I was at a day-long seminar sponsored by ESRI, which stands for Environment Sciences Research Institute, learning how infrastructure departments use mapping and assetmanagement software to become whiz-bang geographic information manipulators capable of instantaneously responding to any request — no matter how arcane — for asset data. As I sat looking at the impressive maps blown up on the screen at the front of the room, the gentleman next to me leaned over and whispered, "They make it look so easy. You know how much time and effort something like that takes?"

Not to the penny, but judging from his tone it's more than most operations can afford. Knowing how organizing more than two people to do the same things in the same way is like herding cats, I can imagine the nightmare of reconciliation that even the "simplest" mapping project opens up.

So in honor of this issue's focus on surveying, mapping, and modeling (see page 34) technology, let us honor the men and women who understand this ever- evolving field of expertise and who invest the psychic energy required to ensure the data their team collects and oversees is as clean as possible. The good ones are like that auto mechanic you can't stop raving about. You kinda understand what they do, and don't want to do the work yourself, but their skill and integrity make you exponentially more effective.

"Conventional wisdom has promoted the myth that asset inventories can be done cheaply, with high-quality results, using entry-level personnel," says Linda Zollman. She's a Seattle Public Utilities employee who analyzed the accuracy and efficiency of private and public surveyors versus engineering technicians versus interns in locating, identifying, and evaluating surface utility structures within 400 miles of dedicated bike lanes and major arterials.

Like most PUBLIC WORKS readers, the utility was trying to conserve resources by having interns do "simple" data entry. However, Zollman says, "This is categorically incorrect. Listening only to the conventional wisdom about asset inventories can create a lot of very expensive, bad data."

Granted, Zollman is a licensed surveyor in training. But she's also the type of personality you want overseeing such a job when equipment quirks that only she understands and appreciates could wipe out a day's work. Her article — which we'll run in an upcoming issue — taught me more about how the pieces all work together and what can go wrong than anything else I've seen.

Plus, it was fun to read.

"I had to make a lot of assumptions," she says of her attempts to reconcile data that had been collected by people who no longer worked for the organization and didn't understand the ramifications of their work. "I hate making assumptions."

Unsurprisingly, she determines that you get what you pay for. The devil's in the details, so attempts to save on personnel costs by using inexperienced labor ultimately requires a larger investment of taxpayers' dollars. Gee, where have we heard that before?