Neatness Counts

Earlier we discussed the use of field notebooks and the lost art of field note taking.  I fear that neat, disciplined and structured field note taking is a lost art in the today’s world of texting, instant messaging, and email.  Even in the engineering, surveying and topographic field (where I work) the use of field notebooks appears to have been brushed aside by smartphones, laptop computers, data collectors and the assorted electronic bric-a-brac that has come to dominate the field.  And yet – and yet – all this powerful technology still leaves us with critical information gaps.  The problem is not so much that people aren’t writing stuff down, it is that they are writing it down in formats that are so very disjointed, disconnected and perishable.  An email here, a quick scribble on a random notepad there.  It gets lost or never gets integrated into the project file.  Months or years down the line engineers and maintenance personnel are left to wonder just where something was placed or how it was constructed because the story of that project was not properly documented.

Now, I’m not implying that the use of field notebooks will solve all of these problems.  Field notebooks are not a panacea for lousy project management.  My point is really that disciplined and structured note taking should be viewed as a key skill – and a requirement – for surveyors, engineers, topographers and other key staff.  Of course the ideal place to write all this down is in a field notebook, a field notebook that gets turned over to the organization, copied, indexed and integrated into a document management system at the completion of the project.

Neat, disciplined, complete and structured note taking.  Just what does that mean?

The disciplined and complete parts are easy.  Notes need to be made on any issue, topic, observation or discussion that directly impacts a project.  It is really nothing more than getting in the habit.  Get in the habit of having your notebook with you and writing stuff down.  Complete means get it all down.  Think of each record you create in the notebook as a miniature story – it needs to have a beginning, a middle and and end.  What you observed, when and where you observed it, what was important about it, who was there, what was agreed to, what conclusions were reached and, if necessary, sketches or diagrams that are key to the issue at hand.  Make it a complete story!

Neat and structured are two somewhat subjective concepts.  Everyone has their own style of organization and handwriting.  The important thing is to make it neat, legible and logical in structure.  Always remember that the intent is to make it easy for you and others in your organization to reference in the future.  How far into the future?  I routinely reference survey records for the airport I work at that are 60+ years old.  The neatness and structure (and completeness) of those records allow me to rely on them for locating structures and utilities that were abandoned and forgotten about decades ago.

I can only offer suggestions for the concepts of neatness and structure.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, field note taking used to be a topic taught in all beginning surveying and civil engineering courses.  Colleges, universities, government agencies (like the USGS and the USC&GS) and even individual companies used to have their own field note format requirements.  Some agencies, like the US Army Corps of Engineers, would even have entire bound books printed with pre-formatted pages.

A few agencies still provide specific field note standards.  Surprisingly, most are state departments of transportation (DOT).  For example, the Oregon DOT, provides specific guidance for field note structure.  Their Survey Field Note Standards (October 2006) provides very specific field note examples.  The same for the Montana DOT.  Their Survey Manual provides a chapter on sample notes that contractors are expected to follow.

But since this is my blog and I love old stuff, particularly old stuff that still has relevance, we’re going to take a trip back to the 1950s.  A time when cars had carburetors, space travel was the stuff of science fiction and real men did surveys with optical theodolites and steel measuring tapes, and wrote everything down in hard bound notebooks.  A couple of professors at the University of Missouri put together a course in introductory surveying and field measuring.  A large part of the class involved proper field note recording.  This course was to serve as the foundation for all surveying and civil engineering instruction to come, so the instructors needed to make sure the students got started on the right foot with disciplined, accurate, structured and comprehensive field data recording.  The two professors, Clarence Bardsley and Ernest Carlton put together a gem of a book titled ‘Surveyors Field Note Forms’.

Bardsley & Carlton, Surveyor’s Field
Note Forms (3rd Ed.)

The book opens with a treatise on the importance of field notes and the necessity of being an accurate, error free, neat and complete note taker.

“Allow no items for the memory; all facts should be on the record.”

“A good surveyor takes pride in the appearance of his notes.  A neat-appearing, well arranged set of field notes commands confidence and builds prestige in the surveyor.”

“Field notes should be clear and convey only one possibly correct interpretation.  Descriptions and narrative matter should be in acceptable English.  Sketches should be drawn to approximate, or convenient, scales.  All numerals indicating distances, angles, or elevation should be carefully formed.  Particular care should be exercised in obtaining a logical order and sequence of all notes, for they should be absolutely clear and understandable to the student, other surveyors, computers*, or draftsmen.”

The book then goes on to provide specific examples of problems and how the field notes should be formatted (click on any image to open it full-size):

Length of Pace Measurement

It was once common practice for surveyors to regularly measure and record their pace count over various types of terrain (flat, hilly, uphill, downhill, etc.).  Before accurate handheld measurement devices like GPS surveyors used pace count to do help them with tasks like finding property corner stakes or do rough fence line measurements.

Correcting for Horizontal Slope

Don’t you just love the name ‘Trachoma Hospital?

Using Rough Triangulation to Determine Distance

Although the equipment has improved, surveyors and engineers still use the principal of triangulation to determine inaccessible distances.

Sewer Stake-out

Construction stake-out, whether for sewers, buildings or roads, is still bread-and-butter work for surveyors.

Use of the Grade Rod

Field notes are for more than writing down numbers.  Often the engineer or surveyor needs to write down a description of how a particular piece of equipment was used, or a methodology that might need clarification.

Height of Object

Again, the equipment may have changed, but the procedure is still the same.

Determining Azimuth From True North

Using solar or star shots is still an accepted practice for determining the relationship to true north.

The point of the above is not really what is on the page as much as it is the legibility, accuracy and completeness of the data.  One hundred years from now, when Microsoft .pst files are lost to eternity, digital CAD files can’t be opened and survey data collector files are corrupted beyond recall someone will still be able to pull a notebook like this one off the shelf, open it and clearly understand what the author wrote and was trying to convey.

Neatness does count.

As I was wrapping up this blog posting I asked Roberta (5th Grade Teacher of the Millennium) if kids in grade school still get penmanship lessons.  I was disappointed but not surprised to hear that, in her school system at least, penmanship has been sacrificed on the altar of computer skills.  Apparently the school system feels that there is not enough time to teach and practice penmanship, and since kid are all wired up to computers these days the time ‘wasted’ on penmanship is better put to teaching computer and ‘keyboarding’ skills.  How sad…

– Brian

(*Note – In the 1950s the term ‘computer’ meant something completely different.  Back then a ‘computer’ was an individual who was responsible for doing final computations against the surveyor’s field notes and applying statistical methods to determine the accuracy of the survey results.)

4 thoughts on “Neatness Counts

  1. My engineering professors in colege stressed that a field book should be complete and accurate as well as neat. They should be filled out with a hard, sharp pencil (hardness 3 or better) and no erasures were allowed – only single line crossouts if necessary. This was because field notes could be (and were) considered a part of the legal description land and may be used as evidence in court. Erasures could negate the legal value of the survey and indentions in the paper from the hard pencil could be seen even if the 'lead' marks were obliterated. I would guess that, due to the poor penmanship in our schools today, the quality of 'old school' surveying practices, especially attenton to the detail of printing (non-cursive) notes would be valuable.

    – Bill

  2. Some people don't consider this part of the United States but never the less, here's a response. I don't think about posting on the blog because I don't use them as a rule but I generally comment on your email, which is my normal. I don't read every one of your posts but every one I read is interesting, enlightening and entertaining. Thanks for your efforts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s