GISCI Executive Director on Past, Present, Future of GISP

February 28, 2011

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Should the GIS professional (GISP) certification include an exam? That question has been asked since the idea of GIS certification originated with the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA). This article will discuss the history of the debate, where we stand now, and the options being discussed by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI).

The goal of GIS certification remains “to maintain the high standards and integrity of the GIS profession and to promote ethical conduct within it” (from the GISCI’s 2008 Strategic Plan). Since its inception, the GISP has been awarded via voluntary application to GISCI.

In 1997, the URISA board of directors created a certification committee to look into the feasibility and creation of a GIS certification program. This first committee decided that certification should include an examination component; however, little agreement was reached on the appropriate content. GIS was too diverse with no codified body of knowledge upon which to build an exam.

By 2001, members of URISA's certification committee proposed a portfolio-based certification. After much deliberation and debate, the committee approved the portfolio-based certification in 2003. GIS professionals are certified when they are peer-reviewed - having met benchmarks in education, work experience and contributions to the GIS profession. Individuals also commit to maintain the “Code of Ethics” and “Rules of Conduct” by signing an affirmation statement. In 2004, a point system for the portfolio-based certification was determined, and the GIS certification program was formed. Purposefully, GISCI was established as an independent entity with its own board of directors. The Association of American Geographers (AAG) and the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) joined URISA as founding members of GISCI. The University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) joined the Institute in 2007, and in 2010, the Geographic Information & Technology Association (GITA) joined GISCI.

In general, a peer-reviewed, portfolio-based certification is considered more stringent than a simple, exam-only certification. However, many have suggested (and even demanded) an exam-supplemented portfolio certification since the founding of GISCI. The core basis for an exam now exists due to two key initiatives. In 2006, UCGIS formally published the Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (GI S&T BoK). The GI S&T BoK defines the curricula required for students to work successfully in the geographic information science industry. Then, in 2010, the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) was created in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor. The GTCM defines the competencies required to work in the geospatial field.

As the practice and utilization of GIS and its applications continue to grow, the GISCI board of directors has recognized the need to revisit the idea of an exam-based certification. In 2008, the GISCI board formally requested that the GISCI certification committee review its initial decision regarding the portfolio-only basis for the GIS certification credential. The certification committee created the Core Competencies Working Group (CCWG) to perform this detailed review. In 2010, the GISCI board of directors charged the working group to deliver a formal proposal by the end of the calendar year. After continued deliberation and debate, the CCWG submitted its proposal to the certification committee in late 2010, calling for a change in the certification process. The certification committee reviewed and approved that proposal, and delivered it to the GISCI board of directors in December 2010. In January 2011, the summary proposal was made public so that the board could receive public input. The public comment period remains open until February 28, 2011. Once the public comment period is closed, the GISCI board will review the certification committee proposal in light of the public comments, and will decide if an examination component for the GISP certification is now warranted.

The GISP certification committee's update proposal recommends that:

  1. “… professional certification based solely on a peer-reviewed applicant-supplied portfolio is no longer defensible.”
  2. “… the Working Group recommends that GISCI develop a mandatory competency-based examination.”
  3. The development of an exam requirement might take as long as three years in order to assure “… a methodical and robust exam development process.” “All GISPs certified prior to the effective date should be exempt from the exam requirement.”
  4. GISCI should create a new Examination Working Group and hire a private firm or individual to help with exam development.

The Core Competencies Working Group proposal evaluated four options:

Option 1: Change nothing.
Option 2: Add an examination to existing portfolio requirements.
Option 3: Create a tiered (vertically-differentiated) certification program.
Option 4: Create a tiered (horizontally-differentiated) certification program.

The working group took critical steps in the process of evaluating and preparing a proposal. The first step was to look at the issues around certification and determine the available options. Once the options were outlined, the working group developed a reasonably comprehensive list of benefits and risks for each option.

The group debated the benefits, costs and risks of each option at length. After much consideration and research, the working group recommended option 2 to the board of directors. To comment on the proposal and to review the public comments received to date, please visit the GISCI website.


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