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Digital Mapping Techniques '01 -- Workshop Proceedings
U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 01-223

The Growing Issue of GIS Certification and Its Possible Ramifications to Geological Mapping Science

By David J. McCraw

New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources
801 Leroy Place
Socorro, NM 87801
Telephone: (505) 835-5594
Fax: (505) 835-6333


Since the mid 1990s, the issue of GIS certification has been growing. Controversy surrounds the issue, often fueled with reactionary sentiment, to the point that it is not always clear exactly what is being implied by the term "GIS certification." Indeed, while it is most commonly associated with the certification of GIS practitioners, or people, it is not uncommon to see the term being applied to GIS data. The certification issues applied to both people and data are discussed below and their possible ramifications to geologic mapping science are examined.


The call for certification of GIS professionals originates from 3 main sources: 1) the certified and licensed surveying profession via the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), 2) the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and 3) a handful of (over-?) zealous GIS academicians. Why is there a need to certify? Apparently certification and licensure is carried out to protect consumers and the general public and to benefit the profession. Are GIS data used to determine official and legal location? The answer is no. Does the public need protection from management issues that are derived from the implications of a GIS dataset or database? Doubtful. Thus, the only logical justification for certification is to benefit the profession by assuring that GIS individuals meet basic levels of competency and follow a code of ethics. This in itself is not a bad thing. It will become clear from the discussion of these three certification-proposing bodies below that GIS certification is both real and imminent. Ultimately, it will be the GIS profession's choice how it defines and handles certification.

The NCEES Model Law Controversy

In 1995, NCEES modified its Model Law on surveying to include the practice of photogrammetry and included references to GIS and LIS use when applied to surveying activities. Photogrammetrists' concerns were addressed in 1997 when the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ASCM), the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), participated with the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) on a task force to modify the Model Law. This 1995 revision in the Model Law is what initiated the GIS certification controversy. The surveying communities in a few states (e.g., California, North Carolina) were able to convince their legislators to mandate that surveyors participate in specific aspects of GIS. Specifically, spatial data at the parcel level must have a surveyor involved in the compilation, maintenance, and quality certification of that data. Suddenly, it appeared to many people that any agency using GIS-derived base maps created by GIS personnel unsupervised by a licensed surveyor could be in violation of the law.

The GIS community became active in the review of the NCEES Model Law in 1999 when the task force was expanded to include representatives of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) and the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC). The main concerns of GIS practitioners with the Model Law include: the breadth of the preamble (definition section), the reference to specific GIS/LIS tools in the preamble, and the concern that many aspects of GIS should clearly not be under the jurisdiction of a surveyor (J. R. Plasker in Somers, 2000). (This review of the Model Law by these GIS task force members can be downloaded in pdf format at Kemp (2000b)). The problem in the preamble occurs where it defines the practice of surveying using GIS/LIS tools: ". . .creating, preparing, or modifying electronic or computerized data, including land information systems, and geographic information systems, relative to the performance of the activities in the above described items (a) through (c)." Plasker (in Somers, 2000, p. 28) states: ". . .on closer reading, the subsections (a) through (c) define areas of surveying practice that are generally not controversial in their definition; nevertheless, the perception that the Model Law intends to place additional controls on GIS use can, and probably should be mitigated." However, he goes on to state that recent developments in GIS and related geospatial data technologies (e.g., improved accuracies in GPS and the elimination of selective availability) do now allow unregulated practitioners "to accomplish certain surveying activities [that could become] detrimental to general public safety or individuals' property rights" (in Somers, 2000, p. 28). Because of this, J. S. Greenfield (in Somers, 2000), a surveyor, sees the need for a surveyor (or perhaps a certified GIS technician) to supervise and certify GIS parcel data.

The International Certification Movement of the ISO

The ISO is a global federation of national standards bodies from 130 countries whose directive is to develop voluntary international standards covering all technical fields except electrical and electronic engineering. It is comprised of numerous technical committees staffed by qualified individuals from the private sector, research universities and institutes, national governments, and international organizations. The goal of Technical Committee 211, Geographic Information/Geomatics' is "to establish a structured set of standards for information concerning objects or phenomena that are directly or indirectly associated with a location relative to the Earth. These standards may specify, for GI [Geographic Information], methods, tools, and services for data management (including definition and description), acquiring, processing, analyzing, accessing, presenting, and transferring such data in digital/electronic form between different users, systems, and locations" (ISO/TC211 website, As Kemp (2000a) points out, there is no reference to developing a set of standards for the people who work in GI.

In 1998 however, Canadian representatives of ISO/TC211 proposed a work item on "qualifications and certification of personnel" so as better to assess the qualifications of consultants seeking funding from foreign aid agencies for work in developing countries. Dr. Robert Maher, of the Centre of Geographic Sciences in Nova Scotia, drafted TC211 document N573, which called for the committee to:

This proposal was voted upon in March 1999 in Vienna, Austria. Of the 32 countries eligible to vote, 12 voted for, 9 against, and 11 abstained. The United States and the majority of the EU all voted against the proposal, largely based upon the position that it is inappropriate for a technical standards organization to determine and establish international professional credentials. Opposition was also raised by the International Cartographic Association (ICA), the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), and the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS). Nevertheless, as ISO protocol only requires a majority acceptance, the proposal was established as Project 19122, with Maher designated as project leader. The project is proceeding (see Kemp, 2001c) and a final report addressing the requirements called for in document N573 is due in September 2001.

Advocacy by GIS Professors and Organizations

Although certification of GIS professionals has only become a major issue in the last five years or so, the idea has been around for awhile and can be first found in the literature in Goodchild and Kemp (1992), Burley (1993), and Obermeyer (1993). Responding to the certification program established for photogrammetrists by the ASPRS in 1991, a dozen or so GIS academicians have been actively pursuing certification for GIS technicians. Perhaps the most active or vocal of these has been William Huxhold of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the current president of the University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS). He states: "after 25 or more years in implementing and using GIS, the state of GIS professionalism in the U.S. remains as it was back in the 1960s and 1970s: no professional standards for GIS professionals, and no accreditation of educational programs that confer GIS certificates" [his boldface] (Huxhold, 2001a).

Citing Pugh's (1989) attributes of a profession, first evaluated in light of GIS by Obermeyer (1993), Huxhold (2001a) claims that while GIS has a specialized body of knowledge, a mission, a formal organization, a common language, specialized training, and a culture and lore, it lacks Pugh's final 2 profession-defining attributes: a code of ethics and certification. Although Craig (1993) first called upon GIS practitioners to establish a code of ethics, no standard has been established, according to Huxhold (2001a). He concludes that in spite of the fact that up to a half million people are working in GIS in the U.S. (his calculation), there is no "profession" of GIS. Furthermore, Huxhold noted an article published in U.S. News Online in November of 1999 that reported that the "data mapper" was one of the 21 hot new careers for the 21st Century (Huxhold in Somers, 2000; Huxhold, 2001b). To summarize his viewpoint, if GIS does not establish accreditation of academic programs and certification of its personnel, we'll all just be data mappers.

In addition to several active GIS professors individually seeking certification of GIS personnel, two major GIS organizations, URISA and UCGIS, are now actively pursuing certification. URISA established a certification committee in July of 1998 which now seats 26 members from government, private industry, and academia. It is currently working on a program to develop and distinguish between GIS "core skills," to be required of all certified GIS practitioners, and additional discipline-dependent skills specific to some 23 different fields ( A special edition of the URISA Journal devoted entirely to certification and related issues is planned for summer or fall of 2001.

In November 1998, UCGIS organized a "Summit on Geographic Information Science" at the national GIS/LIS Conference. Representatives from 11 "GIS-interested" professional organizations discussed certification activities amongst GIS educational issues (see education link at In conclusion, there can be little doubt that given the efforts of both GIS professionals and professional organizations, to an extent in response to the NCEES Model Law and to the international efforts of ISO Technical Committee 211, GIS certification in some form is imminent in the U.S.


The benefits of certification are listed at the top of the URISA Certification website ( career recognition through evaluation and approval of individuals, improvement of performance leading to greater career productivity and increased customer/client satisfaction, and ability to remain current in the field through renewal requirements of the certification program. Huxhold (2001a) lists additional benefits of certification: 1) it helps define the profession; 2) it assures quality in work performed; 3) it sets a standard of competency; 4) it helps prospective employers identify qualified individuals; 5) it ensures continued expertise; and 6) it improves the marketability of the professional. He suggests that certified practitioners will have higher salaries than non-certified workers.

At an Internet discussion site on certification hosted by the URISA Certification committee, approximately half of the commentors are quite opposed to certification. Major oppositional themes cited there include: 1) it is an unnecessary bureaucracy; 2) the cost of certification hurts the individuals who must pay to be certified and only benefits the certifying organization; 3) it threatens free-market principles by hindering advancement of the field; 4) it can place limits on skills and skill development and 5) it can incite workplace resentment and other feelings of ill will. In addition, it is unclear whether there will be any type of grandfather clause exempting those with large amounts of experience in the field.

The overall control of the certification process is an important issue. Who will administer certification of GIS professionals? Cordova (1999) sums up the potential problems that could arise as this issue is answered: "An undignified scramble to corner the market is inevitable. . .a cottage industry of competing certification organizations, and, eventually, an entire class of associated bureaucrats will arise. . .when a national standard finally emerges, those who hold substandard certificates will have to start the process over again. The next step will be designating accrediting organizations to certify the certifiers, and so forth. Workers will have no choice but to participate in the scam, at their expense, because their livelihoods will depend on getting that certificate." Keith Clarke (in Somers, 2000) points out that to place control of certification in a single, possibly self-appointed body, with broad authority to set standards, content, curriculums, and testing is like "trying to shut the barn door after the horse has long ago bolted." He argues that, like the Internet, GIS is owned by everyone and no one should attempt to control "the geography in g-commerce." He concludes that while some form of GIS certification is inevitable, "at best, it will die its own harmless death from redundancy and datedness. At worst, it could cost our nation the lead in the most exciting enterprise of the new world era" (Clarke in Somers, 2000).


As alluded to above, the issue of GIS certification is often confusing because it is unclear whether the discussion centers around certifying people or their data. The idea that GIS data must be certified, however, is both redundant (assuming the dataset is backed up or "certified" by its metadata) and unnecessary. GIS data are referential in nature. Base maps in a GIS are not the record of original survey measurements but are instead representations of these original documents. Bruce Joffe (in Somers, 2000) summarizes what steps should be taken to protect the public from an inappropriate use of non-certified GIS map data: 1) GIS mapped features should explicitly refer to their source documents and be supported with easy-to-understand metadata; 2) GIS maps and data should always contain an explicit statement of intended use and a disclaimer for other uses, i.e., "this is not the product of a survey;" 3) Public officials should avoid implying that their GIS maps determine official location; and 4) GIS data that have been manipulated to create coherent displays when combined with other data should retain the original mapped coordinates as feature attributes, as well as metadata describing the data transformations.

Any certification of data must be flexible due to the variability of GIS use across several technical and non-technical fields. The very nature of GIS use, i.e., as a tool, is procedural based. There are variability in data requirements for different applications. Because of this, data accuracy at a certain level may not always be required and thus certification of that data is unnecessary.

Instead of GIS data certification, GIS professionals should establish a data verification process on any new dataset. This should involve checking both the data and the metadata for compliance to local, state, and federal standards. It is the responsibility of the GIS supervisor to understand the level of accuracy required and to be able to evaluate the metadata in order to guarantee that level has been met. The metadata thus become instrumental in this verification process. If the data and metadata specifications do not match, then the data should be considered suspect.


It appears that agencies that carry out digital geological mapping would benefit from the establishment of formal GIS certification. Large organizations with sizeable human resource bureaucracies (e.g., the USGS, and a few of the larger state surveys) will save time in the evaluation process of applicants by relying on their certificates. Small organizations with limited resources and knowledge (e.g., most state surveys) can hopefully avoid hiring mistakes by requiring certificates. However, geological GIS specialists must have extensive knowledge and experience in other disciplines beyond the GIS fundamentals. Besides a background in geology, the geological GIS specialist should have an understanding of both soil science and geography, ESPECIALLY the sub-discipline of geography that is cartography! Any GIS technician can compile datasets and produce a "GIS map," but it takes a highly trained individual to take numerous, highly complex types of geologic and/or pedologic datasets, and combine them into both a functional and beautiful geologic map. That, after all, has always been the goal of geological mapping science, both in the days of traditional, photomechanical cartography and today.

As mentioned above, URISA's Certification Committee is developing certification guidelines for both the core GIS fundamentals as well as "add-on" skills pertinent to some 23 defined disciplines. One wonders who will establish the necessary standards in these distinct discipline areas. One would hope and expect that these would not be developed by the URISA committee. Have any geologists or cartographers been contacted to develop a necessary list of skills needed for certification in these disciplines? One also wonders to what extent it will become necessary for GIS practitioners to be certified in both fundamentals and in the application of GIS in their respected disciplines. The case should be made that the geological GIS specialist, for example, would need add-on skills in not one, but three distinct proposed discipline areas: 1) Geoscience, Geology, & Soils Engineering, 2) Geography & Cartography, and 3) Environmental Science & Natural Resources. After GIS certification is established and is a criteria for employment, will the geological GIS specialist need these 3 special certificates in addition to the basic GIS certificate?

It can be argued that a majority of the geological GIS specialists learned of their geological / pedological / cartographic / environmental / and natural resource skills primarily from on-the-job training. One could also argue that many of these specialists actually developed their GIS fundamental skills on-the-job as well. Is it really necessary that these individuals take these competency exams? Perhaps many of the larger surveys and agencies would pay for the training and examination, but can they afford the time involved away from geological mapping? And what would happen to those who failed the tests and yet are nonetheless highly competent?

Finally, can the state surveys afford to pay the higher salaries that certified GIS practitioners would demand? Probably not. So must these agencies hire fewer specialists to handle greater workloads or will they be resigned to hire "substandard," non-certified personnel? Will morale be affected when a new, inexperienced but certified individual is hired at a comparable salary to that of the uncertified geological GIS mapping specialist who has collected extensive experience in the many facets of his or her profession?


While the call for certification of GIS personnel can be traced to the early 1990s, the issue has gained prominence in the early 2000s. This has come about in response to the NCEES Model Law controversy brought about by U.S. surveyors, to the efforts of the Canadian delegation of ISO's Technical Committee 211 on the international front, and to the strong advocacy for certification by a number of GIS academicians and the GIS organizations in which they actively participate. There are many pros and cons to the issue and it appears that the GIS profession as a whole is quite divided. Discussions surrounding the issue are often complicated by the implication that GIS data need be certified as well as the GIS personnel who create, manipulate, present and maintain it. This is unnecessary if FGDC-compliant ("certified") metadata and legal disclaimers accompany the data.

While GIS certification could be of obvious benefit to the human resources departments that hire geological GIS mapping specialists, its overall benefit to the geological mapping agencies is questionable. Although it would provide a minimum level of competency, geological GIS specialists "wear too many hats" to be pigeonholed into a simple certification specialty area. This could prove to be costly to both the individual and to his or her agency. Higher salaries demanded by certified GIS technicians will likely put additional strains on the geologic agency and its GIS workplace. In summary, it appears that GIS certification will have an overall negative impact on geological mapping science to the point where geological mapping agencies should and likely will ignore it.


Burley, J. B., 1993, GIS certification: Precedents and choices: Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Vol. 5, no.2, p. 17-19.

Craig, W. J.,1993, A GIS code of ethics: What can we learn from other organizations?: Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Vol. 5, no. 2, p. 13-16.

Cordova, H., 1999, GIS certification sparks second thoughts: GeoWorld, v. 12, p. 8-9, 1999/0599/599form.asp.

Goodchild, M. F., and Kemp, K. K., 1992, GIS accreditation: What are the options?: American Congress of Surveying and Mapping Bulletin, November-December, p. 44-47.

Huxhold, W. E., 2001a, Certifying GIS professionals: Urban and Regional Information Systems Association,

Huxhold, W. E., 2001b, GIS certification and accreditation: It's time to get serious (lest we all become "data mappers"): draft submitted to GeoInfo Systems, available at Kemp (2000b).

Kemp, K. K., 2000a, Background on international GIS professional certification efforts: [unpublished manuscript],

Kemp, K. K., 2000b, Professional certification in GIS, current activities around the world: [unpublished manuscript],

Kemp, K. K., 2000c, Update on ISO TC211 meeting, Reston, VA, Sept. 4-5, 2000: [unpublished manuscript],

Obermeyer, N. J., 1993, Certifying GIS professionals: Challenges and alternatives: Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Vol. 5, no. 1, p. 67-76.

Obermeyer, N. J., and Onsrud, H. J., 1997, Educational policy and GIS: Accreditation and certification: University Consortium of Geographic Information Science White Paper on accreditation and certification,

Pugh, D. L., 1989, Professionalism in public administration: Public Administration Review, Vol. 49, p. 1-8.

Somers, R., 2000, Defining the GIS profession and debating certification and regulation: Geospatial Solutions, v. 7, p. 22 (

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