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Immeasurable: The Land Surveyor's Evolving Role In Our World

Updated: May 6, 2021

Collectively as a profession, we're not button-pushers any more than Keith Richards is a guitar picker. Sure, guitar is the instrument he plays, but we all know he's a multi-dimensional talent. So are surveyors. We use technology and tools to measure and record, but we play a multi-dimensional role in this world. Keith Richards interprets what he hears and feels, drawing upon historic blues-driven rhythm and melody, then fits it all together to create a harmony of sound. Likewise, surveyors interpret all manner of spatial data including historical records, then fit it all together so there is harmony between competing interests. What does that make us? Are we experts at making land measurements? Yes, but the measurement tools and methods we use are common and available to almost everyone. YouTube will walk anyone with a compass or smartphone to their property corners. Maybe the conversation about our real contribution and role needs to get a little louder. By our nature, surveyors are modest, accepting and wearing our obscurity like a badge of courage. We're trained to quietly observe and make measurements—not publicly declare ourselves. But modesty is only a virtue until you really need to be heard. Maybe that moment is now. Gen Z has an internal compass telling them where the profession needs to go. Baby boomers are the profession's wisdom bank. Both need to be heard from and want to speak to us. Truth be told, surveying skills should be understood for their primacy in the development of systems that have held this planet's societies and physical infrastructure together for centuries. We may be distracted by micro tasks or "line work" but make no mistake, we are keepers of the grand matrix of lines and positions that control all geographic features humans compete for. With everyone using and competing for every tenth of 2D or 3D space in this world, it's a sure bet whoever that tenth belongs to will assert and protect their rights when encroached upon. We may think of a coordinate as one point in space but almost everything we map, calc, set, describe or define has a positional relationship to something else of equal or greater value. We never work in a vacuum, there's always something with a vested interest nearby. That's why we're called in the first place, so our stakeholder does not overlap and invite legal mayhem. Here's a challenge for you: wherever you are at this moment, imagine the closest controlling line to you. Is it the edge of your cubicle or the wall that separates departments in your office? Maybe it's an easement outside that accommodates the utilities servicing your building or home. Or maybe there's a property boundary line within view from your window. The point is: lines that control our space are everywhere and most were defined by surveyors either with words, lines in a CAD drawing or by points set and physically marked on the ground. Land surveying has traditionally been defined as the science and art of determining the relative positions of points above, on, or beneath the surface of the Earth and physically establishing such points. In terms of land boundaries, we are charged with creating and maintaining the maps, monuments, and records that help mark such boundaries. Land surveyors also create the "systems" behind the surveys. Ownership or "title" lines are defined by legal records and documents such as subdivision maps and legal descriptions from deeds, which surveyors use to calculate points they put in the ground. By creating these documents and placing monuments in the ground, we are creating and maintaining a system of records that perpetuates ownership lines that are retraceable decades into the future. No other profession is trained for or qualified to do this. This is all to say that we are so much more than mere "button pushers." Measurement technology is one tool we use in a broader toolkit that includes CAD, GIS and other software. Also, we are by default historians, building and maintaining historical land record systems. A GIS (geographic information system) is a great starting point to access these records by providing an easy-to-use software interface connected to reference base maps. But a GIS cannot replace the network of physical monuments, surveyor's notes, private records and historical knowledge that constitute land-record systems that make recreating boundaries possible. Simply put: a GIS is a great depository for records, but it can't evaluate and tie them together to enable a legal survey of your property. Land surveyors do that. We don't walk on the moon but we are spatial relationship analysts who possess the training, experience and know-how to figure how the grand matrix of lines and boundaries fit together. We compose arrangements that fit the spaces men have defined for themselves to maintain peace and order. Our soul is out there in the points and line work. We are spatial artists, able to see, feel and operate in three dimensions. Step by step, we combine the pieces of the great puzzle. We follow in the footsteps of the brothers and sisters who went before us. Since the beginning of time, humans have been subdividing. The more people, the smaller the spaces. Peace often depends on knowing the boundaries. To stay connected to our true role and value, we must contend with relentless and accelerating technological change. The new normal is a one-person field "crew" with autonomous support. That means nobody is around to talk shop with or watch your back and mentoring is being redefined or disappearing altogether. Ever have lunch with a rover, robot or drone? They don't talk much. Try having a decent conversation with a Robotic Total Station. We can't lose our souls to the glitter of technology. Tools can make measurements but they can't make decisions. Decision-making is the source of our true value. We give reason for the machines and technology to function—not vice versa. Every task we automate frees our hearts, souls and minds to take a step closer to what we truly are. We have to adapt at the same pace and become more creative, inquisitive and educated. That's the promise of technology. There's an opportunity to engage like never before. The variables of time and creativity now tip in our favor. Flip through the pages and you'll be hard-pressed to find a story about how local knowledge and 30 years of experience solved a complex boundary issue. There are unspoken elements of our professional lives that make GPS and drone technology seem rather insignificant. A property owner has only words on paper until a land surveyor marks the corners and lines they can occupy and defend. Our life is governed by boundaries. Knowing where they are helps keep the peace. Words on paper, lines on a plan, an architect's imagination, or an engineer's calculation all meet their purpose when a land surveyor shows them on the ground. The land surveyor's mark is everywhere. Think about that the next time you hear "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." John Rogers, PLS (retired) The Tenth Society

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