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What is land surveying?

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

What is land surveying?


Many people ask me this, and despite the frequency of the question I sometimes have difficulty answering. It's difficult because surveying is a very broad and diverse profession. There are dozens of tasks or roles, some of which seem unrelated to the next. Measuring the ground surface, measuring the movement of an object (such as a bridge) over time, laying out roads or buildings, drawing maps, writing legal descriptions, and determining the location of property lines can all be a part of surveying.


The State of California's Business and Professions Code, chapter 15, section 8726, defines land surveying. It's wording is extensive, with 14 subsections defining various aspects of the profession. It's interesting, but doesn't really capture the essence of surveying (you can read it here: link).


One of the most basic principles is that surveyors deal with property lines. We are unique in that licensed surveyors are the ONLY professionals who are qualified and allowed to make a determination about boundary location. Realtors, architects, or city employees (unless they're also a licensed surveyor) legally cannot do so. However, boundaries are not the only thing that we work with.


If you look at some of the various tasks we perform, you'll see that measurement is a common theme. This can be much more complex than you'd expect. Not only are we dealing with measurements in three dimensions, but also occasionally over very long distances. For example, we might need to know the position of a roadway in relationship to a building 2000 feet distant, in the forrest on the other side of a hill. This is something surveyors routinely do, and to a high degree of accuracy.


The purpose of these measurements is to provide actionable data to someone else, generally in the form of a map. These maps may include our own data about topography, trees, fences, building, or property lines, as well as data from other sources. This map could then be used by an architect or engineer as the basis for the design of a road or building. Alternately, data of some sort could be provided TO us (again generally in the form of a map) for translation into actual positions out in the real world. For example, construction layout of a building based on an architect's plans.


In broad terms, there are two distinct workflows: Bring accurate and useful data from the field to the office, or take office data back out to the field. In this way, surveyors are the conduit for moving highly accurate data between the real world and the “virtual” world of plans and maps.


So then, what is surveying? In my opinion: “Surveying is the art and science of collecting, validating, and managing multiple types of geo-referenced data, then translating and presenting that data in a format that is useful to others.”


I hope this was helpful, or at least interesting. Feel free to message me with any questions or comments you may have.

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