A Bold New World of GIS Assessment

By Diana S. Sinton

The world of geospatial credentials and certifications continues to grow in depth and breadth. As it develops, the notion of competencies figures largely in this discussion. At a basic level, competency simply suggests a skill or ability to do something, but high competence has connotations of knowledge and skills applied in a manner that is effective, successful, proper, efficient, and maybe even with a little bit of flair. Who wouldn’t want to be regarded as highly competent? No wonder that the world of competency-based learning has been receiving much attention, though not without significant apprehension from the realm of traditional higher education, as it threatens to disrupt certain conventional notions of structured teaching and learning.

Such matters are central to GIS&T training and education. Last month Esri announced an addition to its technical certification suite, an exam designed for newer users of its software. The Desktop Entry Certification will particularly appeal to recent college graduates entering the job market and interested in documenting the technical proficiency they acquired during their education. As Esri notes in their marketing information, a degree “validates an individual’s academic accomplishment,” but this additional technical certification shows potential employers that a person can actually sit down at the computer and use the software, at least in the specific areas that Esri will be measuring.

It remains to be seen what impact the availability of this certification will have on GIS courses and curricula. For every instructor who resists someone else’s opinions about what they should cover within their GIS course, or who is passionately committed to teaching only on FOSS platforms, there will be two who carefully consider the content of the exam in designing or updating their own classes, or even who use this ArcGIS Desktop Certification exam as a proxy for their own end of term assessment.

Another geospatial credential is on the horizon, the Universal GEOINT Certification. This program is being targeted broadly, for individuals engaged with the geospatial intelligence field from diverse industries, academia or levels of government, and of course for the military as well. As Darryl Murdock, the vice president for professional development at United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation explained, “The Universal GEOINT Certification is designed to be both transparent – meaning all requirements are published and made available to aspiring professionals, including to those who are teaching geospatial intelligence related courses, and transportable – meaning it has been built by contributors from many industries and designed to be inclusive of all practitioners globally so the credential will have meaning within all industries and government positions where geospatial analytical thinking is valued.”

This GEOINT Certification is, however, not to be confused with the more specific NSG Certification Program, a newly emerging collection of tests that are designed specifically for personnel working in GEOINT analyst designated jobs within the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. NGA, as the functional manager for GEOINT for the National System for Geospatial-Intelligence, has created a set of certifications for ten different GEOINT designated jobs at Proficiency Level 2, or “full-performance.” An entry-level PL-1 exam is also required for all GEOINT analysts leading up to the job-specific PL-2 exams. There are also plans being considered for PL-3, “Advanced” and even PL-4, “Expert.” However, it is yet to be determined if and how PL-3 and PL-4 will be built, and whether experts in the field will be expected to demonstrate certain upper level proficiencies in their ability to conduct their specific GEOINT jobs, such as the essential, but more difficult to teach and measure, abilities to communicate and negotiate. Interestingly, these soft skills comprise the lower tiers of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model. In the GTCM, Personal Effectiveness, together with Academic and Workplace competencies, are perceived as being fundamentals that support the more specific geospatial industry and occupational demands. When recent updates to the GTCM were undertaken, it was in these more detailed, industry- and occupation-specific higher tier areas where changes took place.

Whether these certifications and models are undergoing initial construction or revision, one of the sources they recognize as contributing to their content is the original GIS&T Body of Knowledge. That document, developed under the auspices of the University Consortium of Geographic Information Science and published by the Association of American Geographers, is widely recognized as the first effort to document the field of geospatial knowledge. Since its 2006 publication, the GIS&T BoK has served as an important and authoritative reference book for countless curricula and initiatives. The BoK is also one source of information for an exam, which is still under development, that will be part of the GIS Certification Institutes’ revised GIS Professional Certification process.

Now, the GIS&T BoK itself is undergoing revision, a necessary step given how much has changed in the geospatial field over the last decade. Not only will the next iteration incorporate new and initially absent areas of relevant content, but the outcome of this community-driven revision process is expected to be an open-access, citable digital product.

Elsewhere, other geospatial bodies of knowledge are also in stages of development and distribution. A large network of European scholars is working on the Geographic Information: Need to Know project to generate a reference document with an eye towards specific European workforce needs.

USGIF has also just published its GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge , a resource intended to support their aforementioned new Universal GEOINT Certification. According to Murdock, designers of the EBK relied on existing authoritative sources, such as the GIS&T BoK and the GTCM, but also had its content heavily informed by input from the active GEOINT community itself. Its four primary competency areas — GIS & Analysis Tools, Remote Sensing & Imagery Analysis, Geospatial Data Management and Data Visualization — were designed to encompass the “key job tasks and essential knowledge, skills and ability required for a [GEOINT] professional to be successful.” These are coupled with cross-functional competencies in the areas of Synthesis, Reporting and Collaboration, again reflecting the type of soft skills that are widely recognized as critical complements to skills and abilities themselves.

There is no shortage of opportunities for individuals aspiring, or required, to document their geospatial knowledge. More problematic is deciding which, when and why. To date, the various entities offering certificates and credentials are demonstrating the goodwill to coordinate, for example, through formal recognitions of “understanding” and “agreement,” as well as a cooperative research and development agreement between the USGIF and NGA intended to ensure that their respective programs are complementary. NGA and USGIF have openly stated their joint goal of designing reciprocity between both programs.

Wanted: individuals who are certified, credentialed and degreed, across all possible levels of competency, to have demonstrable skills and abilities across diverse and constantly developing bodies of knowledge in the practice and domain of the geospatial sciences and technologies. Proficiency in communication, organization, leadership and teamwork assumed. Very strong preference will be given to anyone who can accurately and comprehensively describe this important area of professional development. Everyone else, please join the large queue forming in the back of the room for those with ongoing questions about where this all will lead.  

Published Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Written by Diana S. Sinton

Published in


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