Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The GIS Certification emperor has no clothes

Today there has been a flurry of discussion about the GISP certification on twitter. I thought I would repost an article that I originally had published in Geospatial Solutions magazine in November 2003 (!!), which I can no longer find online (except in obscure archives). I think that everything there is still relevant (the "grandfathering" provision I refer to is no longer available, but it is still relevant in that many people received their GISP this way). I know and like various people involved with the program, and believe that they have good intentions, but continue to feel that it is misguided for the reasons I outline below. I have no issue with the code of ethics part of the program. And I also have no issue with a certification program that actually attempts to measure competency or skills in some specific way (for example ESRI has announced a more specific program that will evaluate skills with their products, which makes more sense to me). But I still don't see how GISP in any way evaluates a person's competency. Anyway, here's the old article, unchanged from 2003 ... (also, the FAQs on the GISCI site that I reference haven't changed since then!)

The Certification Emperor Has No Clothes
Peter Batty, Nov 1, 2003
Geospatial Solutions Magazine

The GIS certification process recently rolled out by URISA and others aims to "recommend a formal system to evaluate the competency of professionals whose primary job responsibility involves the design and use of geographic information systems" (see www.gisci.org). But a major argument against GIS certification is stated in the frequently asked questions (FAQ) at the certification site.

In answer to the question "Why not test an individual's knowledge of GIS skills to certify competence as other professions do?" the FAQ responds: "It is felt that general agreement on the skills needed for the GIS profession has not yet been achieved, given that there are so many different professions that use GIS technology . . . it is very difficult to design a single examination that can fairly evaluate the basic skills needed". After "not yet been" I would add "and will never be". The range of spatial applications and technologies, and skills needed, continues to diversify rapidly and promises to do so well into the future.

The problem of creating an exam is swept under the carpet by requiring formal GIS education in order to be certified. The obvious issue with this is that the great majority of GIS professionals do not have any formal GIS education. To overcome this objection, there is a grandfathering provision, which allows anyone with eight years of technical experience in the industry to become certified. How this evaluates anyone's competency is a mystery.

Furthermore, a five-year recertification process requires one to do a certain amount of GIS-related education. The problem with this is that the most appropriate development path for many GIS professionals may not be to take academic GIS study. It may instead be to learn more about XML, or environmental policies, or relational database tuning, or utility network design. To insist that someone has to do education within a very narrowly defined set of GIS courses or conferences would do the industry a major disservice. This is not to say that a continuing GIS education is bad. It may be a great option for some people. But it is just one of many valid options to help people do their GIS-related jobs better.

In 2008, the grandfathering option goes away, which means that a prerequisite to being certified is to have obtained a degree in GIS. If anyone took certification seriously, this would massively reduce the talent available to the spatial industry as the 99.9 percent of people who have degrees in other subjects would be excluded. Obviously I don't think that will happen, but again it begs the question of why bother with the certification process?

Does certification pass the test?
Many of the reasons advanced for certification do not stand up to scrutiny. One is helping employers with recruitment. But a glance at someone's resume will give much greater insight into whether someone is appropriately qualified for a position than certification does. Another is that "it is felt that the nation's taxpayers deserve assurance that competent and ethical GIS professionals are being hired with their public tax dollars". I smile at the thought of millions of taxpayers lying awake at night worrying about the competence of their government's GIS professionals. Personally, I'd prefer that the GIS professionals my tax dollars are funding be doing their jobs rather than spending time applying for a certificate that bears no relation to their competence. It is even claimed that GIS certification will improve the lives of citizens, which seems like a particularly desperate attempt at justification.

As spatial technology expands into the mainstream, a hugely diverse range of skills is required to implement systems and move the industry forward. The space is so broad that it makes no sense to try to have a certification process. To implement a consistent process, the certification criteria need to be either so broad that they're meaningless (as with grandfathering) or so narrow that they apply to a tiny fraction of relevant people, and would greatly hamper the industry if anyone took certification seriously.

We should not be trying to hide spatial technology in the back room and restrict who can use it. Instead, we should be promoting usage by everyone.


Anonymous said...

You raise some good points but your discussion on the education component of the certification process is not accurate:

"In 2008, the grandfathering option goes away, which means that a prerequisite to being certified is to have obtained a degree in GIS."

This is simply not true. Yes, it helps a lot to have a degree but it doesn't necessarily have to be in GIS. When I got certified (and recently re-certified) the primary component that helped most was my work experience.

Peter Batty said...

Hi Chris, thanks for clarifying that. I believe that was correct in 2003 (there was quite a bit of discussion on my article at the time, and nobody challenged that statement then). So if that has changed (or was incorrect initially) then that's a good thing. But there still seems to be a very strong focus on formal "GIS" education which as I said, still seems to me to be a bad thing, both in terms of potentially excluding very talented people, and because as I say in the article, other types of education may be more appropriate for some people to do their GIS-related job better. And again, I'm not saying that GIS education is a bad thing, just that GIS is such a diverse field that for many roles other types of education or training may be more important.

Anonymous said...

GIS Certification is an excellent qualification tool I can use to hire GIS staff while getting around the requirement for potential employees to have a University Degree. This satisfies the union and HR requirements. I can be confident of a GISP's skills based on this certification. Have you ever worked through the application process? It takes effort and dedication to get certified! The GISP certification provides a quick and easy way to evaluate potential hires.

Peter Batty said...

Anonymous, your first argument is a strange one to me. You are saying that your organization won't let you hire people without a degree, although you regard them as qualified for a particular job? And that GISP is good because it gives you a loophole to work around that limitation? Surely the right approach to that is to fix your hiring process?! That seems like a very special case justification!

From what I can see, the only way to get a GISP without having a degree is either to have attended 300 days of GIS conferences (hard to do!), or to to have got in through the grandfathering clause, which only required that you have worked in GIS for 8 years (and can fill out the complex form). You say "I can be confident of a GISP's skills based on this certification" but one of my primary points is that you know nothing about a person's specific skills from the fact that they have a GISP. All you know for sure is that they have some experience working in "GIS" - which is a broad field so there's no guarantee at all that they have any experience that is remotely applicable to your particular job.

GISP might provide a "quick and easy" way to filter applicants, but that is not the same as a good way to filter applicants. By applying that filter you might well be eliminating outstanding candidates for the job and coming up with a short list with nobody who is well qualified. I have to say it really disturbs me if people are actually using GISP as a filter in this way.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the confusion regarding the hiring "loophole." I agree with the fact that the whole prerequisite for a degree is nonsense when it comes to IT and GIS, however, it is very difficult in local government to change opinions and perceptions! One step at a time I guess.

As for a good way to filter applicants, once again, I agree with you. If I am hiring a senior GIS Analyst, knowing what it takes to satisfy the GISCI's application process helps to perform a quick filter. Any good hiring manager would not just use the GISP certification to completely filter out candidates. That is just common sense.

As for the grandfathering clause, this clause is designed to recognize GIS professionals who may have already demonstrated their knowledge and experience in the field. In fact, many certification boards even consider the grandfathering program so valuable, they allow their applicants to certify without the exam requirement. I don't believe this is something GISCI just dreamed up.

In the future, a comprehensive exam is duly applicable to the GISP certification process. And, times are changing. Most folks in the GIS profession nowadays have access to all sorts of training, unlike the first generation of GIS professionals. This training should now prepare the second generation of GIS professionals for a certification exam.

Mike said...

If I could get everyone wanting to be ‘competitive’ in the geospatial market place to give me $250, I would make a lot of money. If when everyone had paid up and was ‘even’, I would change the rules, maybe add a test or specialty sub-groups. Then, until you paid me again for the new certification you would not be ‘professional’. And so on…..

Don’t even pull that GISP out in front of this geo-grayhair.

Tim said...

Plain and simple, GISP is a great way to identify people who are committed to a career in the geospatial field and have participated in well-rounded experiences of this practice area: educational, employment, and professional society aspects.

GISP in no way has ever been meant to be a licensure or verification of specific skills. Perhaps some day it will have a exam component, an idea considered from its inception, but not implemented thus far.

As an employer (and GISP myself), it has been one good way to help gauge in a stack of resumes who might be a better investment to fill a long-term GIS position.

Anonymous said...

GISP has no relevance in my book to determine someone’s GIS abilities. How can one judge or assess one's GIS capabilities with GISP certification or even from an exam? The exam idea may work if the exam was written for a particular position you are trying to fill.

Also, where does this $250 dollars go? Will I receive a raise? If I was a social worker certifications/licenses requirements for most pay scales. To make more money a master’s degree is needed and one most apply for the license (example LSWA or something). How can this be accomplished in GIS?

Lastly, I feel a little upset that some are using this to weed out possible candidates for job openings. So you are saying that since someone completed the lengthy GISP certification form they are more skilled? This approach doesn't seem fair or even helpful to your process since GISP certification has no real value.

Thank you for brining this article back into this discussion!

STGISP (Self trained geographic information systems professional)

Jamie said...

I have a degree in Geography/GIS, have worked in the industry since 1995; could have easily been gradfathered in, yet I chose not to.

My resume shows loads of GIS experience, but I couldn't figure out how I might benefit from having the GISP letters.

I may actually be less inclined to hire someone who thought being a GISP would make them qualified.

I'm not going to pay $250 to show I'm committed to my career. Again, 15 years in the industry speaks to that.

Anonymous said...

I too had enough experience to qualify for the GISP cert before the 2008 deadline--yet, I chose not to.

I think this certification is diluted and, as a GIS manager, I would care very little about it during recruitment. If my top candidate had one that would be great. If my top candidate never had a GIS course and a degree in comp sci, even better.

Peter got it right when he said that the GISP certification tries to blanket such a diverse field as spatial information management. If someone came out with certifications such as "Database Professional" or "Computer Expert" what would that tell me? I'd be looking for Oracle, Microsoft, or some vendor-specific certification.

Unknown said...

Found this forum on google after a search for the importance of GIS Certification. I'm a graduate students studying Public Administration with a concentration in Metro Planning, but my program offers no GIS related coursework (a disservice in my opinion). The school I am at does offer a GIS certification program (20 hours) and since I'm a students already I could fit it in my schedule next semester.
My question is: Is it worth it? Will certification for someone with no experience even sway an employer?
I feel like it would be a good start at least since my program isn't a Urban Planning degree, but just a concentration.