Putting my mark on the map

In today’s age of automated systems and electronic data sources, it can be easy to forget that people are at the heart of what we do as an organisation. Keen to get back to the grass roots of what our organisation does, (collecting and maintaining of geographic data), I arranged to spend the day with one of Ordnance Survey’s nation-wide team of 250 surveyors.

I met Jeremy Thompson, a surveyor in one of the five London teams (which forms part of the South Region) at the London office, within the imposing National Audit Office building. Although three surveyors use this as a base, most surveyors work from home – Jeremy has an office set up in his garden shed!

As well as experiencing the move to homeworking, Jeremy has seen big changes during his 27-year career. He said: “I joined Ordnance Survey after completing my A levels, mainly for the reason of wanting a job outside and not being tied to an office. Geography and technical drawing were my two favourite subjects at school, so a job which seemed to combine the two seemed ideal.”

Jeremy explained that it is still quite common for people to associate Ordnance Survey with our paper maps, and not realise the level of detail which is captured by the surveyor. He said: “Since 1986, the job has evolved massively over the years; to working with digital data on a pen tablet instead of film documents and Rotring pens, and using GPS/GNSS, together with other modern-day equipment. The information we capture on the ground is used to inform a wide variety of organisations, across both the private and public sector. The range of rich data we now collect has widened greatly – it is much more complex, including a whole host of attributes, such as addresses and road routing.”

Each surveyor manages their own bank of jobs; with various criteria enabling them prioritise workloads. There are different types of surveying jobs scheduled on the system, all deadline based, and flagged up at various intervals – and the hours spent in front of a computer varies, dependent on each individual job. The surveyors can view intelligence about sites, which has been gathered from various sources, such as local authorities and commercial organisations. Information is also added from the network of surveyors who can make observations out in the field.  The combination of details enables the surveyor to prepare for a job, and have a full background of the site.

Our surveyor Jeremy in London

Before travelling to the ‘area of interest’ (the section of the map which needs surveying), Jeremy logged onto the ‘Customer Order’ (where surveyors plan and prioritise their work). The site we were surveying included 24 flats and three commercial units, on a site where the original building had been demolished. Jeremy advised that the perimeter around the area can also be surveyed and updated whilst on-site, if any changes are identified. Once the job had been activated by Jeremy (known as ‘Taken Up’) the map data was transferred onto his Toughbook ready to take out and update on-site.

Jeremy told me that working in city areas, such as London, the conditions can be quite different to working in an open rural location. Apart from traffic and parking issues in the capital, one challenge is the difficulty in managing to detect satellites on the GPS (GNSS) kit in a built up area, or when there are lots of high buildings (as we were soon to find out!). Also, the types of land areas, and their uses and building-types significantly differ.  For example, there are not many large-sized housing estates being built in the already densely populated areas, and as a result, the types of surveying jobs can vary across different regions. We soon arrived at our destination and parked up. Jeremy brought a parking ticket (he has to purchase lots of these working in the capital!), before we put on our high-visibility jackets, got all the kit out of the boot, and walked over to the site.

In the field, surveyors use a mobile data terminal, called a ‘Toughbook’.  Made for being used on the go, it endures most weather conditions; although I am reliably informed that it doesn’t like torrential rain (it’s times like that when the surveyor’s car becomes a mobile office!). Of course, the surveyors have to also carry around the iconic mobile GPS pole to use for locating points, as well as juggle other pieces of equipment – so it was also positive to hear that the surveyors are advised to take regular breaks, and ‘aches and pains’ are logged so that potential strains can be prevented.

Whilst walking to the site, I realised that Jeremy was already ‘at work’ having looked at the exterior of the building – noting door numbers and premise details, such as usage.  He set up the GPS (GNSS) equipment and fired up the Toughbook. People were taking an interest in what we were doing, and Jeremy told me that he often gets approached by curious passers-by, apparently getting mistaken as a council worker or traffic warden! He said that the GNSS pole also gets some strange looks, with people often asking if he is monitoring air quality!

We had difficulty obtaining satellite connection, so Jeremy had to revert to the traditional method of surveying by using a combination of tape measure, automatic distance measurer (Disto), and using building features as markers. I asked Jeremy whether you have to be good a maths to do the job, and he did admit that it helps when doing some of the calculations.

Our first challenge was gaining access to complete the survey.  Firstly, we were face-to-face with a locked gate, followed by a high wall.  We then had to persevere, and reach the furthest section of the exterior wall through the courtyard of a block of flats which backed onto the site.   Apparently, difficulty in getting access to properties is a fairly common occurrence, and surveyors often have to re-visit some sites on numerous occasions to complete a full survey.

I naively assumed that the new building was a simple rectangle, which would be easy to measure and plot. Upon closer inspection, I realised that the exterior walls were at slightly different angles. I also learnt that all the walls have different attributes (for example, divisions, overhanging). Things became even more difficult to the rear of the building, and as an observer, the calculations looked really complex; although Jeremy assured me that this was a very straightforward survey.

Surveyors can edit and make changes on site.  Any discrepancies or unexpected changes are identified on the tough book after the survey, so that the surveyor can confirm the change of information.  Jeremy updated the tough book with data as we went along, and upon completing this part, I thought ‘job done’.  However, there was more to do – I was shown the numerous other data sections that needed to be reviewed and updated, such as,  Functional Sites, Address, and Integrated Road Networks (ITN) layers.

Whilst I was getting the train back to Southampton, Jeremy went home to finish the survey on the Toughbook, before uploading all the information to the main database via his computer. Once the surveyor completes the survey, the information is submitted and the data is sent via the kit to the main database.  The new features will then appear on the main database once the system is updated.

Although the surveyors largely work on their own, they are very much a close-knit team. Jeremy told me that his team are always on hand to support each other via phone and email, and they often get together socially.  He is also mentoring one of the new surveyors; regularly meeting up to survey different types of locations, and providing support over the phone. Often working in the public domain, and across in a wide variety of locations I established that surveyor’s qualities included being personable, friendly, confident, and professional.

Jeremy finished on a positive note, saying: “The flexibility to work independently and manage your own time is a big plus. Also, it is satisfying being responsible for updating your own area of geography, and working with a great bunch of colleagues who are so positive about what they do is a plus – and you get plenty of fresh air!”

I recently heard our geographic information described as being ‘richer in attributes, and richer in value.’ Having seen the level of detail captured by the surveyor on site, I certainly think this is a true reflection. Although my contribution to the survey only involved holding the tape measure, I am proud to have done my bit at putting this new building on the map.  Also, having observed a surveyor at work, I will never look at a building in the same way again!

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2 Responses

  1. Andrew Wilkinson

    Very interested to read about the work of an OS Surveyor. I trained as a surveyor with OS in 1970, I think I was on the first course at the new Maybush headquarters. Course 175 I recall! I worked in the East of England for about 3 years. Other than the technology the role appears to be very much the same. I have been teaching surveying to civil engineering students for a number of years and often refer to my time with the OS and the excellent maps and data the OS produce. Would love to have a visit and see for myself how the role of the surveyor has changed.

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