Bruce A. Joffe, AICP
1615 Broadway, Suite 415
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: (510) 238-9771
Surveyors & GIS Professionals Reach Accord
After 13 months of negotiation, representatives from five Surveyor professional organizations and two GIS organizations have reached agreement on changing the NCEES Model Law that defines the practice of surveying for which licensure is required. The NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) is comprised of representatives from each state's Board of Registration, and provides guidelines for state laws concerning professional licensure.
The representatives to the Task Force met 32 times by teleconference in a conscious effort by all members to understand and appreciate the varying perspectives on issues and practices among the represented disciplines. Over 650 professional hours were invested. The end result of these negotiations is a broad-based consensus on a series of recommendations for NCEES concerning the legal responsibilities of professional surveyors with respect to the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Land Information Systems (LIS).
The GIS-related concerns included a general perception that the language of the current NCEES Model Law on Surveying can be interpreted to over-reach the legitimate professional jurisdiction of the practice of surveying with regard to the creation and maintenance of maps and databases in Geographic Information Systems.
Surveyors' concerns, recognized by all the Task Force members, were that GIS/LIS tools are potentially being used by non-registered practitioners in areas of practice that clearly fall within the long-established responsibility of the licensed surveyor.
The goal was to recommend modifications to the Model Law that would clearly identify those activities requiring the services of a registered professional, in order to safeguard the public health, safety and welfare. The resulting recommendations have gained the support of each of the seven organizations.
All of the 50 states have professional licensing laws that define the "Practice of Survey." Their definitions vary, but generally, they include the creation, preparation, and modification of certain types of data which, therefore, requires licensure of the person in responsible charge. The data referred to include the contour of the earth's surface, the position of fixed objects thereon, the elevation of fixed works embraced within the practice of civil engineering, the location of property lines or boundaries of any parcel of land, right-of-way, easement or alignment, and the position of any monument or reference point which marks a property line boundary. Such data exist in most public agency GIS "framework" layers.
A literal interpretation of many such laws would conclude that agencies with GIS basemaps that are not supervised by licensed surveyors are in violation of the law. GIS Professionals regard these laws as exclusionary prohibiting them from doing the work they have historically been conducting.
Traditional survey map products such as subdivision plats, legal records of parcel boundaries, or construction grading plans are clearly the surveyors' purview. But what about commercially available road maps that show the location of "fixed works" (streets, bridges, etc.), Assessor's tax maps that show the boundaries of parcels, or watershed drainage maps showing contours of the earth's surface? These maps, and the many other similar maps, are being created and used in GIS for inventory and analysis. They are not used to define the authoritative location of boundaries or fixed works.
Many surveyors concede that the law ought only apply to "survey products" (which these examples are not), nevertheless the wording of many state laws, and in the national model law, do not indicate such flexibility of interpretation. This is the reason for the Task Force's recommendations.
GIS basemaps are referential. They are not the legal record of original survey measurements. They are representations or reproductions of information taken from original documents. As such, GIS maps do not carry legal authority to determine a boundary or the location of fixed works, and therefore, they should not need be supervised or regulated as survey products.
The task force debated at great length the difference between the licensure of practice and the arbitrary control of the use of tools utilized in a practice. As is true with many sophisticated techniques and technologies, a layperson and a licensed practitioner may be able to accomplish what appear to be similar functions utilizing a common tool-set, and often the purposes for those activities may appear to parallel each other at a high level. Historically the guiding principle as to when an activity or function must be restricted to a licensed practice is when the public health, safety or welfare is at stake. Thus, the GIS/LIS-related functions were carefully analyzed to determine whether practice restrictions should apply, not based simply upon the tool or technique used but rather based upon the service, product, or advice delivered. Among the criteria the task force used to distinguish between the use of GIS technology for survey purposes versus uses of GIS-based techniques and technologies for other lay purposes were the following:
1. A distinction must be made in the use of electronic systems between making or documenting original measurements in the creation of survey products, versus the copying, interpretation, or representation of those measurements in such systems.
2. A distinction must be made according to the intent, use, or purpose of measurement products in electronic systems to determine a definitive location versus the use of those products as a locational reference for planning, infrastructure management, and general information.
3. GIS databases and maps prepared to be simply referential, representational, or diagrammatic portrayals of existing source documents (many of which were compiled by licensed professionals and are a matter of public record) should not automatically fall under the requirement for supervision by licensed professionals, unless the use of the databases and/or maps are intended to serve as authoritative public records for geographic location.
4. GIS-based databases and maps that are intended to be used as the authoritative document for the location of parcels, fixed works, survey monuments, elevation measurements, etc., must be compiled under the responsible charge of a Professional Surveyor or Land Surveyor.
5. Because geospatial technologies are changing very rapidly, references to specific technologies should be removed from the Model Law and State professional codes. The language of the Model Law should concentrate on the practices to be covered regardless of the technologies employed.
Neither Surveyors or GIS Professional have yet developed a systematic and consistent methodology for creating and maintaining area-wide basemaps. Surveyor Lee Hennes calls this "macro surveying," and acknowledges that it is very different from traditional surveying of individual parcels or tracts. Apocryphal stories abound in the Surveyor community recounting damage that resulted from the inappropriate use of maps. How can the public be protected from such a threat? GIS Professionals offer a number of recommendations:
GIS mapped features should explicitly refer to the source documents from which they were compiled. Such linkage could be achieved by carrying a source document identifier in the database record of each mapped feature, or linking to scanned images of those source documents.
GIS mapped features should contain explicit and easy-to-understand metadata. The public can be reasonably assumed to be protected if they are informed about the locational accuracy, currency, and method of compilation (lineage) of the data in a GIS.
GIS maps and data should contain an explicit statement of intended use and disclaimer from other uses. Specifically, a disclaimer should say, "This is not a survey product."
GIS maps that have been adjusted (rubbersheeted) to create consistent, coherent display maps should retain the original mapped coordinates as feature attributes, as well as metadata describing the transformation adjustments that were made.
While chewing on basemap certification, one must consider the implications of a "certified basemap." Would such certification usurp some of the legal authority for determining land ownership that currently resides with subdivision plats, deeds, and similar source documents? If so, a government-controlled GIS basemap could change the legal basis of boundary determination in this country. Such a change should be decided upon by explicit political expression, not by technical consequence.
Certification of GIS Professionals raises the implication of liability and responsibility. What liability would a Licensed Surveyor or licensed GIS Practitioner be willing to accept for potential "damages" caused by GIS data errors, or by the inappropriate use of GIS data?
Readers are encouraged to download the entire report from the ASPRS wwWeb site at http://www.asprs.org/asprs/news/ncees_frame.html. The file name is "GIS/LIS Addendum to the Report of the Task Force on the NCEES Model Law for Surveying."
If you have comments, please use the eForum sponsored by URISA at www.URISA.org/gispolicy.htm (item # 11).
Bruce Joffe is the founding Principal of GIS Consultants, in Oakland, where he provides organizational therapy along with GIS planning and implementation services, to cities, counties, and utility companies. He brings over 24 years of experience applying computer mapping systems to the management of civil infrastructure and to GIS public policy issues. Bruce recently served as Chair of California's Geographic Information Coordinating Council, and is President of the BAAMA chapter of URISA. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of GeoInfo Systems magazine (now named Geospatial Solutions), and a recently elected member of URISA's Board of Directors.
Mr. Joffe holds two Masters degrees, in City Planning and Architecture, from M.I.T., and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. He is registered with the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).