Do we need a GIS Certificate?

A nationwide GIS Certificate has been in place since January 2004, run by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). If you pay $250, demonstrate some GIS experience and sign a Code of Ethics you can become a GIS Professional (GISP).

Developing the Certificate wasn't easy and many people worked hard on it. But not everyone is convinced that it is necessary.

According to Francis Harvey a professor at the University of Minnesota:

achievement of skill-level, point-based certification approaches such as that being promoted by URISA ... can become so nonspecific as to be meaningless for employers looking for concrete measures of job candidates' skills and abilities.
Harvey concludes that such vagueness makes the certificate meaningless by itself.

As a cartographer who sees GIS as part of mapping and not the other way around, it's particularly chastening and dispiriting to see "cartography and visualization" being given such a small "walk-on" part. GISCI should read Keith Clarke's textbook, Getting Started with GIS (Fourth Edition), which shows how GIS has its roots in cartography.

To get a GISCI Certificate, applicants must sign a Code of Ethics. In fact, the code came before the certificate and was being discussed as early as 1993 by Will Craig. At that time, Craig argued that a certificate based on training was worse than a code of ethics that has to do with how someone performs.

Craig also argued strongly for enforcement and sanctions for code violations. As far as I can see, however, there are none in the present certificate. Sanctions in other organizations include private and public censure as well as being disbarred from membership.

The GISCI Certificate and the Code of Ethics seem to me to be seriously deficient. I'm not opposed to either in principle, but a certificate that baldly asserts the irreproachable "scientificity" of its subject, and a Code of Ethics that lacks sanctions and acknowledgement of the power structures of GIS knowledge are, to my mind, divorced from reality.

[Ed. note: The preceding is a shorter version of my GeoWorld column earlier this year. After publishing it I received a bumper load of email on the topic. As this is Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day, it seems timely to bring this issue up again].

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