Figure 1 Penn State offers three online programs of study in the area of geospatial technology. This map shows the locations of alumni from all three programs: the Certificate Program in GIS (1235 graduates), the Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Program (6 graduates) and the Master of GIS program (53).


Certification & Licensure

Karen Nozick
Boulder, Colo.

The study of location may be as old as the woods, but today, the way location is studied, and why it is studied, are changing drastically. To meet the challenges and to benefit from the tremendous opportunities of an information-based global economy, it pays to be both educated broadly and skilled technically. More and more, the information-based global economy is becoming a geospatial information-based economy. Aerial and satellite imagery and computerized geographic information systems (GIS) are revolutionizing the conduct of business, science, education and government. Consequently, people who can think spatially—where things are, in relation to other things—are in great demand.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of workers with the title “geographer” or “mapmaker” is small; there were fewer than 11,000 mapmakers and geographers in the United States in 2006. However, the BLS expects overall employment of surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and mapping technicians to increase by 21 percent from 2006 to 2016, a pace much faster than average for all occupations. See

Need for Interdisciplinary Education

While this statistic is impressive, it hardly captures the interdisciplinary nature of an information-based global economy, nor industry's true demand for technically savvy employees who can think on their feet. In fact, the need may be greater than BLS's number suggests.

Jason San Souci, President and CEO of AFE Advisor, a GIS education company, agrees that demand for trained workers is out-pacing supply. Mr. San Souci, who is also the President and COO of NCDC Technical Services and active in numerous professional and scientific organizations, including the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), URISA GISCorps, and American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), said: “Undoubtedly we are making great progress, but there is still a big disconnect between GIS education and GIS application.”Victoria Provenza, CEO of the Colorado-based geospatial solutions company ProSpatial, concurs. Provenza says the question of whether educational institutions are adequately preparing students for future jobs is timely now that the industry is growing up beyond its first 20-30 years. “Ten years ago, it was all about certification programs and whether someone had a grasp of technology. But the power of GIS is being able to ask a big question, and then proving it using GIS technology. We can have all the data in the world. We still need humans to ask the right questions.”

Provenza plans to hire 20-40 employees over the next year, depending on what her clients' contracts call for, and she is looking for employees with an ability to solve problems contextually, temporally, and spatially. “GIS is simply a decision tool—and the ability to collect data is ubiquitous. There is less need for “geo-techs” now, and more need for theorists,” she said.

Restating a theme heard over and over again, Mike Beltz, CEO of GCS Research, an internationally-recognized award-winning leader in advanced geospatial information technology solutions in Missoula, Montana said, “There is definitely a need for industry to get more involved with educational curriculum. Students are being taught how to run software programs. Anybody can learn how to generate data. The need is for employees who can generate accurate data sets.” The current educational method is like learning how to run a calculator without ever understanding math.

Calls for more critical thinking skills in GIS educational curricula are music to the ears of Doug Flewelling, Director of the Master of Science in GIS at the University of Redlands, California. He says that five years ago, it was all about the software. Technology has been changing so rapidly that it's been difficult for university faculty to keep up to speed. “They would have to go back and learn new commercial software every three years,” Flewelling said. The small liberal arts university situated in the same town as ESRI emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of emerging occupations. That emphasis is one of the reasons that the university does not offer on-line learning for its certificate program. “Not many on-line courses can get the nuances of spatial information the way living, learning proximity can. If industry is looking for critical thinking skills, then we are well-positioned to offer the why and the how of posing questions and solving problems.”

Sue Kalweit, an expert in GIS and education for Booz Allen Hamilton, says that universities are in the business of educating students to go down one of two tracks: either to get a job, or to do research. It's a challenge for universities to stay current in such a technologically driven industry, and to understand what students need to learn in order to obtain or improve skills and competencies for the future. Kalweit has a saying that sums it up: “It's the data, stupid!” For clarity, she adds, “The great news is: there's a ton of data. The bad news is: there's a ton of data. Too few people really understand quality, accuracy, relevancy, and currency.”

Certification and Licensure

Kalweit states that there is room for people of all technical backgrounds in the field. When considering GIS pedigrees, it helps to step back and delineate four categories: 1) professional certification; 2) professional licensure; 3) academic certification; and 4) accreditation of institutions.

There is a distinction between certification and licensure. ASPRS' website describes its certification this way:...ASPRS certification is official recognition by one’s colleagues and peers that an individual has demonstrated professional integrity and competence in their field. As such, the ASPRS voluntary certification program is considered "specialty certification." It is not a substitute for licensure as, for example, a Land Surveyor or Professional Engineer. Licensure is a legal act on the part of states to protect the public health, safety and welfare. It is a procedure by which various state and local governments require the licensing of certain professions, practices, trades, etc., under formal statutes and ordinances to protect the well-being of its citizens. Licensure may be required by your local state, county, etc., whether or not you secure certification.

Professional accreditation programs are also entirely voluntary. The GISCI describes its program this way:The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) is a tax-exempt not-for-profit organization that provides the geographic information systems community with a complete certification program. GISCI offers participants, from the first early years on the job until retirement, a positive method of developing value for professionals and employers in the GIS profession. A GISP is a certified Geographic Information Systems Professional who has met the minimum standards for ethical conduct and professional practice as established by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI).

According to Karen Schuckman, past-president of ASPRS (and CP, PLS, MGIS, in the Department of Geography, John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University), in the last 10-15 years, during which licensing acts have been put into effect, some of the subdivisions within the industry require a professional license to conduct business. About 8-10 states actively enforce licensing acts that include photogrammetry and some GIS activities. Most professional licensure programs require a four-year degree.

Academic certificates are those offered at four-year academic institutions. GIS is often treated not as a minor, per se, but as a corollary to other majors such as Anthropology. For instance, Penn State offers on-line learning for its Geospatial Education Portfolio through its Penn State World Campus. Students have three Post-Baccalaureate programs to choose from: Certificate of GIS; Certificate of Geospatial Intelligence; and Master of GIS. The Certificate in GIS helps current and aspiring practitioners to become knowledgeable and skillful users of geospatial data and technologies.

The Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence helps current and aspiring analysts to combine spatial thinking, information literacy, and geospatial technology skills with knowledge of cultural and political geography and a commitment to ethical practice. The Master of GIS is designed for experienced practitioners who aspire to leadership in the geographic information systems profession. Figure 1 shows where graduates are now.Finally, accreditation programs are in place when one organization, such as the USGIF Academy, accredits another institution. In this effort, the USGIF Academy appears to be zipping along as fast as the technology itself. Formed in 2004 by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation to meet the demand for skilled GIS professionals, the Academy was created to support lifelong learning and professional development in the skills and competencies associated with Geospatial Intelligence.Through relationships and programs with educational institutions, the Academy is working to develop at colleges and universities the USGIF accredited programs that lead to the awarding of the Geospatial Intelligence Certificate. Ultimately, the Academy aims to ensure the GEOINT tradecraft’s continuance as a critical part of our country’s homeland and national security.

Partnership: Education, Industry, and Government

Security has emerged as one direction the field is going. “We have had students in Egypt, S. Korea, Afghanistan, Bagdad—obviously people stationed in the military,” says Schuckman, who adds that Penn State definitely worked to create its Geospatial Intelligence Certificate with the USGIF and a specific segment of the industry in mind. Penn State is in the process of developing an on-line program in Homeland Security to be rolled out in 2010. “More people are starting to be impacted by the technology at the personal level—Google Earth imagery is everywhere. People are starting to get an awareness of how individuals can become empowered to create virtual communities and locate things in time and space. This forever changes the way we solve problems. It offers a revolutionary way of solving a problem,” she says.

Indeed it is challenging for universities to try to keep pace with the information revolution, particularly in new areas such as spatial statistics where there aren't very many people who understand the topic, let alone who can teach it. The term refers to a variety of techniques, many still in their early development, using different analytic approaches and applied in fields as diverse as astronomy and engineering. As it stands, spatial statistics currently is taught by only a very small group of experts within the (USGIF) Academy.

Diana Sinton, who teaches GIS to undergraduate students and faculty at the University of Redlands, suggests that gaps exist in the way GIS is taught—and learned—especially with regards to how experts appreciate how non-experts understand how software represents and models features and characteristics of the natural and social world. This gap complicates the idea of mastering a GIS education because it questions more fundamental standards of geographic education today.

“We are just beginning to understand how non-experts extract meaning from maps and images and to design cartographic techniques that can represent the uncertainty of spatial data,” says Sinton. “Think of a city map that represents buildings along a street grid. Then think of the data set that represents the vast amount of information about the buildings, and what each XY coordinate represents on the map. One puts a whole lot of thought into designing the information that then gets reduced down to being a point on a map.”

The emergence of Google Earth may be complicating the necessary understanding of critical thinking regarding spatial information. Google Earth allows one to compare images, but it cannot do anything with those images, nor does it provide an ability to do real analysis on the images.

To be sure, technology is creating new career opportunities related to economics, health, climate, urban planning, national defense, natural disasters, and homeland security, to name a few. All of these fields are becoming highly interdisciplinary, offering unique ways of looking at the world and solving problems. Going forward, it is clear that universities must be sure that they see the forest for the trees, and that industry must work hand in hand with governments and educational systems in order to prepare present and future skilled employees.

Editor’s NoteThe April eNewsletter included a summary of the Earth Observations portion of the National Space Symposium. See eNews at

Sensors & Systems | Monitoring, Analyzing and Adapting to Global Change | Stay in tune with the transformation. Subscribe to the free weekly newsletter.