Q&A: Narelle Underwood, DCS Space Services
A love for the built environment resulted in building an impressive career in surveying.
NOTArelle Underwood joined Roads and Maritime Services (RMS, now Transport for NSW) in 2009 as part of her postgraduate program, completing her registration exams and becoming a Chartered Surveyor in 2010.
During her time at RMS, she worked on a range of road infrastructure projects and held a number of management positions including Survey Manager for the Southern Region and Senior Surveyor. In October 2016 she left RMS to become Surveyor General of NSW, and in May 2022 she was appointed Executive Director of NSW DCS Spatial Services.
What was your background in this industry?
From an early age, I decided that I wanted to work in the built environment. At first, I was thinking of architecture, but in high school, I opted for civil engineering. During my second year of college, I got a job as a draftsman with a private surveying company and fell in love with the industry. So I decided to change my degree in order to become a licensed land surveyor. I worked throughout my undergraduate degree, gaining a lot of experience in urban planning and engineering design, and graduated from UNSW in 2009 with a Bachelor of Engineering in Surveying and Systems spatial information.
As Executive Director of NSW DCS Spatial Services, are you still a Surveyor General?
As part of the recruitment process, I successfully negotiated to retain the Surveyor General title, so my official title is now Surveyor General and Executive Director of Space Services.
Please tell us about your role in space services.
Spatial Services has two main offices in Bathurst and Sydney and several regional offices in Nowra, Newcastle, Coffs Harbor and Lismore. Thanks to our flexible working hours, I split my time between working from home and our offices in Sydney and Bathurst.
In addition to leading the Space Services team, I am part of the Digital.NSW leadership team; I represent NSW on ANZLIC; I am the NSW shareholders’ proxy for Geoscape Australia; and I represent Space Services, Digital.NSW and the Customer Service Department on various project, strategy and industry committees, including the State Emergency Management Committee and the eConstruction Steering Committee.
What is the mission of the Space Service?
Spatial Services is a division of the Department of Customer Service and provides NSW’s spatial and land information services. Our data products form the basis of NSW’s mapping and spatial information systems and are used to create better services in the community, government, industry and environmental sectors. Our functions include:
- Basic spatial data products and services (Six Maps, Spatial Collaboration Portal, topographic maps, aerial imagery and LiDAR)
- Emergency Information Coordination Unit
- Survey Operations (CORSnet-NSW, Survey Control Information Management System, State Control Survey, Survey Legislation)
- Survey and Spatial Information Commission
- Geographical Names Commission
- Digital services (printing and graphic design)
We are undertaking a series of projects based on the Foundation Spatial Data Framework (FSDF) to streamline government processes in terms of planning, design and modeling for the future needs of NSW. Major projects include:
- Live NSW: This incorporates the Spatial Digital Twin (a cross-industry collaborative environment that will share and visualize a 4D model) and the Gravity Model (critical geoscience information for infrastructure projects and natural hazard and resource management).
- Cadastre NSW: a service enabling local government authorities to capture and visualize the progress of housing estate developments and increase the efficiency of land-use planning and development while providing access to smart digital property data.
- Digital Survey Plans: Transitioning from “paper” to smart digital survey plans to support a more efficient, accurate and accessible land titles system.
- Survey plan digitization project: Digitization of survey plans and paper strata in LandXML and GeoPackage formats.
- Historic Aerial Photography Enhancement Project: Using the state’s 70-year-old aerial photography repository to create a 3D digital database to understand how the landscape has changed and preserve archival records.
- Whole of Government Addressing: The deployment and use of the authoritative NSW address database for address verification across all NSW Government agencies through NSW Point.
You wear a lot of other hats too, don’t you?
The Surveyor General is Chairman of the Board of Surveying and Spatial Information (BOSSI), which is the statutory body responsible for registering land and mining surveyors in New South Wales. My main focus areas have included: Improving engagement with the profession, industry bodies and allied professions; raising the profile of BOSSI and conducting investigations across government; improving the complaints and discipline process; prosecution of unregistered surveyors undertaking land surveys; and support prospective surveyors through the registration process.
The Surveyor General is also the Chairman of the Geographic Names Board, which is the official body responsible for place naming in New South Wales. A key area for me has been Indigenous place naming, which encompasses both the use of Indigenous language in naming and the recognition of traditional Indigenous place names for geographic features.
I have been involved with the NSW Surveying Taskforce in various capacities since its inception 10 years ago. Its main aim is to raise the profile of the profession, highlight career opportunities and encourage more people to join the industry.
What makes you so passionate about this industry?
There are so many reasons. For starters, I can’t think of any other industry that gives you such a variety of career options. I recently filmed a masterclass with CSIRO as part of their Generation STEM program and we covered at least 10 very different majors which is great as we know younger generations are not looking for traditional single job careers and that our industry offers an opportunity for a portfolio career without really changing industries.
I also like the fact that no two days are alike. Each project, policy or strategy means that I use different skills and constantly learn new things. To be honest, I feel like surveying and geospatial is as much a hobby as it is a job.
For me, it has always been about community and place. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been fascinated by the built environment since I was young (Lego and SimCity were some of my favorite hobbies growing up). I have enjoyed influencing the design of the communities in which people live, and although my role in this process has changed, I can now support the decisions that are made about the built and natural environment through the use of information geospatial.
What do you see as the challenges facing the industry?
Skills shortages in surveying, geospatial and digital, and building capacity and capabilities of our existing workforce to meet changing customer expectations. And due to the combination of increased demand and skills shortages, I have seen mentoring and training support dwindle. If we don’t continue to develop and evolve our skills, other industries will step in and start delivering.
Then there is identity. I would say that the majority of people using geospatial information do not identify themselves as “geospatial” professionals. They probably see geospatial as part of their toolbox, not their profession.
And diversity. There is a lack of diversity in the industry when it comes to age, experience, skills, gender and education.
And the opportunities?
Opportunities include engagement with wider audiences and related professions to raise the profile and understanding of our industry, and open up new markets and opportunities. Everything happens somewhere, so the potential for impact is significant…as many people are just beginning to realize the real power of using geospatial data to support evidence-based decision making.
And we see significant government investment in data as an asset, as well as opportunities to help transform data systems and processes – further recognition of the value this industry can bring to the world. ‘economy.
What are the strengths of the industry?
Innovation, resilience and adaptability. While some industry sectors have been slow or resistant to change, in general they have embraced technological change and innovated to provide improved services to our customers.
Project, data and land management. While the democratization of measurement means anyone can use a device to capture and create a geospatial dataset, more and more projects are reaching a level of complexity where good data management is key to success.
Another strength is understanding metadata… knowing when data is fit for purpose and how to combine data from different sources, considering accuracy, timeliness and projection.
What’s on your wishlist?
Better cooperation. Despite recent growth, we are still a small industry with a fractured voice. There are too many organizations representing surveying and geospatial, competing for membership and attendance at conferences and continuing professional development events.
You can connect with Narelle Underwood via linkedin.com/in/narelleunderwood/ and follow DCS Spatial Services on linkedin.com/company/spatial-services-nsw/.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Position magazine.
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