Geo-information challenges

December 2004 » Columns » GEOMATICS
Observing exhibitors and attendees at Intergeo 2004, the annual conference of the German Association of Surveying, held in Stuttgart, I was struck by the tremendous variety of geo-information technologies.
Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E.

Geo-information challenges

Observing exhibitors and attendees at Intergeo 2004, the annual conference of the German Association of Surveying, held in Stuttgart, I was struck by the tremendous variety of geo-information technologies.

Intergeo highlighted all types of specializations—technology and people related to everything from geodesy and land-deformation studies, to enterprise GIS solutions for government agencies. And, I was intrigued by the interest attendees displayed for more than one specialty. An interest that, I think, is partly for self-preservation.

And that made me think about the following challenges facing the "average" practitioner or business that includes surveying among its services:

Specialization—Is it important for survival? If it is, which specialties? Is it possible to have a "general" surveying or geomatics practice? What new specialties might become opportunities for the business to grow or become profitable or desirable to acquire?

Technology—What is necessary to enable a thriving business? Where do some of the new technologies, such as terrestrial or airborne laser scanning, fit into the business? What equipment-replacement cycle should be used for each technology? Is it better to rent, lease, or buy, or to contract with other professionals who have the technologies that are ideal for a particular project or task?

Business structure—Is a sole proprietorship or partnership the best way to protect the assets of the business? What happens when the (or a) principal desires to retire? Will the dream of selling the business upon retirement be achievable? Are there people who would want to own the business and have the financial resources to acquire it? If the seller finances the sale, how does one ensure that the business is managed well enough to pay out to the seller?

Business planning and forecasting—How do you plan for the future? What changes might occur in the mix of work being brought in? What new demands for existing or new services might arise? Are there changes occurring in the region that will affect how services will be delivered? Are there technological changes in data collection, analysis, or delivery of results that require assimilation of new ideas about how the work is done?

Skills and knowledge—What skill sets exist within the organization? Are they adequate for today and for the future? What new skills should be sought in new employees? What knowledge, background, and training is required to meet the new challenges?

Clients—Will current clients remain as clients? Will the current client groups change in nature? What new client groups might be added in the future? What will their needs be? How is the organization prepared to deal with changes in client groups or new groups?

Products and services—How will the nature of products currently delivered to clients change? How will the services delivered have to change to deliver new products? Will there be new products and services that can be delivered in the future? I'm sure there are more challenges to consider. No doubt, many readers who are involved in surveying, mapping, and other geoinformation disciplines would agree. In my next few columns, I'll try to cover the issues I have only touched upon here.

For the remainder of this column, I'll briefly expand upon specialization. This is an area that many surveyors or mappers may not think about much. But, they likely do specialize, sometimes in a de facto way, because of the nature of their work or the technology or skills they possess. Many firms (rightly) turn away projects that they have no business doing, because they know the risk of making costly mistakes is high.

Specialization has advantages and risk. One advantage is that your business becomes known as a specialist that can do certain jobs faster or better and with greater predictability or with greater economy. The risk is that the economic activity that creates the type of work in which you specialize might slow down.

A good example is a land surveyor who specializes in property boundary surveys. If housing starts drop off, mortgage rates become sky high, or the real estate market chokes for any reason, there might not be enough work to keep all of the specialists in this area well-employed.

One way to minimize this risk is to "hedge" in specialties that are not derived from the same economic activity. Thus, subdivision infrastructure surveying may not be such a good idea, but becoming an expert at construction stakeout for government agencies or their contractors may be a good idea.

Some businesses hedge by finding specialties that are unlikely to be selected by others.

For example, forensic activities are not the favorite of many surveyors. Yet accidents and crimes usually continue regardless of the economic activities that sustain other specialties.

This specialty requires careful research, judicious networking with experts to understand the skills and expertise required, and perhaps additional practical or theoretical training to gain the specialist label.

Keeping tabs on local, regional, national, and international economies, technological changes, and trends in geo-information needs can help a business identify how current work might become scarce, or how new types of specialization might be developed to provide new services or products.

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at

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