Surveyor General Narelle Underwood’s vision for surveying and spatial

Ahead of her appearance at the Locate Conference and Digital Earth Symposium in April, NSW Surveyor General Narelle Underwood shares some insights in an exclusive Q&A with Spatial Source.

Underwood was appointed in November 2016 as Australia’s first female Surveyor General, a major role within the state government responsible for leadership in surveying, mapping and geographic information. Her appointment makes Underwood both the first woman to hold the role across all Australian states, and the youngest in the state in 200 years.

As NSW’s 25th Surveyor General since 1787, Underwood is responsible for serving as President of the Board of Surveying and Spatial Information (BOSSI), chairing the Geographical Names Board of NSW; using location intelligence to better deliver urban planning, community services and infrastructure; acting as Electoral Boundaries Commissioner; and sharing knowledge and set standards at a national level with federal, state and territory counterparts.

Underwood spoke with Spatial Source to discuss the changing role of the surveyors, what we can expect at Locate and the under-representation of females in careers like surveying.

Spatial Source: How have you found the first three months in your new role as Surveyor General?

Narelle Underwood: Exciting and challenging. The creation of Spatial Services is a significant change in the operating of the land and spatial management systems of NSW which has changed the dynamic of the Surveyor General role. Spatial Services is a new entity within the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation and our core business is no longer just titling and registration, it is setting standards for the survey industry in NSW and creating economic and social value through leadership and innovation in the delivery of spatial data services. This has given us a new opportunity to create an organisation that services the government and public digital agenda and ushers in the future of surveying.

Through my involvement with our industry professional bodies and BOSSI I had an understanding of a significant portion of the responsibilities of the Surveyor General role so I was able to hit the ground running. I have spent my first 3 months strengthening relationships with my colleagues, staff and key stakeholders. I’ve concentrated on getting to know the finer aspects of the business and I’ve been to lots of industry events to talk to people about their ideas and concerns.

I’ve progressed the remake of the Surveying and Spatial Information Regulation, contributed to the development and implementation of GDA2020 and through the Geographical Names Board have begun development of an Indigenous Place Names Register.


What advice would you give to young women thinking of entering a career in STEM?

I’m going to steal the famous Nike tag line ‘Just do it’.

Our society is changing, particularly in the areas of technology and having a career in any aspect of STEM will open up so many opportunities for your career. STEM is not just the traditional laboratory or engineering roles anymore, it’s designing the next new life changing mobile app, or the way food is grown, processed and delivered. It’s developing better health care treatments and facilities. It’s delivering the transport and cities that we need for our changing population. A qualification in STEM will allow you to develop skills that will prepare you for a career that the world hasn’t even realised it needs yet.


What can we expect you and your fellow Surveyors General to be speaking about at Locate17?

There are a few opportunities for attendees to hear from the Surveyor Generals from the Australian states and territories. As part of the Land Surveying & Administration stream of the conference Craig Sandy (NT SG) will be talking about the Northern Territory Online Survey Approvals – linking planning, land titles and survey in a digital land development system, while I will be talking about Preservation of Survey Infrastructure. During this session there will also be a Surveyor Generals Panel – the intention is that conference delegates will be able to submit questions in advance and hear responses from each state/territory on the topics they want to hear about. Michael Giudici (Tas SG) will also be leading a plenary session on the implementation of the new national datum GDA2020.


What do you think about the representation of females in the Locate17 program?

There is a strong male bias in the surveying and geospatial professions, particularly in registered land surveyors (less than 3% of NSW registered land surveyors are female) and this bias can be seen in the program with the majority of speakers being male.

My experience with organising conferences and CPD events has shown that females are less likely to submit their work for presentation in a forum such as this, but the program for Locate17 features a number of key female presenters who are all considered industry leaders. Hopefully over the next few years we will continue to see an increase in the diversity of presenters but it is also important we have the right people talking about the right topics.


What are your priorities moving ahead in your role as Surveyor General?

  • Finalisation of the Surveying and Spatial Information Regulation 2017 which should be out for public consultation in the first half of the year.
  • Finalisation of the draft Surveyor General’s Direction 11 – Preservation of Survey Infrastructure. Launched at the ISNSW Australia Day Seminar it is open for feedback until Friday 31 March 2017.
  • Review of Board of Surveying and Spatial Information (BOSSI) and development of a new strategic plan.
  • NSW implementation of GDA2020.
  • Promotion of adoption of LandXML and CadastreNSW to allow for a single, digital end-to-end cadastral process.
  • Promotion of Surveying as a career option to high school students, increasing the gender diversity and increasing public understanding and awareness of the role of surveyors and geospatial professions in society.


How do you imagine the role of a surveyor will have changed five years from now?

Technology is changing so rapidly that it is hard to imagine all the changes that the surveying and geospatial professions will face over the next five years. One thing that is definitely clear though is that access to spatial data is going to increase for everyone, not just surveyors. What does this mean for surveyors? As more people have access to data the role of surveyors as data managers will become extremely important. People won’t necessarily come to a surveyor to capture traditional detail or engineering survey data, the exponential growth of the RPAS/drone market is proof of that. The surveyor’s role will be to provide advice around accuracy and standards in order to make sure the data is fit for purpose. The merging of different data sets will continue to increase the importance for accurate metadata and connections to the Foundation Spatial Data Framework (FSDF).

Narelle Underwood will appear alongside fellow Surveyors General Michael Giudici and Craig Sandy at the Locate Conference and Digital Earth Symposium in April. The program has recently been released for what is shaping up to be one of the biggest spatial and surveying events to reach Australian shores.

Spanning four days from 3-6 April, the Digital Earth Symposium and Locate Conference will be held at the newly re-opened Sydney International Convention Centre.

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  • AJ

    I wouldn’t describe this as a vision. It is a work program and self-promotion for herself and her boss Bruce Thompson, ED Spatial Services.

    “The surveyor’s role will be to provide advice around accuracy and standards in order to make sure the data is fit for purpose.”
    She is demonstrating her inexperience. Is she anticipating that surveyors will be mere validators of Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI)? I think not.
    It seems that the breakup of LPI has also created great delusion in the minds of DFSI Secretary Hoffman, Thompson and narelle herself.
    I am now wondering if our Spatial Source editor Mr Wallace will allow this to be published. He does seem to reject anything that criticizes Narelle.
    Mr. Wallace should appreciate that all progress and innovation – social, technical, economic, environmental etc. has been achieved by questioning rather than just being a passive acceptor.

    • Maurits

      So, AJ what is it your questioning? That Surveyors have a role beyond measurement? Or that Narelle is in the role she is in? I happen to agree with the statement you quote (‘The Surveyor’s role, etc…). Am I showing my inexperience too?

      • AJ

        Hi Maurits,

        Since you ask, let me respond.

        Anyone can measure. But can everyone measure correctly to comply with standards, regulations, etc.

        Seriously, how many generalists will be doing their own engineering
        or detail surveys? How many would know the difference between the obvert and invert of pipes when taking levels. This doesn’t come from a UAV. How many can do precise setouts? How many can do an as-constructed survey?

        Narelle fails to appreciate the hierarchy of evidence for cadastral
        boundaries gives least to measurements. Does she plan to change the law and legalize parcel coordinates?

        Boating people have been using GPS and echo sounders for
        years. But how many do a bar check to see if their echo sounder is measuriung correctly. How many would know the impact of squat of
        the vessel at speed when sounding? Would Joe the fisherman in his tinny be competent to do a berth survey or control a dredging operation?

        My Victorian colleagues tell me of Bruce Thompson’s disdain
        for surveyors and how he fell out with land Victoria over his spatial empire ambitions. Looks like this will emerge in NSW with Narelle at his side.

        I recently saw a comment elsewhere – not so kind. How will Narelle stand up in court as the state’s expert witness? With her limited
        experience any lawyer would easily discredit her.

        Surveyors are more than just measurers.

        I see no vision from Narelle, it is more like rhetoric.

        • Maurits

          You sound angry AJ. What is your full name anyway?

          I don’t follow your interpretation that Narelle was suggesting anything to remove or denigrate Surveyors’ current responsibilities and special skills. Perhaps we can ask her?

          You do sound like someone who is very worried about their (protected) job status potentially being under threat. Remember book binders? No doubt their skills are unique, and the quality of their work outstanding. Yet when mass book production (with glue, god forbid) came along, those that didn’t adapt quickly went out of business.

          I’ve heard Narelle speak, I’ve also discussed Bruce’s plans with him. I’m convinced neither of them intends to undermine the Surveying profession. I, with them, know there will be an ongoing, important role for the classic Surveying industry and for highly qualified practitioners. But it will be a shrinking one. The industry and society are moving on, and low-cost positioning devices are already ubiquitous, and collecting data as we speak. Bruce and Narelle wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t positioning government services to ‘go with the times’, and be ready to respond to an ever faster changing landscape.

          • AJ

            Hi Maurits

            You sound condescending 🙂

            As a Registered Surveyor, subject to BOSSI, which is now chaired by Narelle Underwood, I have every right to remain anon. Maurits, you are not a RS, so you don’t face the same issues. End of story.

            “The industry and society are moving on, and low-cost positioning devices are already ubiquitous, and collecting data as we speak. Bruce and Narelle wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t positioning government services to ‘go with the times’, and be ready to respond to an ever faster changing landscape.”

            I don’t challenge that. But in the context of “fit for purpose”, as raised by Narelle, the average John or Jane Doe whilst being able to operate positioning equipment do not necesaarily know how to use such equipment for applications which require more than just pushing buttons. Can such Johns and Janes satisfy regulatory requirements?

            But as you said in your initial response “Am I showing my inexperience too? ”

            Yes indeed you are. 🙂 There is a virtual world and a real world.

            “The surveyor’s role will be to provide advice around accuracy and standards in order to make sure the data is fit for purpose.”
            To ensure that data complies, that would mean checking every single measurement. That doesn’t make sense.
            “The merging of different data sets will continue to increase the importance for accurate metadata and connections to the Foundation Spatial Data Framework (FSDF).”
            Are surveyors now just data mergers and integrators?
            Whatever happened to providing professional advice on a development or planning proposal?

            Enough said. I have had my say. Let’s open it for others.

          • Owen M

            Hmmmm! I saw these comments last week and until now hesitated to respond.

            I guess all will be revealed over the coming months/years regarding Underwood’s intentions. But for sure, the rumour mill is running wild about Underwood’s intention to review BOSSI and the regulatory system. I think AJ does right to raise concerns.

            Maurits – I have checked out some of your stuff now and you have a history of bashing surveyors – painting them as dinosaurs. So I do agree your comments are “condescending” or at least as extremely disingenuous. You have multiple presentations online lamenting surveyors becoming part of SSSI. Without the surveyors, SSSI would be basically asset poor.


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