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The soil survey report: new forms for the 21st century.

Over the past hundred years, the science of soil survey has shed light on the nature and distribution of soils in the United States. From the beginning, the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS)--the nationwide partnership of federal, regional, state, and local agencies and institutions involved in soil inventory--addressed soil conservation and agricultural production needs. Today, NCSS products apply to a wide range of natural resource and environmental management applications, as the soil information "customer base" has grown and diversified with the emergence of new environmental problems and natural resource issues.

How will soil scientists face the ongoing challenge of communicating soil survey information to a diverse audience in the 21st Century? Rapid developments in computer technology, the evolution of the Internet and the emerging field of information design provide a largely untapped potential for improving the quality and accessibility of soil survey information.

The key is to channel that computing and Internet potential into a standard framework for digital soil survey report delivery. What would such a framework look like? Several soil scientists have tackled that question by building a web-based prototype report designed to meet the needs of the next generation of soil survey users. In planning the prototype, the designers took into account the current soil-landscape model used in soil survey as well as lessons learned from previous Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) electronic soil survey examples.

Soil survey and information delivery

In the early-1990's, articles written on the science of survey science, by NRCS Soil Survey Division Director Berman Hudson discuss the state factor equation of soil formation. This equation, developed by the soil science pioneers V.V. Dokuchaev and E.W. Hilgard, is still the underlying model for the soil-landscape paradigm used in modern soil survey.

The state factor equation describes soil as a function of climate (cl), organisms (o), relief (r), parent material (p), and time (t):

S = f (cl, o, r, p, t)

The "clorpt" equation serves as the general model of soil geography and a guiding paradigm for soil survey in the United States and other countries. Soil surveyors use the "clorpt" equation to identify natural terrain elements resulting from the interaction of individual state factors. Their ability to distinguish unique map units improves with experience and tacit knowledge acquisition, according to Hudson (1992).

That tacit knowledge--internal knowledge not outwardly recorded by the surveyor--presents a challenge to anyone wanting to publish comprehensive, easily understood soil survey reports. In soil survey, new field soil scientists acquire tacit knowledge and experience by immersing themselves in the challenges of viewing landscape in different ways. A scientist learns to recognize distinct soil-landscape units by visualizing environmental interactions and processes. After the first step of recognizing and delineating units, the soil surveyor faces the much more difficult challenge of classifying the units into a smaller number of similar natural groups. These two procedures, field recognition arid classification of natural soil groups, demand that soil surveyors develop a great deal of tacit knowledge. Often, beginning soil surveyors take 2 or 3 years before they fully grasp the soil-landscape paradigm and operate at "journeyman" level, according to Hudson (1992).

Unlike tacit knowledge, soil surveyors' tangible knowledge goes into maps depicting soil-landscape relationships, with symbols or icons conveying the nature of the relationships. Soil map icons identify map unit polygons, and they also represent specific characteristics associated with the natural group for which that particular map unit polygon is a member. The map-reader refers to linguistic descriptions to understand the icons. To glean additional knowledge about the soil map units, the user must have knowledge and experiences similar to those of the survey personnel. Hence, the iconic format limits the delivery of soil and soil-landscape relationships information to a narrow audience with specific soil science skills, or, similar tacit knowledge, reports Hudson (1992).

The tacit knowledge aspect of the soil landscape paradigm persists at all levels within the NCSS. The traditional paperback soil survey report helps maintain this paradigm; the report has served as the official NCSS record since the inception of the modern era of the soil survey in the 1950's. However, the published soil survey is only a partial reflection of the soil-landscape knowledge gained in the survey process. The traditional U.S. soil survey provides soil-landscape information to the consumer in a paperback book format combining descriptive, tabular, and map information. But many details on the interrelationships of the soil-forming factors in any particular landscape stay locked in the surveyor's head, so most casual users of soil survey reports don't get a full understanding of the soil-landscape relationships.

Sam Indorante, along with his colleagues, discussed the role of soil survey in the 21st century in a 1996 Journal of Soil and Water Conservation article. They observed that the soil survey format has gone unchanged for decades, and the "static" nature of the end product is falling short of the needs and expectations of a changing audience of users. They point out the need for a soil survey product that is more quantitative, easier to understand, easily updated, and applicable as a teaching tool.

Unfortunately, few have worked on developing a more user-friendly prototype. An updated soil survey reporting system would not only make soil survey information more available, it could also preserve the tacit knowledge base by recording it in survey reports.

The demand for soil information is growing, and the way to meet that demand is to make soil information available through easily accessible electronic means, such as over the Internet. The question then is how do we effectively restructure the traditional soil survey report and make it easily accessible to a wide audience?

Recent approaches to information delivery

Several organizations have already developed prototype soil survey reports in electronic or hypermedia form. Each example offers lessons on which to build toward a new standardized framework for digital soil survey report delivery.

"Soils Explorer" offers soil information via a Microsoft Windows-based software application with a royalty-free viewer. The user can access soil map information and a selected set of interpretive tables associated with the soil map units. Brown County, Kansas served as die test area for the prototype developed in 1997 (USDA 2000). Data on the Soils Explorer CD includes soil map units, roads and streams, digital orthophotography, soil profile and landscape photographs, and interpretive tables. Since the initial prototype, approximately 40 additional soil survey areas have become available in the Soils Explorer format (

Soils Explorer emphasizes the spatial data component of the survey (soil maps) and a subset of popular attribute information of interest primarily for land management applications. So while Soils Explorer is useful for certain purposes, a comprehensive solution for a wider audience should incorporate the full body of information in the standard, printed soil survey. The narrative portion of the standard survey report, for example, which often includes detailed descriptions and diagrams that help the user understand basic soil-landscape relationships, does not fit conveniently in typical spatial information data structures like that used by Soils Explorer. The general county soil maps, block diagrams, and associated narratives found in soil surveys are an important window into the "mental" model formed by soil surveyors during the mapping process.

NRCS and the NCSS have made various attempts to produce soil survey reports in electronic format for distribution over the Web. These have been mostly ad hoc efforts producing materials of uneven quality and functionality. This is largely a reflection of the lack of formal agency standards in this area, as well as a lack of personnel experienced with hypermedia, electronic document preparation, and Internet information delivery.

The soil survey reports for Webster County, West Virginia and Dade County, Florida were among the first electronic efforts. These survey reports were converted to the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) directly from digital files created originally in a desktop publishing software environment. The apparent goal was to produce, as closely as possible, an electronic document that had identical features to the hardcopy report. Notably, the PDF version of the report lacks a general soils map for the county as well as block diagram figures showing soil-landscape relationships in the survey area.

The PDF version does, however, provide maximum flexibility with regard to viewing, downloading, and printing the converted portions of the report. Adobe Acrobat, a reader for PDF documents, is freely available for download over the Internet and has become a de-facto standard for electronic document exchange. Since these initial efforts, NRCS now routinely produces PDF versions of newly issued soil survey reports. These reports are available through the NSSC website (

In another example, the USDA-NRCS Service Center in Woodland, California has reproduced the 1972 Yolo County Soil Survey Report on the Internet ( The 1972 survey report was apparently scanned and converted to electronic text files, which were then placed in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). The Yolo County site uses frames within the web browser window to navigate through documents. A frame window on the left side of the browser shows the active document sections. Clicking on the desired section brings content into the main browser window. Original hardcopy document sections and headings appear in the electronic version. The website designers have also created an interactive general soils map for Yolo County. This map, which is overlain by a grid showing the individual map sheets for the county, is active and allows the user to select an area of interest. A mouse click generates a map sheet image display that is annotated with soil map unit boundaries, water, and infrast ructure elements such as roads and railroads. This map sheet image is also interactive and may be downloaded as an image file. The developers appear to have intended clicks on the interactive map sheet to provide links directly to NASIS for specific map unit queries. This capability did not function properly during repeated visits to the website. Another disadvantage is that the website did not include downloadable electronic versions for viewing or printing at a later time. The visitor is left to print directly from the browser window.

In Arkansas, the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) at the University of Arkansas collaborated with NRCS personnel to create a web version of the Woodruff County soil survey ( This implementation relies almost exclusively on PDF to convey the elements of the soil survey report. A simple index page contains interactive headings and sections for the report and moves the visitor to PDF versions of each section. The user may explore any section and determine which, if any, parts of the document should be saved locally or printed. In addition to the standard text sections and soil use interpretation tables, the site provides an indexed, generalized map of the county showing major roads and streams as well as map quadrangle boundaries. This interactive image map allows the user to identify areas of interest. A mouse click produces a black and white soils map sheet showing soil map unit polygons. Map unit symbols within these map sheets are active and link to map unit descriptions and soil series information.

Lessons learned

Clearly, an electronic version of the standard soil survey report would benefit a wide audience with Internet access. The cited examples each have strong ties to the original survey report format. This reflects the relative newness of the Internet and the adjustment that society, in general, is making to the concept of online information access and information design for the new media.

But each example emphasized different aspects of the standard survey report, reflecting the fact that each represented a different approaches by soil survey staff in different parts of the country with unique soils. Technical capabilities are another distinguishing factor in the sophistication of the implementations. The NSSC PDF versions of the Dade and Webster County surveys are preliminary prototypes that closely follow the original format of the standard soil survey report. The Yolo County, California and Woodruff County, Arkansas examples were obviously more advanced in the area of implementing map-based approaches to access soil survey information. Soils Explorer offers an innovative way to view the spatial information contained in the soil survey report, but it fails to provide much of the narrative and the key diagrams used in the traditional report to convey soil-landscape relationships.

Transferring the soil survey report to hypermedia requires rethinking the structure, function, and capabilities of the report itself. But hypermedia also offers an ideal setting in which to exploit the geographic orientation of soil survey and the soil-landscape model and deliver soil information in a manner emphasizing the relationship between mapped soil bodies and the landscape. This would make the final information product closer to the original "mental model" of the soil surveyor.

A prototype developed for the Soil Survey of Centre County, Pennsylvania (USDA 1982) can hopefully demonstrate the potential for publishing a typical county-level soil survey report in a user-friendly web format.

A prototype web-based soil survey report

While designing a Web-delivery prototype for Centre County, planners considered audience, purpose, and context. Soil survey reports are of interest to a wide audience, from very scientifically literate individuals to those with only a passing interest in perhaps one section of the report. The Web-based prototype described here is directed toward an audience with at least some basic knowledge of soils. Generally, this prototype will best serve visitors who need soil information for a range of environmental or ecosystem management applications. It may also serve others with less technical backgrounds, depending upon their willingness to pursue additional, supporting information about soil resources.

Prototype design

The new report model's general purpose is to clearly convey soil information about the Centre County, Pennsylvania Soil Survey Area (SSA) over the Internet to an audience with a broad range of training and experience. The Centre County model assumes that visitors will directly access the information over the Internet, possibly with multiple visits, and that they will also want to be able to download files or print formatted information directly from the website. The prototype is online at (go to Site Map, and then click on Centre Cnty, PA).

The keys to developing an effective, interactive soil survey report from an existing survey are to emphasize the basic report components and to take advantage of the soil landscape paradigm's basic organizational potential. The typical soil survey is essentially organized around the general soil map, so the map provides a focal point in the hypermedia version. The website can then organize the report's additional components around the map. The components are topical and lend themselves to a hypermedia environment where users "scan" easily manageable chunks of text for key words and phrases, as suggested by J. Nielsen in Designing Web Usability.

Figure 1 shows the prototype's main web page. The visitor first notices the basic geography of the soil survey area (SSA), in this case Centre County, Pennsylvania, and the pattern of the major soil associations. Viewers can navigate through the "General Information" and "Soil Information" columns to access the report contents. The nomenclature of the buttons is not directly analogous to the original report's categories. Instead, the entire original information content has been reorganized into more intuitive and useful categories.

The General Information column links to introductory material on the soil survey as well as supporting information about the culture, physiography, and water resources of the SSA. This column also offers links to citations and a glossary of technical terms used in the report.

The Soil Information column links to the bulk of the soil survey report. From here, one finds guidance on survey use, basic information about soil genesis in the SSA, an interactive general map (an interactive version of the SSA image found in the middle of the main page), access to a pull down menu of soil series information for the SSA, information about the use and management of soils in the SSA (primarily in the form of tables), and links to digital soil data sets formatted for GIS applications. The visitor may also access PDF versions of the prototype.

Figure 2 shows the interactive general soils map and legend. The general soil map fosters the viewer's understanding of the soil-landscape paradigm used in the field survey. A client-side image map enables interactivity in the general soil map. An image map simply associates a web address with the current cursor coordinates. Placing the image map on the client side as opposed to the server-side (locally) improves access and download times. Clicking on any location within the image map opens a link to information associated with that position. In the case of the general soil map, the polygons are associated with specific soil associations. A click by the viewer links directly to an interactive block diagram for that soil association.

Geologists, geomorphologists, and soil scientists have effectively used block diagrams for decades to convey information about the three dimensional nature of terrain and the underlying geology and parent materials. Field soil scientists engaged in mapping translate their mental models, based on the soil landscape paradigm, into block diagrams. The survey party leader develops hand sketches of the diagrams during the mapping phase. Professional graphics personnel then use these sketches as the basis for final drawings created during the publication phase. These black-and-white line drawings portray the idealized landscape of the soil series components and spatial interrelationships, with the underlying parent materials identified on the diagram's "edges". Although used heavily throughout the NCSS, block diagrams have not been created for every soil association, in every published soil survey report. Apparently, whether or not to produce a block diagram in any given case is up to the discretion of SSA party le ader and editorial staff.

Figure 3 depicts the interactive version of the Hazelton--Clymer association. This block diagram, as with all of those appearing in the prototype, was created using World Construction Set (WCS) software, which generates images and animations of natural terrain. The WCS software output was converted to an interactive client-side image map linked to detailed information on the specific soil series found in each of the associations.

Soil series are the most detailed level in Soil Taxonomy and represent the basic units mapped in the actual soil survey process. Individual polygons on soil survey map sheets represent phases of soil series, which have been identified and named either during the current survey or in previous surveys in similar physiographic environments. The individual soil series web page contains the text description for the series and links to a representative profile description (with a photograph), map unit descriptions for the soil series map unit phases found in the SSA, a photograph of a typical landscape for the map unit, and a link to the official series description located on the NRCS server. The prototype displays information categories provided for each of the soil series that differ from the original hardcopy soil survey report. In particular, the landscape and profile photograph sections are adapted to the Internet's unique graphic capabilities and interactive potential. The original black-and-white report did not promote including photographic documentation, which means that images depicting specific soil series profiles and landscapes have been scarce in the past. In the future, the beauty of a web-based resource, like this prototype, is that it can easily include photographs. It can also easily be updated as new material becomes available.

Beyond the prototype to a new standard

With nearly 3200 soil survey areas in the United States, NRCS needs a long-term strategy to meet the growing demand for electronically available soil survey reports. The Centre County, Yolo County, Woodruff County and other prototypes represent unique approaches to this problem; the strengths and weaknesses of each can inform the process for developing a standardized electronically available soil survey framework. An evaluation of the prototypes should take place, naturally, within the context of the overall goals and objectives for the NCSS program and should consider the overall needs of the NCSS "customer." An NRCS-NCSS strategic plan will also have to address personnel requirements and resource estimates for producing the new generation of reports.

The NCSS is now focusing much of its personnel and budget resources on completing line digitization for the SSUR GO database. The NRCS Soil Survey Division budget undoubtedly has little room to squeeze in an extensive programmatic component for converting existing soil survey reports. So any new program will need to be shaped from the current structure that produces the familiar, hardcopy standard soil survey report.

The traditional approach to producing a soil survey report has evolved over the past several years. The NRCS now releases newly published soil survey reports in an "official" hardcopy version and an identical electronic version, in the form of a PDF file, which can be downloaded from the NSSC website. Why not implement some of the unique prototype features described above with modifications to the current structure? NSSC editorial support staff use desktop publishing software to create both the standard soil survey report and the PDF version from draft manuscript material written by the soil survey area (SSA) party leader. Standardized templates that format the survey reports text, table, and graphic portions could be developed for the Internet version of the soil survey.

The development team

The team of people who build a new delivery framework will need a range of technical skills. The soil-landscape model's spatial elements, the interactive general soil map, and the individual block diagrams are crucial report elements that enhance understanding of fundamental soil-landscape relationships. Implementing these features in a hypermedia version of the soil survey report requires an interdisciplinary team with expertise in soils, cartographic and graphic design, GIS, and web programming.

The key team member would be the soils expert. This individual is intimately familiar with the SSA soils and with the soil-landscape model developed for the SSA. Under current NRCS soil survey report preparation procedures the SSA party leader works through the regional Major Land Resource Area Office (MO), and an editor handles the technical components related to report production. Similarly, soil survey party leaders will be the key resource persons for teams working on electronic soil survey reports. Existing personnel may have some of the required technical web-based skills. Team building can take place with these in mind. The specialized skills in graphic/cartographic design, web programming, and GIS could be assembled from existing personnel pools within NRCS. "Virtual teams" with required skills sets could be assembled as needed and coordinated through the existing MO authority structure. Electronic communications capabilities now make this type of an operational structure quite feasible.

The SSA party leader would need to work closely with an individual trained in cartographic/graphic design and document design and knowledgeable about GIS. This individual would be responsible for translating the basic soil-landscape model elements provided by the SSA party leader into a realistic representation through the interactive block diagrams. The development and refinement of a high quality report will rely on the ability of these two individuals to iteratively refine these components during the design process. A third team member would need experience in website scripting, interactive interfaces and Website maintenance. This person will have to work closely with the designer to ensure that the Web-delivered soil survey report conveys the intended message.

The path to success in mass producing electronic soil survey reports will not be easy. The "learning curve" for interactive map creation and, particularly, the interactive block diagrams, is steep. However, economies of scale should increase the project's efficiency as teams build experience. For instance, base templates for typically similar soil-landscape relations within MO regions could be developed and then used as SSA reports are produced.

Careful planning and resource evaluation are the first steps toward moving report production from hard copy and PDF to interactive design. The soil survey process may be improved by providing tools to field surveyors that will allow them to more fully express the nature of the soil landscape model.

Soil information resources are in great demand for a wide range of environmental activities. It is time for the traditional soil survey report, a bound paper product, to give way to new means of conveying information to an increasingly "connected" constituency.

References Cited:

Hudson, B.D. 1990. Concepts of soil mapping and interpretation. Soil Survey Horizons 31:63-73.

Hudson, B.D. 1992. The soil survey as paradigm-based science. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 56:836-841.

Indorante, S.J., R.L. McLeese, R.D. Hammer, B.W Thompson, and D.L. Alexander. 1996. Positioning soil survey for the 21st century. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 51:21-28.

Nielsen, J. 2000. Designing Web Usability. New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis, IN. 419 p.

3D Nature. 2000. Using WCS3: Professional photorealistic terrain modeling, visualization, rendering, and animation software. Questar Productions, Brighton, CO. 543 p.

USDA. 2000. Internet website URL: ( (Version current at August 30, 2002).

Douglas A. Miller is a research associate and director for outreach with The Pennsylvania State University's EMS Environment Institute in University Park, Pennsylvania. Gary W. Petersen is a soil scientist in The Pennsylvania State University's Agronomy Department. Philip J. Kolb is a graphic/cartographic designer and Jon Voortman is a GIS analyst at The Pennsylvania State University's EMS Environment Institute in University Park, Pennsylvania.
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Article Details
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Author:Miller, D.A.; Petersen, G.W.; Kolb, P.J.; Voortman, J.J.
Publication:Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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