GIS and Surveying

Are our goals really that far apart?

by Janet Jackson, GISP and Coleen Johnson, PLS

With this month’s column we introduce a new twist. Janet is now “intersecting” with a variety of professionals, such as CAD technicians, vendors, professional business developers, and surveyors from around the county who show an interest and commitment to working with GIS daily. Of course, Randy Rambeau will join in the discussion occasionally.



Our goals might not be that far apart, but how we accomplish those goals is clearly by different methods. That’s okay, because we represent two different professions. 

Yes, I agree surveying and GIS are geospatial fields responsible for separate and distinct subject matter so that citizens and clients benefit. That is not much different than professionals in other fields.  Doctors and nurses are both working on behalf of patients, yet they have different skill sets, knowledge (hopefully that overlaps), and levels of authoritative responsibility.  Surveyors and GIS professionals are both working on behalf of their clients, who vary from federal/state/city/county agencies to private companies to individual citizens. 

Another goal we share is producing accurate, complete, clearly documented, and timely results. At the beginning of a project, often the professional is clear about his or her role and responsibilities but not about the results or final outcome of the project.  For both GIS and surveying professionals, the outcome should not determine how professional duties are performed. 

Each profession is governed by a code of ethics with specific guidelines that govern the professional’s behavior and work tasks and “help preserve and enhance public trust in the discipline.” The GISP code of ethics includes guidelines such as, “Do the best work possible; contribute to the community to the extent possible, feasible, and advisable; speak out about issues; call attention to emerging public issues; and identify appropriate responses based on personal expertise.”  I don’t know the guidelines included in the surveying code of ethics, but I’m sure they are similar to these.

Having common goals is important, but narrowing the goal gap is equally important.  In that regard, a contentious issue between the surveying and GIS professions is the fact that surveyors are licensed whereas GIS professional are certified. For many surveyors, that particular difference seems to keep our true goals and objectives at odds, as many believe the weight of professional responsibility is not equal. 

That issue is being quickly and efficiently addressed by the leading GIS software manufacturer and the Geographic Information System Certification Institute (GISCI).  With the goal to objectively quantify the GIS professionals’ technical proficiency with Esri technologies, Esri has developed a tri-level, tiered technical certification program, and the GISCI is working toward an examination requirement as well.  No matter which examination is pursued by the GIS professional, both area step in the right direction toward upholding a technical competence that is respected by all professions.

Even though surveyors and GIS professionals are responsible and required to thoroughly know completely different subject matter—just like doctors and nurses—we both share the common goal of wanting what’s best for our clients and society.  Both professions are governed by ethics that represent the guidelines for our professional behavior and work results.  And in the near future, the GISP will be required to prove his or her technical proficiency by examination.  So, in the words of author M. Scott Peck, “Share our similarities, celebrate our differences,” and in the words of GIS Janet, “Look for common goals.”



No, I don’t believe our goals are far apart at all.  Although much has been written about the differences between surveying and GIS in the past few years, our professions have much more in common than not.  I recognize our professions as being a part of a bigger geospatial community (along with photogrammetrists, cartographers, et al.). 

Both surveyors and GIS professionals are geospatial experts within the geospatial industry.  Surveyors are the expert measurers, geodetic data providers, and property boundary delineators, while GIS professionals are the experts in performing spatial analyses and database development and producing maps and other presentations from a variety of geo-referenced data within a GIS. (Such presentation maps are also produced by cartographers from a GIS.)  The GIS profession is a mixture of computer science, records research, math, history, engineering, and geography,while the surveying profession is a mixture of law and records research as well as math, history, engineering, and geography.

Surveyors and GIS professionals are generally like-minded when it comes to the passion they have for their professions and the interests that drive them toward their careers.  It has been my experience that both professional surveyors and GIS professionals are very interested in contributing to and playing an active role within the geospatial industry. 

An inherent part of being a “professional” is adhering to a code of ethics/conduct and contributing to the advancement of the profession by writing articles, actively participating in professional societies, and attending conferences in an effort to stay abreast of the latest technologies and techniques within the industry.  By collaborating with other professionals in the geospatial community in the sharing of ideas and offering of solutions to problems and issues that affect us both, we create a win-win situation.

Most surveying professionals who have been exposed to and been a part of a GIS recognize the value that the GIS professional brings to the team, and vice versa.  We both play a significant role when it comes to collecting, producing, analyzing and presenting the data within a GIS.  Surveyors develop the control for the digital orthophotos that often serve as base maps, collect various data and attributes,determine the boundaries of real properties and the location and relationship of the manmade features within those boundaries, and develop survey plats and descriptions and other products that often become a part of a GIS.  In addition, surveyors are important stakeholders in the planning, development, and maintenance of any GIS.

The impending change of the GISP certification to an examination-based certification will go a long way towards validating the GISP.  That being said, there is a distinct difference between “certification” and “licensure.”  Certification is a voluntary process to acknowledge individuals who have met a recognized body of knowledge and skills.  Licensure is a non-voluntary process to grant an individual the right to practice within his or her profession and is always based on the action and regulation of a legislative body.

I had the pleasure of meeting Janet at a networking event at the 2011 ACSM/Esri Survey Summit, and we both recognized the opportunity to work together on this article.  What better way is there to demonstrate that we share common goals?

If you have a topic idea or would like to be a guest co-author to present your side of the story, please submit your idea to or call 919-417-0894.

Janet Jackson, GISP, is certified as a GIS professional and is president of INTERSECT, a GIS consulting firm. 

Coleen Johnson is a registered professional land surveyor in Texas and a certified project management professional.  She works for Lone Star Transmission, LLC, in Austin, Texas, and is the current president of the Geographic & Land Information Society (GLIS), a past president of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors (TSPS), and a past chair of the TSPS GIS Committee.  

» Back to our November 2011 Issue