Surveying and Mapping Redefined

By Jim Gillis, NSLS, CLS, RPLS

A long time ago, more years than I care to admit, I obtained my first employment in surveying. One of the principals, a licensed surveyor, had in his office a one-page, humorous description of what we do, entitled “What Is a Survayer?” It described in detail the trials and tribulations of survey field work and ended with the line, ”I don’t know why anybody wants to be a survayer.” Some of you may have read it.

Well, we have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, since that description circulated throughout the surveying and mapping industry. With the expansion and diversification of this industry and with the resulting debate over what we should term ourselves, perhaps this is a good time to investigate the nomenclature being used and how it was derived.

The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that the word “surveyor” comes from the late 14th-century Anglo-French noun “surveiour.” This dictionary also indicates the following: The use of the verb “survey” as ”to take linear measurements of a tract of land” dates from the 1540s.

The term “geodesy,” a form of surveying, dates from the 1560s and comes from the Greek word “geodaisia,” meaning “division of the earth,” compared to “geometria,” an even older Greek word meaning “measurement of land.”

“Mapping,” without a doubt related to surveying, dates from the 1600s.

“Engineer” is a word also from the 14th century—at that time, interestingly, meaning “constructor of military engines.” For anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you may recall the line where the Danish prince, after murdering Polonius, says:

“For ‘tis the sport, to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard:”

Perhaps this is a reference to Shakespeare’s lack of regard for those military engineers of his time who often inadvertently blew themselves to bits while trying to “wreak havoc” on their enemies? In a more modern context, engineering, meaning “work done by engineers,” is from the 1720s, and as a field of study from the 1790s.

What about the new terminology that has emerged in the last 50 years or so? “Geometronics,” “geomatics,” “geospatial,” “geographic information system/science (GIS),” “geoinformatics” … where did these words come from and what do they mean? Unlike the much older words that I discussed above, the meaning of these terms to a large degree seems to be still evolving, and it sometimes depends on whom you ask as to what the definitions should be.

The first of these, “geometronics,” is a term suggested by Walter S. Dix in the 1950s to encompass the broad spectrum of surveying and mapping.

Next came the term “geographic information system,” first coined by geographer Dr. Roger Tomlinson in about 1960 to describe the harnessing of computer technology and digital mapping into a database for scientific analysis of geo-referenced data of many types. In more recent times, the acronym GIS has been adopted and modified to encompass the term “geographic information science” so as to indicate that those three letters refer to a science as opposed to a commonly used software.

The word “geomatics,” on the other hand, seems to have had a more complex development. First expressed in French as “geomatique” by Bernard Dubuisson in the late 1960s, it was a combination of two words (or partial words): “geo,” meaning land, and “-matique,” meaning computer or data processing. The earliest use of this word seemed to refer to the automatic processing of geographic data, somewhat like the early use of “geographic information system.”

Later, it appears that the term was either re-invented or re-applied by Michel Paradis especially for his address to the 100th anniversary annual meeting of the Canadian Institute of Surveying (now the Canadian Institute of Geomatics), in 1982. Interestingly for me, I attended this convention though I cannot remember the introduction of this term. “Geomatique” has been officially defined in the French language to mean, in my very poor translation, a discipline for the purpose of managing spatially referenced data applied to science and technology as they relate to acquisition, storage, treatment, and dissemination. Geomatics applies primarily to disciplines such as topography, cartography, geodesy, photogrammetry, remote sensing and data processing.

Unfortunately, “geomatics,” seemingly adopted directly from the French language, does not have an official definition in English, and it does not even show up in the Online Etymology Dictionary. It has acquired widespread use in Canada and has been adopted in many other parts of the world. A Canadian colleague, when asked about his firm’s use of the term, indicated that it projected a broader expertise and more professional image that justified better remuneration. That to me is a completely valid reason given the significant liability that we incur in our day-to-day practice.

“Geoinformatics,” which is also widely used, seems to be a parallel word to “geomatics.” In the French language, “geoinformatique” is a combination of “geo” and “informatique” (meaning computer or data processing) and so would appear to be interchangeable with “geomatics.”

The term “geospatial,” interestingly, seems to be generic enough not to cause much confusion. Most agree that it refers to or characterizes an Earth-referenced location.

Black’s Law Dictionary is often used as an authoritative reference text by lawyers, judges, and anyone concerned with legal definitions. It does not include any of these recently created words, but it does define these more ancient nouns as follows: “survey – 16th century – the measuring of a tract of land and its boundaries and contents” and “surveyor – one who surveys land and buildings.”

Now that we have an idea of where each of these words originated, how should we use them, and why? It appears to me that both “geomatics” and “geoinformatics” quite clearly refer to what was called, for many years, maybe centuries, the broad field of surveying and mapping. We can refer, for instance, to the creation of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping in 1941 in order to better coordinate the following activities: geodesy, cartography, land surveying, GIS/LIS, and topographic surveying.

As many are aware, surveying includes several different categories, which is similarly the case with engineering. Geodetic surveying, plane surveying, construction surveying, seismic surveying, hydrographic surveying, mine surveying, route surveying, and so on are all types of surveying wherein measurements are taken in the field and applied, usually in the office, to a final product.

The one class of surveying in North America (and a few other places) that is unique compared to all the others is land surveying because, in order to practice land surveying, each state or province requires the surveyor to pass exams dealing with the laws of boundaries that are specific to that jurisdiction.

This must be the case because, if you are dealing with property rights and ownership, the rights held dearest to those living in a democracy, you must prove a knowledge of the laws of real property in order to impartially apply those laws to the boundaries under survey. A surveyor may have three degrees, including a PhD in geodesy or any other subject, for that matter, but until he or she passes the legal exams dealing with the specifics of boundary law in that particular jurisdiction, he or she is not qualified to use the title “land surveyor” or to delineate property boundaries.

This is how the definitions develop. If you work under the overall blanket of what we once called “surveying and mapping,” you may now say, alternatively, that you work in the field of geomatics or geoinformatics, should you so choose. If you wish to narrow it further, you might say that you work within one or more of the following fields: cartography, geodesy, geographic information science, photogrammetry, remote sensing, or surveying. And if you work in surveying, you might work in any or all of the surveying categories described above, but only one, “land surveying,” is normally recognized by statute as a profession.

All of this confusion may have been avoided if there were common agreement on what these words mean, but it seems that each interested entity creates its own definition, at least in the English language. Even the universities who offer education in this field differ on what they mean by these terms.

It may be that this desire to get away from the term “surveying” has its roots in public image. The vast majority of the general public has little idea what surveying and mapping are all about, let alone are familiar with the terms “geomatics,” “geospatial,” and “geoinformatics.”  To most people, a surveyor is that guy on the side of the road working with that strange-looking equipment.

Those members of the geomatics (or geoinformatics) community who do not wish to be perceived in that light may justifiably have a strong desire not to be labeled a surveyor, because what they do for a living has little to do with the occupation of that guy on the side of the road. They would rather be known by a term, which, while confusing to many, is not “surveyor.”

Jim Gillis, NSLS, CLS, RPLS is survey manager at JEA/Hydrotech, Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. He has diplomas in land surveying and geophysical surveying from the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute and more than 35 years of survey experience. You can reach him at

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