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Jeff Thurston — “Our technologies, research, education needs and knowledge have brought us to a time and place where we need to sit down, dwell on our goals and “how our current systems are not performing to help us build the systems we need to get to where we know we need to be. If nothing else, everything we have done has brought us to this point.”

Matt Ball — “The constantly evolving technology toolset that underpins the work of the geospatial professional makes it exceedingly hard to define a standard skill set. While accreditation may serve a segment of geospatial professionals, it will never capture all those that apply the technology.”


Geospatial technology is dependent upon professional bodies and accreditation just like all other fields of work and expertise. Yet, I think we are challenged in the geospatial industry in this regard for several reasons. Many technologies are new and ’searching for a home’, we talk about work flows, spatial data infrastructures and enterprises – all of which demands new ways of thinking and educating. Finally, the problems ahead do not arrange neatly into domains of expertise.

Some of the sectors in the geospatial industry such as surveying and photogrammetry have been around a long time, and they have a long history. The study of light goes back a long way, but the study of light ranging and detection (lidar) for geospatial use is not all that old. Geographic information systems (GIS) might seem old-hat to you and I and other professionals, but it is new to many people and really only available for general use for only a few decades.

What is a web mapping professional? Who qualifies as a 3D specialist? Do you know any building information modelling (BIM) professionals? If anyone can use Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth, does that make them a GIS professional? A cartographer?

I ask a lot of questions because there are a lot of questions. Why do surveyors seem to think the ‘environmental domain’ is their own domain, and should be regulated and controlled through engineering professional membership? If we are creating software that makes it easier to analyse remotely sensed images, then do we need remote sensing accreditation and professional bodies? If anyone can use the global positioning system (GPS) and its associated equipment (and it too has been made easier), then doesn’t it follow that that anyone can survey land fairly accurately?

There are a large number of folks who believe that free geodata arrives on their doorstep magically and it can be created out of thin air. After they work with some data for a while they discover that some things just aren’t kosher – like other data not matching with it. They discover things like buildings misaligned, or old rivers flowing through their house because they live in north London but the GPS used to collect the data had a datum from Madagascar.

Hey, I was thinking to get into brain surgery on the side as a way of making a few Euro on the weekends. I heard you had a brain problem, drop in and see me, I’ll fix you up – and give you a good deal.

It doesn’t take long to discover that it is easy to talk about professions and criticise them from the distance, but when you depend on them, then the tune changes and more professional services are demanded – “or I’ll get my lawyer.”

Yet, we have a problem in our community, or at least a big grievance.

I think the ’surveyors’ are the single largest group in the geospatial community that are under pressure to perform in new ways, that geospatial professionals look to for more leadership, that people misunderstand and who people often see as raising the flag of professional status first, but not having adequately explained it or demonstrated how it relates to a changing world of changing geospatial technologies.

Everything is based on land measurement. All geospatial tools, knowledge and applications grow in as much as surveyors enable, fuel, support, encourage, embrace and expand – other geospatial professionals. Surveyors are pivotal to all that happens in the geospatial realm. This is why they experience the largest kick-back on questions of accreditation and professional status.

We want to talk about ‘quality’ within virtual worlds, where are the surveyors on that question? We want to know why we can’t have a land measurement system that we all participate in through e-government, adding data to it, having it checked somehow and registered and how each of our work flows can match, relate and use such a system. Where are the surveyors on that? Why do we feel that we cannot overcome the barriers of legal dimensions pertaining to that profession, when all we want to do is participate and get things working?

This is an example of a paradox and challenge of professional bodies and accreditation in our system. It is not the only one. Cartographers and GIS people need to raise our hands as well and ask similar questions.

“What are we doing professionally today that hinders work flows from working?” And, how can we talk about multi-disciplinary knowledge, sharing and collaboration unless we start to take a good hard look at how our boundaries are restricting our aspirations?

Is this being critical? Nope.

It is being real.

Our technologies, research, education needs and knowledge have brought us to a time and place where we need to sit down, dwell on our goals and “how our current systems are not performing to help us build the systems we need to get to where we know we need to be. If nothing else, everything we have done has brought us to this point.

That’s a good thing.

How can we begin to look at issues of technology balanced against work flows? How can we begin in our industry to use technology, for example, in SDI alongside other issues of a sociological nature? How can we contemplate PSI without embracing the need to forge new ways of participating in e-government systems. Doesn’t all the geodata-server architecture we have already created encapsulate new possibilities? What were we thinking when we created this stuff anyhow?

Where are we going and what holds us back? Are new ways of accrediting people needed? Do we need new professional bodies as an outgrowth of the geospatial industry, groups that are geo multi-disciplinary in nature?

Yes – geospatial technology is changing the WAY we need professional bodies and accreditation.


The constantly evolving technology toolset that underpins the work of the geospatial professional makes it exceedingly hard to define a standard skill set. While accreditation may serve a segment of geospatial professionals, it will never capture all those that apply the technology.

The GISP designation that has been set up by the GIS Certification Institute, is a valid approach to verify a skill set for predominantly municipal geospatial practitioners, but I don’t see it pervading the many emerging geospatial application areas.

Tool vs. Domain Expertise
The old debate over tool expertise vs. domain expertise is a continuing issue. There’s an increasing call for geospatial tool training in disciplines that will apply the tools to problem solving and decision making vs. specifically training in the foundational tools.

The trained geospatial expert has a role in larger organizations with geospatial-centric workflows and outputs, but the tools also have a place in smaller organizations where project-based work may require the application of geospatial tools on an intermittent basis. For the geospatial-centric professional, formal education and tool-specific certification are likely adequate to convince employers to hire you or advance your career.

The practice of augmenting domain-specific training of undergraduates with foundational training in geospatial tools and skills is growing. Job requirements are driving this trend and it’s likely to continue to gain momentum. With this foundational knowledge, the requirements of a job will dictate the subsequent polishing of these skill sets, and only those that discover a geospatial calling will pursue the advanced geospatial degree. And the degree itself should be sufficient in most circles as a badge of expert status.

Customization vs. Application
The Web as a software platform has aided the evolution of customized applications that meet specific needs vs. a generic platform that is driven by skilled users. It’s gotten to the point now where almost everyone has used geospatial tools to some degree, and organizations are increasingly extending their geospatial platform investment to create customized tools specific to job workflows.

The solution set is growing stronger in business and infrastructure domains. Fit-for-purpose solutions are combining design tools with database connectivity and inline analysis with domain-specific rules. Whether it’s location intelligence or infrastructure design tools that incorporate geospatial analysis, the underpinnings to the software solutions may be geospatial, but those that use these custom tools don’t identify themselves as geospatial professionals.

With easy access to data and a growing number of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and Software Development Kits (SDKs) at the disposal of developers, the people that make these solutions aren’t required to have a geospatial background. With this growing extension of geospatial capabilities, the expert geospatial professional is an increasingly smaller subset of those that utilize geospatial tools.

With this advent, the push toward certification feels like a circling of the wagons against the gathering hordes that use the tools and may say that they know GIS. Let’s examine the reasons for creating a certified elite carefully before pushing further in that direction.

Increasingly, the geospatial toolset is becoming mixed and matched with other tools as the barriers for data sharing dissolve. With increasingly available high-resolution data, and a large number of tools that can manipulate and add to base-map layers, there’s an ever-expanding user base that don’t identify themselves by any one tool or workflow.

It’s a very difficult prospect to certify professionals when their tools and approaches don’t conform to any baseline standard. Who’s to say that any one approach is best, when the outputs and outcomes of design and analysis work are virtually indistinguishable regardless of the approach or software that was applied?

As the model-based approach gains ground, the tools of GIS, CAD and BIM will simply become different interfaces into a common reality-based virtual world. While this evolution may take some time, the vision is increasingly shared among technology providers. With those that provide the tools sharing the common objective to create mirror worlds, it’s only a matter of time before this paradigm shift reaches an inflection point for practitioners. There are relatively few foundational skills and knowledge sets that won’t be rocked by the move toward models.

It’s a dangerous time to be defining the foundational skill sets when the future evolution of the technology can go in so many different directions. While a general certification provides a community-building hook that aligns like-minded professionals, I don’t think that the idea of certification is sustainable for the majority of the users of geospatial technology. There’s just too much promise and opportunity that would be stifled by set definitions.

The GIS Certification Institute

The Certification Emperor Has No Clothes, by Peter Batty,
Geospatial Solutions, November 2003


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