GIS Professional Certification

"In Rhode Island, a lobsterman requires a license. A rule of thumb is that certification endorses expertise, while licensure protects the public from incompetent practice."

—GISCI's Scott Grams

An alphabet soup of organizations promote geospatial technology and protect the interests of geospatial companies and professionals—including AAG, ACSM, ASPRS, GITA, MAPPS, NCEES, NSGIC, UCGIS, and URISA. A few years ago, at the request of GIS practitioners, URISA—later joined by AAG, NSGIC, and UCGIS—developed benchmarks and a process to certify GIS professionals (GISPs) and it set up an organization to administer the program—the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), whose mission is "To maintain the high standards and integrity of the GIS profession and promote ethical conduct within it." Since the GISCI program went "live" at the beginning of 2004, the number of GISPs has grown rapidly and has now reached about 1,450.

I recently discussed GISCI's history and goals with its executive director, Scott Grams.

The idea of GIS professional certification had been discussed for decades, Grams says, and was detailed in a 1993 article by Nancy Obermeyer for the URISA Journal. A few years later, respondents to a URISA membership survey overwhelming endorsed professional certification as a priority, and in 1997 the organization created a certification committee to look into the feasibility of creating a certification program. The committee first looked at the idea of developing an examination, but could not agree on content, so it stalled.

In 2001, three members of the committee— William Huxhold, Karen Kemp, and Lyna Wiggins—stripped the notion of a GIS professional to its core, Grams writes, and developed the following benchmarks:

  1. Educational achievement: a combination of formal university GIS-related coursework and informal GIS-related training/educational conference experience.
  2. Professional experience: four years in GIS application and/or data development (or equivalent).
  3. Contributions to the profession: modest involvement with publications, professional associations, conference participation, workshop instruction, awards, etc.
  4. Code of ethics: appropriate and ethical guidelines for professional practice and conduct.
  5. Recertification: a certification cycle that requires further earned credit in the benchmark areas to ensure proficiency.

The challenge, Grams explains, was finding an alternative to an examination that would allow professionals to document that they had achieved these benchmarks. The committee met frequently for more than two years. While, at first, it weighted education equally with experience, it eventually decided to give more prominence to the latter.

It decided to count attendance at vendor trainings, non-profit workshops, and conferences; base calculations on student activity hours; and allow individuals with unrelated majors to earn points towards GISCI certification, in recognition of the fact that GIS professionals enter the field from a variety of different disciplines.

The experience benchmark, Grams explains, considers the duties that GIS professionals perform at their job, the percent of their job dedicated to those duties, and for how long they have been performing them. All GIS-related professional duties count, regardless of job titles. In awarding points toward certification, the committee eventually chose to recognize three different levels of GIS responsibility, with a bonus level for supervisory experience—the more difficult and challenging the duties, the more the points earned.

To recognize the experience of long-standing GIS professionals who do not meet the education and contribution standards, through the end of 2008 established professionals have the opportunity to obtain certification solely on the basis of their experience. This grandfathering provision, however, does not apply to recertification, which is required for all GISPs every five years. The recertification requirements emphasize contributions to the profession, in seven categories: publications, involvement with professional associations, participation in conferences, giving presentations, teaching workshops, receiving awards, and other GIS contributions.

Prior to certification, all applicants must sign the Code of Ethics, which was approved by the boards of directors of GISCI and URISA in 2003. While it applies to all GIS professionals, it is only enforced for GISPs and violations may result in revocation or suspension of the certification.

Initially, GISCI was going to be a branch of URISA, Grams says. However, given that the certification program benefits the whole geospatial community, it was decided that it would be better to create an independent organization to run it, supported by application fees. Starting last year, all member organizations appoint an equal number of representatives to the institute's board of directors.

Fields with licensure, Grams points out, usually don't have certification programs and, vice versa, fields that do not require state government regulation create certification programs to provide some regulatory process. "GISCI cannot restrict practice. We are simply adding a voluntary, self-regulated check for the profession and the public."

"Unfortunately," Grams continues, "there isn't a great litmus test for when a profession requires a license. In Rhode Island, a lobsterman requires a license. A rule of thumb is that certification endorses expertise, while licensure protects the public from incompetent practice."

Grams also emphasizes that GISCI certification, which is only entering its fourth year of operation, is meant to be evolutionary. By comparison, he points out, it took 40 years between the time the first and last states instituted licensure requirements for civil engineers. "The next step of the evolution is to ratchet up the core-competency requirements. The possible next step after that could be an examination-based system coupled with the portfolio-based system."

To this end, GISCI is now seeking comments from the GIS community and GISPs, through the end of April, on a proposal to fundamentally change the way it certifies GISPs— possibly leading to the development of a GISP examination that would identify a "wider and more defined range of expertise," on the basis of the core competency areas listed in the "Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge" recently completed by UCGIS.

GISCI is considering modifying its GISP application to include a requirement for applicants to certify that they have the range of knowledge, skills, and abilities listed in that report, through some combination of education and experience. Eventually, GISCI could develop a GISP certification examination based on these standards.

How will the certification process evolve to keep up with changes in the technology and in the mix of practitioners? "We are trying to incorporate more and more of the UCGIS body of knowledge into the program," says Grams. "Although the technology may change, those core principles will remain the same. GISCI has the most rigorous recertification guidelines in its field or related fields. To earn contribution points, they also have to be interacting with the community, keeping up on the changes in the technology. We'd rather have fewer GIS professionals than to certify people who really only have a cursory knowledge of the technology."

Are states going to start licensing GIS professionals? "States are probably going to try to develop programs if it becomes a viable source of revenue for them," Grams says. "The work that a GIS professional does is very different from that of a licensed surveyor. We look at the NCEES model law as a base and we are asking GIS professionals to only work within their sphere of knowledge and education. If they don't, we could possibly remove their GISP credential or, through our ethical procedures, we could censure them."

This process, Grams admits, does nothing to evaluate how good someone is at GIS. "Neither licensure nor certification is going to prevent someone from making a mistake. The role of each is to ensure that minimum qualifications exist on the front end and a method for dealing with mistakes exists on the back end."

GIS Organizations

  1. Association of American Geographers (AAG) -
  2. American Congress on Surveying & Mapping (ACSM) -
  3. American Society for Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing (ASPRS) -
  4. Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA) -
  5. Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS) -
  6. National Council of Examiners for Engineering & Surveying (NCEES) -
  7. National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) -
  8. University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) -
  9. Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) -

About the Author

  • Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo is the president of Pale Blue Dot Research, Writing, and Editing, LLC (, which specializes in public policy and geospatial technologies. He has been writing about geospatial technologies since 2000 for six different technical publications and was previously a public policy research analyst for a private think tank and for state and local government agencies.

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