Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

Terrestrial scanners—collecting 30,000 points per second at a range of 500 feet with consistent 4mm accuracy—and mobile mapping systems—collecting 600,000 points per second at highway speeds with centimeter accuracy—are just a few of the new products I’ve looked at over the last month or so. A few years ago numbers like this were unimaginable, mainly because they represent an amount of data that would have been considered unmanageable.

The data, information, knowledge, wisdom hierarchy (DIKW) has become one of the more accepted ways to discuss the interrelated nature of what’s involved in understanding a problem. Generally, information is defined in terms of data, knowledge in terms of information, and wisdom in terms of knowledge.

From our perspective the DIKW hierarchy looks something like this. Data represents objective facts, the XYZ coordinates that define a specific point. Information differentiates data and allows it to be processed; the description provided by the field crew to uniquely define the data is information. Knowledge is information processed and structured so it can be put to work; you can get the XYZ coordinates and descriptions for two manholes and process that information to gain the knowledge of the distance and slope between them. Wisdom is the “appreciation of why”—it’s what the knowledge about the relationship between the manholes tells you about their current and potential use.

One of the concerns many surveyors had about integrating scanning into their business was the overwhelming amount of data to process. And from some of the stories I’ve heard, these concerns were valid. The current generation of scanning technology is collecting more data than ever, but it is the evolution of the processing software that is going to change the game, and the major manufacturers are acknowledging this by their acquisition of firms that develop software to analyze and process lidar data.

Some of the more recent developments incorporate the ability to categorize the captured data by the reflectivity of the point measured to, for example automatically placing road signs and highway striping data on separate layers. Not only is the collected data being tagged with information, the next generation of software is moving one more step up the DIKW hierarchy to knowledge. The ability to recognize features such as railroad rails and road curbing has paved the way for software that will automatically extract the alignment information for transportation corridors. And all this information (and knowledge) is being exported and integrated directly into both CAD and GIS platforms. Not only is the problem of data bottlenecks in the office being addressed, but also the solutions are pushing farther up the chain, simplifying procedures that weren’t considered part of the data problem.

Scanning, either with dedicated equipment or integrated into total stations, represents the blurring of the boundaries between surveying, mapping, GIS data collection, and the future of topographic surveying. The firms that recognize this today are the equivalent of the firms that were scoffed at for first investing in GPS because, as we all knew at the time, that technology was too expensive and esoteric to ever gain a foothold in the traditional surveying business, right?

About the Author

  • James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS, owns Antietam Land Surveying in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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