It’s hard to believe my second career as a “GIS evangelist” is now going into its 10th year. But as the Romans used to say, tempus fugit.* 

It’s hard to believe my second career as a “GIS evangelist” is now going into its 10th year. But as the Romans used to say, tempus fugit.*

Initially, my approach was to provide a window into the “mysteries” of geographic information systems for surveyors who were not familiar with this elephant that lumbered onto our landscape. More recently, I have been focusing my efforts on assuring the survey community that the door to success with GIS is still wide open.

But, as I was told many years ago, “Be mindful of ticks, especially politics.” Ever since GIS stampeded into our lives, a nagging question has vexed the survey community: What is a GIS professional? We can’t understand it. We can’t get our arms around it. We all understand the formula for becoming a professional surveyor: Get a license. But what makes a GIS professional a GISP?

The Role of the GISCI

There is no licensing procedure to become a GISP. Instead, there is the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), a body created for the purpose of defining and certifying those elements that meet the standards for professionalism in the field of GIS.

The need to certify professionals working in the new and rapidly exploding field of GIS was recognized very early on. Several ideas were floated in the early and mid-1990s when the question of who was going to own the GIS was a source of considerable controversy.

Several state licensing boards looked into the issue, but all of them rejected the idea for a variety of reasons. So it fell to the largest GIS-user organization, the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), to devise a plan for certification. In 2004, URISA formed GISCI as a separate organization. Originally managed by URISA, the institute is now operated by four member organizations: URISA, Association of American Geographers (AAG), the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), and the University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS).

Figure 1. The professional experience component is weighted by the level of participation in three sub-tiers.

No Exam Required

The GISCI differs from licensing bodies in several ways. One part of the GISCI approach that generates some controversy is the absence of a written examination, which is primarily because there is nothing “state specific” in the makeup of most GIS work.

Following is the GISCI policy statement regarding licensure:

Licensure is the granting of a license to practice a profession after meeting minimum competency requirements. Licensure is used to guard against incompetence or when consumers value a reduction in downside risk more than the benefits of a positive outcome. GISCI feel the downside risks of negligent and unethical GIS practice do not warrant the intense regulation and restriction brought on by mandatory licensure. GISPs are expected to work within jurisdictional law and the GISCI Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct.

A Points-Based System

In lieu of a formal written examination, the URISA Certification Committee eventually developed a tiered point system. The committee spent four years obtaining information and opinions from its membership and related organizations. The result was a points-based self-documented certification process.

There are three component parts (tiers) to GISCI certification:

•           Educational achievements (minimum score 30)

•           Professional experience (minimum score 60)

•           Contributions to the profession (minimum score 8)

The total minimum number of points required is 150 in any combination. The educational achievement component can be satisfied with degrees, certificates and coursework in any combination; no specific GIS degree is needed. The only requirement is that “subject matter must relate directly to geospatial science or related technology, and applications.” Yes, that would include a degree in surveying. And documentation is required.

Prior to Dec. 31, 2008, there was a grandfathering provision that allowed GIS users with many years of experience to waive the education achievement in whole or in part. Now, however, anyone seeking to become certified must fulfill the education requirements.

The professional experience component is a bit trickier. The requirement is for four years of “GIS application or data development. (Or equivalent).” The key word in this rather prosaically innocuous requisition is development. The more deeply the applicant is involved in the development of systems and data, the higher the point value of the experience.

Experience is weighted by the level of participation in three sub-tiers (see Figure 1). The Programmer or Similar level (Tier 1), which includes the development, construction and management of GIS systems, earns 25 points for each year. Tier 2, Technician, Educator or Similar, earns 15 points per year. Tier 3, GIS User, which can include elements of Tiers 1 and 2 without the formal title, earns 10 points for each year of experience.

One interesting difference between GIS certification and surveying licensure is the hierarchy of the map. To file a map, a land surveyor must first be licensed. To be certified as a GIS professional, one must have demonstrated some skill in map creation on his or her résumé.

The contributions to the profession component is perhaps the most interesting of the tiers. Included in this category is participation in industry conferences and events--specifically: “Modest involvement with publications, professional associations, conference participation, workshop instruction, awards, etc.” I often participate in brainstorming sessions at conferences. A question that comes up nearly every time is, Why is it that those who most need to attend these conferences rarely, if ever, show up?

The contributions requirement for certification reinforces the need to be active in the professional community. There are several ways to satisfy this requirement. Points are awarded for membership in local, state and national geospatial organizations. Points can also be earned by attending conferences, presenting workshops, authoring publications and receiving awards.

One of the concepts I found most interesting was the certification committee’s approach to scoring applications. As the committee coordinator noted, “Flexibility was, and will continue to be, the guiding principle.” This statement underscores the committee’s determination to reach out to all sectors of the geospatial community. Some members of the original certification committee were concerned that a tiered approach would establish a GIS hierarchy. This hierarchy could limit the opportunity for advancement and develop an industrywide sense of elitism. Clearly, they did not want to create that type of culture but rather leave the door open to a broader group of applicants--and, of course, new ideas.


There are also differences in the processes and procedures involved in keeping and maintaining certification compared to licensing. From the Recertification Manual:

As the GIS Code of Ethics is expected to prescribe, the GIS Professional has an obligation to not only be qualified for the tasks accepted, but also to keep current in the field through readings and professional development.

To keep land surveying licenses current, some states require continuing education units (CEUs) or professional development hours (PDHs), and others don’t. There is no review or oversight.

To maintain a GISP certification after a term expires, GIS professionals must submit an updated résumé indicating both continuing education and qualifying professional work was performed. Documentation is required.

Opportunities for Surveyors in GIS

One of the most common and vexing questions asked by the survey community is, Where do surveyors fit in the GIS hierarchy? The correct answer is, Wherever they want. But, more precisely, most of the opportunities for surveyors in GIS are located in what I call “the lag”--the gap between the very advanced technologies employed in GIS and the value and currency of the datasets.

At one point, the available technology could not keep pace with the “data tsunami.” However, that is no longer the case. Storage and bandwidth capabilities are now far out in front of data collection and conversion.

Surveyors clearly are geospatial professionals. We are no longer confined to the narrow constraints of our historic role as guardians of the cadastre. Our expertise is valuable currency in the world of land information systems. There is still plenty of room for surveyors under the GIS umbrella.

It’s also worth considering, however, that some of the concepts and approaches used in the practice of GIS are equally useful to the survey community.

For more information about the GISCI, including GISP certification requirements and the code of conduct, visit

* time flies

Author’s note: Portions of this article are based on “The History of the GISCI Certification Program” by Scott Grams, online at