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.