The Beginning

Prior to the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), the idea of geographic information systems (GIS) professional certification had been discussed for decades. The only questions were How? When?, and, In what form?

Professional certification is the endorsement of one’s expertise by a credible 3rd party (Barnhart 1997). Ever since individuals banded together working on geographic and land information systems there have been conversations about what constitutes a professional. In 1993, Nancy Obermeyer, GISP authored an article for the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) Journal entitled, "Certifying GIS Professionals: Challenges and Alternatives" (Volume 5, Number 1: Spring 1993). This groundbreaking article looked at the potential for certification in the GIS field. Her article won the URISA Horwood Critique prize that year and interest in the topic trickled to various corners of the geospatial community.

In the late 1990's, URISA developed a survey for its membership. It asked questions about what programs and initiatives URISA should pursue over the next year. The overwhelming response was professional certification. URISA members wanted URISA to look into the ramifications of professional certification for GIS users.

In 1997, the URISA Board of Directors created a certification committee to investigate the feasibility of creating a certification program. The first Chair of the URISA Certification Committee was Nancy Obermeyer, GISP. The committee first looked at the idea of developing an examination. These efforts stalled as little agreement could be made on content. GIS was a diverse field, using different software platforms, and spanning multiple disciplines. Practical knowledge for one professional could be vastly different from another professional. This lack of consensus caused the first years of the URISA Certification Committee to yield few results.

A New Method

In 2001, Certification Committee members William Huxhold, GISP, Karen Kemp, GISP, and Lynda Wiggins developed an alternative method for certification. The method was presented to Certification Committee members and interested parties at the 2001 URISA Conference in Long Beach, CA. Huxhold, Kemp, and Wiggins wanted to develop an alternative approach to examination-based certification. The notion of a GIS Professional was stripped to its core. The goal was to find a method that would target shared elements of successful GIS practitioners.

The Huxhold, Kemp, and Wiggins method started with basic assumptions. A well-rounded GIS professional should have achievements in education, experience, and contributing back to the profession. From these assumptions, benchmarks were developed. These benchmarks were a combination of where the GIS community was currently at, and where Huxhold, Kemp, and Wiggins envisioned it going. They developed the following:

  • Educational Achievement: A combination of formal university GIS-
  • Professional Experience: 4 years in GIS application and/or data development (or equivalent).
  • Contributions to the Profession: Modest involvement with publications, professional associations, conference participation, workshop instruction, awards, etc.
  • Code of Ethics: Appropriate and ethical guidelines for professional practice and conduct.
  • Recertification: A certification cycle that requires further earned credit in the benchmark areas to ensure proficiency.

These benchmarks signify the point when someone should be considered a GIS professional. The recertification and ethics requirements guarantee a person can remain a GIS professional. The challenge was trying to find an alternative method to an examination that would allow professionals to document these benchmarks had been achieved.

The result was a voluntary, self-documented, independently verified, tiered, point-based system. Points would be earned in three different areas: experience, education, and contributions to the profession. An alternative approach was also created. This employed the same guiding principles but used a binary, point-based system where applicants either qualified or did not. Most certification programs use a binary approach and examine the minimum standards for practice.

In early 2002, the URISA Board asked the Certification Committee to present both point-based plans to the professional community. Both methods were laid out and the community was invited to offer comments. There were two review periods. After the first, the Committee felt the professional community was more comfortable with the binary method. The method was then expanded and clarified, using the public’s comments, and an updated version was posted. This updated version was commented on, altered by more public comments, and finally turned into the program that was piloted to the Georgia URISA Chapter in 2003. It contained the foundation for the GISCI certification program.

The Grandfathering Provision

As the program came together, there was a growing concern that long-standing GIS professionals may be unable to apply because of the education and contribution standards. Although these professionals have a wealth of experience points, they would not have had formal education programs steeped in GIS and geospatial technology. Ignoring a professional with 15 years of experience, because he did not have the requisite degree would be a mistake. This professional has the ability because he was able to maintain a job in GIS for a great length of time. It became clear that the program needed a way to recognize these professionals. The Grandfathering Provision recognized that GIS Professional Certification set new standards for education and contributions and that some established professionals’ careers might not have conformed to these levels. New and future GIS professionals seeking certification will be expected to attain these education and contribution standards. However, the grandfathering period of five years provides the opportunity for established professionals to obtain certification based solely on their experience.

Recertification Benchmark

A certification cycle requires further earned credit in the benchmark areas to ensure proficiency.

The concept of recertification is standard across most certification programs. In examination-based programs, the test is taken once, and the recertification requirements are often annual classes and training. Recertification allows the certification body to confidently recognize certificate holders without making them reapply under the initial standards. As time passes, the original certification standards become more obsolete. Certification bodies develop checks every few years to ensure that professionals are staying current with changes in the industry. The certificate-holder benefits by continuing to increase his knowledge base and maintaining his value to employers. A seasoned professional may become obsolete with the certification methods if proper reeducation guidelines are not in place.

GISCI operates on a 3-year recertification cycle. GISPs must complete activities in the three achievement categories of education, experience, and contributions.

Code of Ethics Benchmark

Appropriate and ethical guidelines for professional practice and conduct.

While URISA was developing the GISCI Certification Program, a subcommittee headed by Will Craig, GISP was developing the Code of Ethics for GIS Professionals. The Code contained the ethical guidelines that all GIS professionals, certified or not, should abide by. The Code underwent numerous drafts and public review periods before the GISCI and URISA Board of Directors accepted it in 2003. All applicants must sign the Code of Ethics before certification.

The Code of Ethics works in conjunction with the Code of Conduct. This separate document based heavily on the Code of Ethics lists certified GIS professionals' conduct rules. The Code applies to all GIS professionals but is only enforced for GISPs. It contains specific "thou shall" and "thou shall not" provisions for GISPs. If a GISP is found in violation, following due process by the Institute, certification revocation or suspension may result.

The two Codes are important because they add teeth and credibility to the GISCI program. Certified GIS professionals must put their credentials at stake with each professional exchange. One agrees to abide by the Codes of Ethics and Conduct or the result may be the loss of his/her credential. A non-certified professional does not have this additional consideration. Unethical behavior in some instances may only result in a lack of respect or credibility for non-GISPs. For a GISP, unethical behavior could result in the loss of the tangible GISP credential. GISPs aspire to perform ethically and agree to face the consequences of dubious and inconsiderate actions.

GISCI as an Organization

The original idea was to have GISCI be a branch of URISA. As the Committee talked, and more was learned about professional certification, it became obvious that a separate organization should be created to run the program. URISA supported this decision for two reasons; it believed in the concept of professional certification and the professional community would indirectly benefit from the program requirements. URISA, along with a variety of other organizations would be the secondary beneficiaries of the program. There would be a new breed of GIS professionals who wanted more education, networking, and the opportunity to share knowledge. This is what educational and trade associations provide.

As professional certification continued to evolve, URISA staff was in charge of developing the administrative side. URISA formed the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) as a separate organization designed to implement and run the program. This organization would be managed by URISA but is completely separate in the eyes of the law and the Internal Revenue Service. GISCI was a revenue-neutral 501(c)(6) non-profit and was created for two separate and expressed reasons. One was that it allowed the program to be multilateral which was an expressed goal of the certification committee from its inception. The second was that this absolves URISA or any of its partners of any legal liability in case GISCI faced litigation and vice versa. The first Board of Directors of GISCI were the current, incoming, and outgoing presidents of URISA: Martha Lombard, GISP, Dan Parr, GISP, and Peirce Eichelberger. This interim Board launched the Institute and served until an independent Board was established in 2004.

Multilateralism is the defining characteristic of GISCI. Although URISA formed GISCI, certification belongs to the broader geospatial community. GISCI knew it would be limited in scope if it only went after state and local government GIS professionals. The Committee was made up of a variety of GIS practitioners from a variety of sectors and to maintain this balance, GISCI would need to operate similarly. The Association of American Geographers (AAG), The National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), and the University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) joined GISCI as Member Organizations. Lynda Wayne, GISP was appointed the first official GISCI President in 2004.

GISCI is a self-sustaining organization due to the revenue collected from application fees. These four organizations ensure the needs of their members are being met by GISCI by remaining active participants in the process.


The GISCI Certification Program was not developed overnight. It took years of debate, collaboration, adjustment, and outreach to develop a successful certification initiative. A dedicated Committee, Triads, and the guidance of the geospatial community helped give direction to a certification program that looks a lot different today than the one conceived a half-decade ago. The benchmarks established by the Certification Committee guide every decision that is made regarding changes to the point system and structure. The program is now tended by the GISCI Board and committee structure.

The development of well-rounded, educated, and proficient GIS professionals has always been the goal. GISCI reviews hundreds of portfolios annually and certifies applicants who meet the rigorous standards of the Institute. Through GISCI's recertification and ethics requirements, GISPs are challenged to conform to a higher standard. Recertification demands they give back to the community, their colleagues, and young professionals. Ethical requirements demonstrate that the actions of GISPs have consequences and that malignant behavior will not be tolerated. The acceptance of the GISCI Certification Program continues to increase standards for the profession. To echo one of the great sentiments of the Certification Committee, GISCI will set the bar, and applicants will attempt to meet it, but GISPs are the ones who ultimately raise it.