphone-in-my-hand generation. We’ve been told over and over again that our future will be so effortless that many traditional methods will be replaced. So why not surveying? (To be fair, I’m sure if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were to come back today and head out to the field with a GPS and a total station, they might think it was effortless wizardry.) While the idea of going to a place to collect data isn’t actually that surprising, the effort that can go into getting there is. We have literal trucks full of equipment, a warehouse with extra everything, a trailer with ATV’s…you get the picture. At first I thought the tools in our truck were pretty random, but in the few months I’ve gone out surveying we’ve used almost every item more than once.

Alright, my naïve and slightly absurd misconceptions aside, I did notice that even though our fancy and weatherproof contraptions save us time and resources, they still require a lot of maintenance. Calibration. Programming and software updates. They still need a person to operate them, and not just anyone but a knowledgeable person. And surveyors spend a large amount of time behind a computer screen. For all the time and effort they put into going out and collecting data, they spend an equal amount of time at a desk processing the data to ensure its extent and accuracy. Maintaining the technology that’s saving us time is time-consuming. On the one hand, we don’t have to manually crunch a lot of numbers and we don’t have to camp out in the unknown wilderness with a tripod and a shotgun. On the other hand, we still have to clean and update the equipment and sit behind a computer to organize the digital data before we can give it to other people who are going to re-organize it. Despite digital records saving paper, being easier to distribute and share in the long run, and saving those on the receiving end time, the technology can still physically distance us as people from the physical reality we are measuring and representing.

I could go on and on about the practical life lessons I’ve learned in the field – how to tow a sled with an ATV or how not to drown in waders, for instance – but the bottom line is that good GIS relies on good surveying. After following our surveyors through fields and sloughs and sewers, I now know they are some of the hardest and most conscientious workers. They’ve taught me how to avoid future frustrations by being accurate and thorough from the start, and shown me that we can’t represent reality well without still physically going there and interacting with it.

Before working at AE2S, I was never really exposed to the data side of GIS. For most of my college coursework, professors gave us the data for each assignment or gave us specific instructions about where to obtain data. We made a lot of thematic maps using Census data or manipulated and organized spreadsheets of in-house university data. Essentially this meant we spent all of our time as geographers behind a computer. As I noted before, time in front of a screen means less time out in the actual world, which can potentially distance us as individuals from the physical reality of the world as we spend all our time with representations of it rather than with the reality itself. Geography is fundamentally about the relationships between people and place, so these screen-dependent aspects of GIS always worried me.

Witnessing the partnership of surveyors and GIS has begun to open my eyes to the value of accurate representation, as well as to the challenges of using this hard-won data to keep people connected to the places around us. As George Washington once said, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” Surveying has taught me much about both, and I look forward to applying these lessons in GIS.

Intern Hallie on the job

Survey selfie (in sub-zero weather)

Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “My Survey of Geomatics

  1. Awesome post…. Such an eye opener for so many people who don’t know how hard our surveyors work in and out of the field! Take Care!

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