How Much GIS Should Be Taught in Surveying Classes?

Janet Jackson, GISP and Byron Latil


Introductory GIS courses are becoming part of the surveying and civil engineering curricula to help prepare the next generation of registrants to use GIS technology.  I believe this will give the students practical tools they can apply in day-to-day activities as well as help prepare them for the next step in their careers.

Application of GIS data can improve project efficiency and offer new job opportunities in a changing work environment.  Composite maps can be quickly prepared using shape (shp) files and digital aerial photogrammetry to define approximate property boundaries, waterway locations, forested areas, and other site features.  Students can learn to use these composite maps to facilitate project planning.  

Students should learn that although the exactness of GIS data may at times lack some positional integrity, it can still be used to navigate to the vicinity of the desired features, all while inspecting the surroundings for field evidence.  These tools provide a significant advantage compared to times past when a compass and tax map or quad sheet were common issue for field reconnaissance. 

In addition to reconnaissance composite maps, students can download GIS data and use it to perform preliminary site analysis.  Elevations are extracted from the contour files to build surface models and analyze slopes and other topographic data. Similarly, parcel data can be referenced and used to automatically label multiple properties with needed property information. These tools allow the student to quickly compile and review site conditions and prepare conceptual subdivision and roadway layouts while the survey field data is being acquired.

Another pertinent reason for surveying students to learn about GIS technology is for successful completion of the NCEES FS (Fundamentals of Surveying) exam. The exam currently stipulates that 4% of the exam will cover geographic information systems.  Questions in this portion of the exam may include GIS concepts, file formats, data acquisition methods, and metadata.  It’s important that candidates
  1. recognize that all GIS data is not created equally,
  2. understand how the information can be successfully used to meet their needs, and
  3. be able to answer the exam questions correctly. 
Because all basic tenets of the technology are likely to be covered in the exam, the exam candidate who has used GIS software and studied its principles has an advantage.

Along with new technologies come new opportunities and regulations that the surveying student needs to be familiar with as he or she proceeds in a career and begins to offer professional services.   For example, Title 21, Chapter 56, Section .1608 of the North Carolina Administrative Code stipulates that the location of  “existing surface and subsurface features for the purpose of determining their accurate geospatial location for inclusion in an LIS/GIS database … shall be performed by a Land Surveyor who is a licensee of this Board unless exempt by G.S. 89C-25 …” 

This creates an opportunity of collaboration between GIS and surveying professionals that students should prepare themselves for now.  The technology used in surveying and GIS has changed significantly over the last two decades and will likely continue to progress.  This makes it important for the student to continue to acquire skills that he or she can use in the future.


“As much as possible” is my answer.  Why?  Because our world might be physically the same size as it was 10,000 years ago, but our resources, people, and cultures are becoming more dependent on technology to maintain a healthy balance.  In other words, surveyors need to understand and extend their professional reach by learning and knowing how to properly use a geographic information system. I realize that instructors also have limited resources (and time), so at a minimum I would like to see surveyors learn and successfully comprehend the following GIS subjects.

Look for map data and create an accurate base map. Gone are the days when all the important data a surveyor needed to begin a project could be found in a trip to the county land records office.  Most counties keep their land records in digital format and have them available on a custom internet site. Knowing how to find, compile, and accurately represent GIS data is very important to the surveyor. 

To do this, the surveyor needs basic computer skills that include procedures for up/downloads, data exchange via a jump drive, knowing how to create an organized file directory, and extensive copy/paste functions.  Collecting the data is just the first step in the lengthy process to creating an accurate map.  GIS software assists you to properly organize, browse, document, and search for spatial data, so learning the basics about the software is also a must for surveyors. 

Identify map objects and symbols. The fastest way to get information about a single feature is to identify it.  When you know how to properly identify an object such as a parcel, road, pond, building, etc., you will be using the data that resides “behind” the map, from the GIS database. That piece of data is called an attribute. 

This simple but very important distinction (data that resides in the database) is what makes GIS unique compared to other mapping software programs such as CAD.  Knowing how to quickly and accurately locate and identify a specific item, such as an address or tax ID number, will save a surveyor endless hours of playing hide-and-seek with old records from county land records.

Ask the map a question and watch it display the answer. A query selects features that meet specified conditions, and knowing how to create a properly constructed query is a great skill.  Why?  Because it allows you to ask specific questions about the data, such as “Show me where all the parcels are that are over one acre in size” or “Highlight each contour line that is greater in elevation than X and crosses a stream.”  Learning to use basic GIS digital tools such as a distance tool will help you assess if you are walking 50 feet or three miles from the truck to the project site.

No matter what your level of involvement is with GIS today, there is always more to learn.  I highly recommend checking out your local community college website to see if it offers “Introduction to GIS” classes. You might find an online GIS class that allows you the flexibility to do work and school at the same time.

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

Byron Latil is a professional land surveyor in Raleigh, North Carolina and is the program director for Surveying and Civil Engineering Technology at Wake Technical Community College.

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