A Management Perspective on GIS Professional Certification

Managing GIS, A column from members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Since the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) restructured the GIS Professional (GISP) certification process and added an exam to it in 2015, discussions about the value of the GIS professional certification have reignited.

Most of the talk has revolved around the certification’s value to individuals, focusing on how it can improve people’s job prospects and salaries. But a larger discussion needs to be had about how the professional certification affects organizations.

The purpose of professional certifications is to protect the public by ensuring that competency standards have been met. Therefore, the matter is not just an individual consideration; it is a management one as well.

So how does having certified GIS professionals involved in an organization’s GIS operations improve its effectiveness and quality? Answering this question requires considering several key aspects of management.

How Critical Is It to Ensure Work via Certification?

Good quality GIS work can certainly be performed by competent yet uncertified GIS professionals. But reliable work is not just about the quality of the product; it also involves the ability to ensure that quality, as well as the professionalism applied to the work. That is where professional certification comes in.

The most important area of concern is the caliber of geospatial data produced by a GIS team for its organization, clients, and the public. Doubtless, it is desirable to have all data be developed and maintained in a skilled and reliable way, according to GIS professional standards. But organizations need to determine how important it is to assure this via the involvement of certified GIS professionals.

To do this, they need to consider which aspects of data development, management, and output require assurance that professional standards and expertise have been applied. For example, are there certain data collection, data conversion, database construction, database management, or map creation activities that require certified expertise?

Appropriate GIS knowledge and competence are also required to effectively develop and deploy GIS apps. Many aspects of these processes—from understanding user requirements and interpreting how an app will be employed to grasping technical processes—involve professional GIS approaches and judgments. Thus an organization would need to determine how these considerations arise in the types of apps it builds and uses—and to what extent they would need to be backed by professional certification.

When decisions are made using geospatial data, those choices are only as good as the data and apps from which they stem. The capabilities of the data and apps are commensurate with the degree of professionalism applied while developing them. So, ultimately, an organization’s decisions and operations are dependent on the strength of the GIS professional standards applied to the geospatial information it uses.

In addition to geospatial data, apps, and products, GIS operations themselves are affected by professionalism. The selection, design, integration, and administration of databases, software, and technology require professional GIS capabilities to ensure that the tools and operations enable and maintain the spatial data’s reliability and accessibility. Organizations need to determine their key operational components and whether they require certified GIS expertise.

Having certified GIS professionals on staff can assert the dependability of an organization’s data, products, and services more concretely, raising the GIS team’s level of professionalism and increasing its credibility within an organization.

Do Contractual Needs Warrant Certified Professionals?

Credibility with business partners and clients outside the organization is critical too. If an organization provides GIS products and services on a contractual basis, it needs to assure its customers of the quality of its deliverables. While experience, adherence to standards, and past performance furnish such proof, having certified professionals involved in contract assignments provides another level of certainty that professional standards will be met.

Many contracts include requirements that staff members hold specific professional certifications, and the GISP certification is starting to appear in some of them. Even if it is not a standard requirement yet, providing certified staff not only demonstrates an added level of commitment to professionalism, but it also could yield a competitive advantage.

Likewise, if an organization acquires GIS products and services from a contractor, the same concerns apply. The organization needs to determine if it is important that certified GIS professionals produce the products and services—and that may depend on whether its end users require it.

Where Would Certified GIS Professionals Fit In?

Managers should consider their organization’s profile and professional needs and determine how those affect their GIS operations and products. Questions to ask include the following:

Answering these questions helps managers determine if hiring certified GIS professionals and encouraging staff to attain and maintain certifications would increase the reliability and credibility of their data, products, and services and boost the GIS team’s profile both inside and outside the organization.

What Should the Level and Timing of Certification Be?

GIS professional certification is voluntary. Managers and clients can directly review individuals’ and companies’ qualifications and judge their suitability for specific jobs and contracts without requiring certification credentials.

That said, professional certification provides a recognized, authoritative, third-party review and verification of competency and professionalism. What’s more, another key component of certification is a code of ethics. Someone who has a professional certification not only meets the required level of competence but also follows recognized ethical standards.

Even if an organization’s needs do not require this degree of outside professional assessment at this time, professional certifications are becoming expected and more reliable. Certification standards, development practices, and accreditation are growing rapidly, as are the prevalence and nature of professional certifications. That is, in part, why organizations and states are increasingly encouraging and endorsing professional certification—particularly GISCI’s GISP certification.

Improving GIS Operations Now and in the Future

Supporting professional certification helps to build the GIS profession, benefiting those who work in it, as well as those they serve. Certification defines and strengthens the profession and increases public protection and trust.

While professional certification remains an important individual choice, many of the considerations that will have the largest impact on the intended beneficiaries of certification—the public—are actually management decisions. So managers should increasingly consider how incorporating certified GIS professionals could improve the effectiveness of their GIS operations now and in the future.

About the Author

Rebecca Somers, GISP, has been a GIS management consultant and GIS manager for more than 25 years. She was a member of the initial URISA GIS Professional Certification Committee and the GISCI board and led the recent development of the GISCI Geospatial Core Technical Knowledge Exam. She is currently president of URISA. She can be reached at

Read other articles in the “Managing GIS” series.