About FIG

 Dr Arthur L Allan: My FIG Journey

Dr Arthur L Allan is FIG Honorary Member and has written this FIG story in 2020 at the age of 90 on his experiences in FIG.


Dr Allan, I want you to meet Pietro Alaria’. There before me stood a short middle-aged man clutching a large book. I was in Italy to make my study. It was explained to me that here was the surveyor who had observed every triangulation station of the Italian network used to drive the Mont Blanc tunnel. Because he had a serious accident, he was unable to complete the task, leaving one triangulation station for another to observe. His and the French surveys were so accurate that the tunnel holed out by 13 cm over a distance of 11.611 km (7.215 miles). Drilling began in 1959 and was completed in 1962.  Alaria was typical of the calibre of many surveyors whom I was privileged to meet during my long 20-year FIG journey. Such fellowship was a major, if not the reason for my involvement.

The International Federation of Surveyors or F.I.G

The profession of Land and Geodetic Surveying, or Geomatics as it is called these days, has always been global in its operation and scientific basis from the beginning of civilisation. As a young surveyor, I spent most if my field experience in Africa and the Caribbean, making astronomical observations, triangulation work and so on. Because survey organisations, private and government, employ staff trained in various parts of the world, and specifications are set by international experts, it is no wonder that I was interested in the F.I.G and saw it as an organisation worth supporting, and perhaps contributing to its development. My first task was to learn F.I.G speak. To be specific, always say “Eff Eye Gee”, because “fig” is a naughty word in German! Also learn to speak slowly for the benefit of translators.

Allan piping with the Swiss Surveyors' Choir and Dutchler (also former Honorary Member of FIG) playing his Alpenhorn 1981

International Education and Practice

When In 1968, it was the UK’s turn to host the large conference of FIG in London, and as part of the build-up, Robert Steel (Secretary General of the RICS), asked John Hollwey and me respectively to prepare two booklets to be used to underpin the discussions in Commissions One (Professional Practice), and Two (Education), I accepted the opportunity without hesitation. As a teacher of professional surveyors, It was and is vital to keep up to date in a rapidly changing world. In my time we have moved from plane tables to GPS; from logarithms and slide rules to blue tooth and micro-processors; from copper plates to computer graphics; and especially from local spheroids to World Geodetic Systems.

The FIG booklets of 1968 had several objectives. Firstly they would enrich conference efficiency by allowing more discussion and avoid time-wasting with pure fact giving: secondly they would help to create world-wide standard benchmarks in  education and practice ; and thirdly they would be of great assistance to employers, when hiring foreign staff.

Because I had very little idea how to tackle this assignment, I sought advice from Professor J A Lauwerys at the London University Institute of Education. In a three-hour long meeting one evening, he gave me much valuable advice. A key factor was to stress the need for feedback of my interim findings to the country’s representatives, before leaving the country after any fact-finding visit. This proved essential advice, giving an opportunity to iron out salient misconceptions; often on my part. I was to take this advice in later European studies, when I made such visits.

He also guided me towards the UNESCO publications of comparative education studies, so that my presentations would be consistent with standard practice.

For the 1968 study, I compiled a questionnaire which was sent to all FIG member associations. From the answers I was able to publish the basic educational structure of 27 countries, and detailed information for 16. The result was the booklet “Education for the Profession” published by the RICS. A later much revised version was published by the FIG. in 1974, with details of 34 member-associations. Of course, these required input from many persons across the Globe.

Following the success of these booklets, I was asked by the CLGE  (Comite de Liaison des Geometres Experts) to make a more detailed analysis of the education and practice of geodetic surveyors in Western Europe; this was to prepare the way for mutual recognition of the professions across the EU. Over a few years I visited all 17 countries, hosted by each association with travel aid by the RICS. It was a most interesting experience, leading to the publication by the FIG of an extensive text in 1995. The schedule I followed, usually over four days, included visits to a Technical College, a University, a private professional practice and sometimes a government department. Each evening I wrote a draft report often kindly interrupted by gastronomic interludes late in the evening. The final stage was to present this draft to a meeting of the board of the national association and benefit hugely from an exchange of opinions. This was essential for mutual understanding and clarification. In a few cases I had to publish two alternative judgements.

Membres d'Honneur

Quality Control in Education

To my mind the analysis had to be made by one person alone, so that some measure of consistency could be assured, especially in the matter of scope and standards of knowledge, and as far as is humanly possible, a measure impartiality could be maintained. I had and still have no concept of “the best system of education and practice”. For example, in Europe we have two adjacent countries, Switzerland and Italy, with entirely different systems of education and practice. And yet each serves the country well. As the saying goes, “There are many ways of killing a cat”.

In some countries I became aware of much duplication of syllabuses and curriculum inertia, often spread over three separate competing departments. This is in contrast to UK where staff are continually modernising course content in response to the rapid changes in technology. A classic example was one establishment which had three professors of classical field astronomy; a subject which was obsolete in the satellite age. An almost complete lack of any system of quality control characterised some education departments. Anything like the UK external examiner system was almost unknown. However, the final quality of the education was everywhere carefully monitored by the respective professional institutions during the stagiare stage of two or more years. I was very impressed by the function and quality of many laboratories, for example the Winter Garden in Finland, which I copied at my technical college, UCL, and the University of Trinidad, when I was consulted to  propose a brand new department of Land Surveying, including its building. specification. This was subsequently built and the Department established.

Commission Two Activities

Following Hans Klinkenberg’s initial guidance, when I became Chairman, I set about trying to make the Conference sessions as effective as possible, by the strict use of the background booklets, and by organising visits to at least one education establishment.  From the Montreux Conference, the first of these was to the Ingeneurschule at Yverdon. The outcome was more fruitful that we could have imagined; delegates opened up when in small groups to discuss issues stimulated by the exhibits of student work on show. Subsequently we visited the Universities of Glasgow and Madrid with equal success.

Because one of my pet enthusiasms is the use of visual aids in teaching, much to the amusement of the audience, I presented a paper in Washington exhibiting a black umbrella functioning as a portable planetarium. I believe a teacher should do as much as possible to help students, not show off his own erudition. Over the years these exchanges of ideas brings about a gradual  process of evolution and a maintenance of high standards across the world.

Commission Two at Brno 1979

External Examining

It falls annually to senior academics in the UK to act as external examiner of final year course standards at institutions other than one’s own. This entails vetting the draft examination papers and during a visit, the inspection of course-work and spot interviews of borderline students, especially where a first-class degree is in question. Throughout my career I made such trips to the following universities; Nottingham, Newcastle, Nairobi, Dar e salaam, Trinidad, Harare, and Nsukka (Nigeria). I also carried out a similar function at the School of Military Survey Newbury.

It was not all Work

As a happy diversion from the work of the commissions and viewing the instrument exhibitions, each host usually provided some form of entertainment. Many of these have fond places my memory. For the record I will mention but a few from each venue I attended.

  • 1968 London Congress. I begin in the London Guidhall, enthralled by the skirl of Scottish pipers, magnificently arrayed in kilts, while conversing in French with a Czech professor, as we admire a superb array of antique timepieces.
  • 1971 Wiesbaden Congress. Moving to Germany, who could be other than enchanted by the sweet tones of Boys Choir in a Wiesbaden Monastery, and afterwards enjoying tasting the various wines on offer?
  • 1972 Israel PC Meeting. Israel was next on the bill, providing access to private homes during the Sabbath, and the opportunity to visit the biblical lands and the fortress of Masada.
  • 1974 Washington Congress. Surely no-one who gazed in silence at the thousands of gravestones at the Gettysburg cemetery could return home unaffected; nor chuckle at the crowd antics at the American Football match.
  • 1977 Stockholm Congress. As for a Sunday barbecue, in Stockholm, for fifty or so former Scout leaders who ended the afternoon with a traditional Campfire led by a slightly inebriated Dane, there can only be praise and thanks.
  • 1978 Sophia PC Meeting. If you joined us in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia at 7am to hear four male singers exploit its huge echo and raise an eight-part harmony motet you experienced a moment of deep introspection. Perhaps this was only bettered by the visit to the glorious Rila Monastery.
  • 1979 Brno Congress. Then again, how well the Czechs have preserved the site of the Battle of Austerlitz is a wonder to behold. At the meeting in Brno, we also enjoyed a production of Smetana’s Battered Bride, and  engaged in lusty redition of La Marsellaise one late evening in Bratislava.
  • !979 Paris PC Meeting. How disappointed we were not to have dinner in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles as planned by our French colleagues. Marie Antoinette’s prison surely was an equally historic alternative.
  • 1980 Edinburgh PC Meeting. The high point was for me to pipe Alec Douglas Hume, a former U.K. Prime Minister, on to a platform to open the PC. Meeting. Following the example of Israel, evening visits to the homes of Chartered Surveyors proved a success., and a trip round the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle was quite fascinating.
  • 1981 Montreux Congress. My bagpipes were featured again in Montreux, along with Mr Duchler and his Alpenhorn, and the Swiss Surveyors’ Choir, which was formed specially for the Congress.
  • 1984 Tokyo Congress. By contrast, the Japanese had laid on a visit to a Geisha Ceremony. No guesses as to who was selected to act the male part!
  • 1986 Toronto Congress. A taste of the sport of Curling and attendance at an historic battle re-enactment spiced the Toronto meeting. Here the visitors were delighted by the final ceremony featuring the City of Toronto World class pipe-band and a rather amusing Japanese lady photographer.
  • 1990 Helsinki Congress. To cap off the account, nothing could rival the mid-night golf match in Finland, when eighteen of us lost 58 balls, before enjoying a tasty al-fresco meal.

So, you see it was not all work.

Helsinki 1990 Alland and Chief Ojekere (Nigeria)

Cultural visit Japan 1984; Allan meets the Geishas

The benefits of FIG involvement

To describe some of the benefits accruing from involvement in FIG, we must consider two aspects; (1) Benefits to the profession at home and abroad. (2) Personal benefits. To some extend these are not mutually exclusive, because any improvement in the profession benefits all members. FIG has been able to lobby governments and international institutions to ensure that its members are well known and valued. Some politicians have no idea of the importance of basic up to date mapping, nor of ownership guarantees, nor of the need to operate spatial data efficiently. As I mentioned above, educational and professional competence data is of great help to employers and clients. Also Congresses and instrument exhibitions give users and manufacturers and universities the necessary opportunity to exchange knowledge. On a personal basis, the meeting of life-long friends ranks high in a scale of benefits. It has been a marvellous journey for me.

Brussels CLGE 1985


It has always been clear to me that all this activity could not happen without the dedication of many unknown administrators who made all the arrangements for travel and general backup. In my case I think of Robert Steel, Rosemary Rowles and Jane Woolley of the RICS. Words cannot express my thanks to them sufficiently, nor to all the many persons in various countries who performed such tasks on my behalf. I have also been very fortunate to have had the companionship of Jim Smith and his wife Ann, for many of these visits, and many others from time to time. Yes indeed: it has been a wonderful journey.

UK delegates at Budapest 1989

Arthur Allan (age 90) ; Membre  d’Honneur FIG. Bristol 2020.