I've been interning/working in permaculture/agroforestry for 5 years now since getting my PDC, and am at a point where I really need to uplevel my mapmaking skills to be able to deliver better designs that show information effectively, in a professional looking manner.
The original method I was using was on-foot triangulation drawn onto a physically printed to-scale GIS map, which I then scanned and photoshopped. However, this is very time consuming and headache-inducing, and with higher demand for the mapmaking part of the design process than ever before, (I work with a small team designing and installing food forests, where this is one of my main roles, and we all still have other jobs to make ends meet financially) I'm assessing my options.
Action steps so far:
I purchased an iPad with which I've been able to cut down the design process time, by uploading topographical/satellite maps into the app Procreate and then using on-foot triangulation measurements to add in to-scale future trails, fruit tree & plant placements. This works relatively well, but is still kind of headachy and still isn't as professional looking or as detailed as I've seen other maps be. I attempted to use GIS tracks, an app for iPhone, to place trails & landmarks in a GPS map I can translate over to the property maps I'm using without having to physically pace out/measure, but the margin of error (5'+) is too high for the precise placements of fruit trees, trails etc. I dowloaded the app theodolite, which Ben Falk uses for surveying, but after watching several tutorials and still feeling pretty confused on how to actually apply this data to my admittedly amateur process, it was taking up a lot of space on my phone and I deleted the app.
Potential courses of action:
1. Learning ArcGIS cartography and using that for designs.
Does anyone here use the ArcGIS mapping software, and is it worth it? At this point I'm getting paid a few hundred dollars per map, and the software costs $500 a year, so that's something to consider that makes me somewhat hesitant. I also would need to learn how to use it, for which I found this free cartography course that starts in February: https://www.esri.com/training/catalog/596e584bb826875993ba4ebf/cartography./
I feel somewhat resistant to learning even more new software, however, and wondering if it's worth it.
4. I could seek out a localland surveying company and approach them for an internship to try and learn better triangulation/surveying/software skills in person.
I'm so interested to hear opinions on what to do at this crossroads in my progress! Also, if you have any online resources teaching more about on-foot triangulation, I'd really really love to see them.
Thanks so much for your input,
I used to draw property ownership maps for the county assessor in an area that is very hilly. For my job purposes I didn't care about the topography, just that the surveyor's or deed descriptions fit where they were supposed to. However in my own search for land to buy I was very interested in the topography so I would convert the scale and overlay a property I was interested in on a USGS topo map. I could tell at a glance how much of it was "straight up and down" as much land here is and also I could also measure flatter areas determine the slope and so on. By the time I called a selling realtor I knew way more about a property than they did.
This may not help you at all unless you are looking at significant chunks of land. For much of anything less than say 20 acres, the scale of a topo just may not give the information needed. Are you talking smaller areas, say an acre or two or even smaller? If that is the case I think I might apply the above technique first to get a general idea but then go out and mark off the area of interest and set my own benchmark. Since it doesn't need to be linked to an actual USGS benchmark, nor related to legal ownership lines it could be anywhere you decide it to be. Then using what ever means you want for measuring elevation draw you own highly accurate, site specific topo based off that benchmark. For my own yard and gardens I just eyeballed it, I did measure a little to situate the house as it is partially underground and I wanted to make sure water drained properly away from it.
Hope this maybe helps a little, I'm not familiar with the term on-foot triangulation. I also think a neatly done map drawn by hand might appeal to a permaculture customer. No need at all to include the high tech maps as other than reference when applicable.
The professional looking part is just fluff. a better drawing program will sort that bit, perhaps one intended for garden design. But of course it won't help with the accuracy, gps is only going to get you 9ft or so if you take multiple measurements at the same spot you can get down a bit more, but it will be very very slow.
Do you use any surveying equipment? and how far are the distances you need to measure, a good compass (properly set!) and one of those room measuring lasers may help you speed up abit, of course it won't help with getting it onto a map. For my masters I attempted to use ArcGIS I gave up, I couldn't get my head round it and since there were only 2 computers with a license in my department I couldn't spend much time trying to figure it out.
Can’t help with 1-4 except to offer some thoughts on landscape design. We rented a cottage on a 6 acre lot and the owners had a survey of the property had a survey done using a plane table that marked all of there trees on an elegant plat that located all of the trees and plantings along with structures and land contours. It seemed a tool ready made for a garden designer.
I'd recommend learning mapping using QGIS. It's free, open source, and getting better all the time. If you later find you need features only offered by the commercial software incumbents, most of the concepts should transfer pretty easily.
Instead of using GPS (which as you've discovered isn't very accurate with consumer devices) consider learning basic surveying techniques or using aerial/satellite images and mapping relative to those.
I use ArcGIS, but... I'm not the one paying for the licence. Arc can be glitchy, annoying, and makes me swear a lot. If you find yourself needing features that Arc handles better than QGIS, then I'd consider the Arc licence. Note that the ArcGIS licence is pretty limited for the "Basic" level, and even the "Standard" and "Advanced" levels depending on what you are doing, you end up adding on other expensive licences for toolboxes, and it's really just bloody expensive. For both programs, depending on what you end up trying to do, learning basic Python may eventually become helpful. You will probably also need a subscription to some sort of imagery provider, although, again, sometimes there are free airphotos available (which are far better than satellite).
That being said, a professional GIS software makes standardizing workflows so much easier, and makes professional looking maps far simpler. It's very quick to make a very similar map for two different areas, and use the same symbology, formatting, etc. I can knock off 3 versions of the same map area within a few minutes of each other, with different symbology, to see what the person wanting the map finds easier to read, or to highlight different things. Often, exporting the map is slower than making the changes.
GIS stands for Geographic Information System- it's basically a giant database with spatial data attached. The real benefit is when you start using it like a database instead of just a tool to draw pretty pictures on, and, IMO, this is the most fun part of GIS.
Being able to create, quickly, for example, a 50 m buffer around a stream for an environmental setback, show the contours of the land, and draw lines quickly that go perpendicular to contours can be really useful. Maybe there's a tap, and you can create a buffer showing what area is reachable from the hose. Maybe you colour south facing slopes blue, and north facing slopes red. Or maybe show what areas do not have a nitrogen fixing tree within a certain distance. Sky's the limit, really, when it comes to the fun analysis you can do. If you want to see all birch trees that are further than 10 m from the closest apple tree that are ALSO less than 5 m from the nearest maple... you can do that. Don't know why you would, but you COULD.
Much of the US has really good contour data available for GIS. I think the USGS has most of the US data? Here in Canada, being able to pull in information regarding wetland areas, protected areas, lot boundaries,etc, is very useful to know what is and isn't permitted. I would take a look at the places you most often work in and see what GIS data they have available - you may be surprised, and that data has saved me a ton of work in the past. Data is often available from all levels of government - municipal, county, province/state, federal. I know my employer has sold as an expensive add on service, something that took me 30 min to do in ArcGIS with free data, and another hour to make it look pretty.
You can buy for some money (possibly sub $200 and from Garmin?) a handheld GPS that is far more accurate than the iPhone gps and bluetooths the location to the iPhone. That's what I would personally use. For a ton more money ($10 k + yearly license?) you can get a survey grade GPS. You can also rent survey GPS units, but they are likely way beyond your requirements.
I use ESRI stuff all the time at work and I like it fine. I would never pay for it though ($$$$$$$$$$...). I would go with QGIS. I have never used it but I remember seeing it when I took some GIS courses at my local community college, go wolverines. Having seen what one GIS-newbie was producing with it, I can't imagine it would limit you starting out and maybe it will never limit you.
I echo the recommendation for QGIS. It's extremely capable (as capable as ArcGIS for single-user work). It is a bit glitchy, as is ArcGIS. And it's FOSS, which means $ savings plus (probably) more in line with the permies ethos.
You could consider combining it with GRASS, another FOSS GIS platform. It's less good at map creation and display, but better at information processing. Its algorithms can be invoked from QGIS.
Finally, you write about marking up maps by hand and then importing the data. You can scan and import using QGIS' georeferencer plugin. Alternatively, you can use any app you like on a smartphone to record tracks or waypoints with GPS and import those data records. (Note handheld GPS is rarely more precise than a couple of metres/10-15', and can be much worse if sightlines to satellites are limited.) In the QGIS ecosystem, there are also complementary programs called QField and Input for field collection of data which might be an alternative.
Thought I would share this audio which is related to the subject of this thread. This podcast interviewing permaculture elder Tom Ward reveals some fascinating facts about mapping, its fundaments, optics, and the keystone behaviour of field work & presence. They get into part of the story about the formative basis of all the more modern and digital mapping tools. The interviewer is the brilliant and diplomatic Scott Mann--host of the longest-running (North American or globe's) English podcast dedicated to permaculture, the Permaculture Podcast. The episode is titled "Optical Surveying and Social Forestry with Hazel". Hazel is Tom's nickname. Interestingly, he also looks into the need and importance of maintenance, rather than the seemingly over-focus on design in permaculture. If you had not heard, another great podcast looking into and reexamining the "givens", assumptions, essence and regular (sometimes mindless) practice of permaculture, is the "Making Permaculture Stronger" podcast with Dan Palmer.