A short version of the following will appear in the May 2000 issue of Geo Info Systems

Background on International GIS Professional Certification efforts

by Karen K. Kemp
April 3, 2000

While those in the GIS community cognizant of international standards efforts will be familiar with the activities of the ISO/ TC211 committee, a great many GIS educators and most professionals will be innocently unaware of the looming impact this relatively small but very influential international group may soon have on their professional work lives. However, as one begins to look at the work of the ISO/TC211, an outsider stumbles into what appears to be a complex, secretive organization. In fact, it's not secretive, just strictly formal and appropriately rigid in it its adherence to procedure and the proper lines of reporting. It is necessary to understand some of this bureaucracy before we look at the ISO's recent interest in the certification of GIS professionals.

The International Organization for Standardization (referred to generally by the Greek word "ISO", which is not an acronym) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from 130 countries, one from each country. The US member of this organization is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The role of ISO is to develop voluntary international standards covering all technical fields except electrical and electronic engineering, which is the responsibility of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Such standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose. ISO has set standards as diverse as film speed, banking cards, international codes for country names and symbols for automobile controls. However, it has also addressed the qualification of experts in fields such as non-destructive testing of steel tubes, crane driving and environmental auditors.

A strict formal procedure has been developed to ensure that approved standards have consensus from all national bodies involved. ISO defines consensus as a "general agreement characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments". Significantly, consensus does not imply unanimity.

According to the ISO's website (www.iso.ch), the technical work of ISO is carried out by almost 3,000 technical committees, subcommittees and working groups composed of qualified representatives of industry, research institutes, government authorities, consumer bodies, and international organizations from all over the world who come together as equal partners.

One of these technical committees, number 211- Geographic Information/Geomatics, is concerned with standardization in the field of digital geographic information. The ISO/TC211 website (http://www.statkart.no/isotc211) states that "This work aims to establish a structured set of standards for information concerning objects or phenomena that are directly or indirectly associated with a location relative to the Earth. These standards may specify, for geographic information, methods, tools and services for data management (including definition and description), acquiring, processing, analyzing, accessing, presenting and transferring such data in digital/electronic form between different users, systems and locations.  The work shall link to appropriate standards for information technology and data where possible, and provide a framework for the development of sector-specific applications using geographic data." Note that this scope of work includes no reference to matters related to human resources.

The US group with official participation in TC211 activities is Technical Committee L1 (Geographic Information Systems) of the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS). The current chair of this committee is Henry Tom of Oracle Corporation. Richard Hogan of the USGS is the International Representative who speaks for the US at TC211 meetings.

So, how did this technical standards group become involved in professional certification? In early 1998, the Canadian representatives on ISO/TC211, following proper protocol, put forward a proposal for a new work item on "Geographic Information Science/Geomatics - Qualifications and Certification of Personnel". According to the original May 1998 ISO document (N502), this proposal was endorsed by Canada and the US, though, the final version (N573, dated 1998-09-16) no longer includes the US endorsement.

While this is not recorded in the official documents, various sources report that the initial motivation for this proposal arose from concern of foreign aid agencies who were having difficulties assessing the qualifications of consultants seeking funding for work to be carried out in less developed countries. Thus the intent was not to challenge the authority of academic institutions and professional bodies with well established training and certifying processes, but rather to provide a foundation for comparison where no formal bodies exist to certify competence.

TC211 document N573 laid out a scope of work which included:

Develop a report which describes a system for the qualification and certification, by a central independent body, of personnel in the field of Geographic Information Science/Geomatics.

Define the boundaries between GIScience/Geomatics and other related disciplines and professions.

Specify the technologies and tasks pertaining to GIScience/Geomatics.

Establish skill sets and competency levels for technologists, professional staff and management in the field.

Research the relationship between this initiative and other similar certification processes performed by existing professional associations.

Develop a plan for the accreditation of candidate institutions and programs, for the certification of individual in the workforce, and for collaboration with other professional bodies.

A grand proposal indeed! Imagine doing it for, say, just one state, let alone for the whole international GIS community!

To be fair, the document was drafted by Dr. Robert Maher, now of the Centre of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, who has extensive international experience in GIS education having worked in government and academic institutions in several Canadian provinces, in the Education group at ESRI and as a private consultant in Indonesia and other countries.

Maher's proposal attempts to define the domain of GIScience/Geomatics in the broadest sense possible. Based on workforce surveys completed by the Canadian Geomatics industry in the early-mid 90's, Maher builds a conceptual framework for the knowledge domain of this field through a Task/Profession matrix. This rectangular matrix lays out on one axis three professional groups (technologist, scientist or engineer, and management) and on the other axis six task groups (sample design and systems architecture, data collection, quality assurance and validation, information management, synthesis/analysis and dissemination). The implicit assumption is that it will be possible to specify the contents of the professional/task cells and thus provide a means for certifying levels of competence across this full spectrum of work.

With the publication of document N573, official voting members (P-members) of ISO/TC211 were requested to submit by December 1998 comments and decisions on whether this should be accepted as a new work item. Results of this balloting are reported in document N639, dated January 1999. Of the 32 P-members eligible to vote on the proposal, 12 voted for, 9 against and 11 did not vote. Approval was given by Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Iran, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. Those opposed were Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, UK and US.

On the grounds that it is inappropriate for a technical standards organization to determine professional credentials, the US voted against the proposal and did not offer to participate since to do so would have provided additional grounds for approval of the project. Most of the other countries in opposition provided similar grounds for rejection. As well, objections were raised on the basis of the excellent performance of existing formal education systems, the possibility that development of professional standards would restrict the broad adoption of GIS and the problem of defining the bounds of a relatively immature profession.

Nevertheless, since ISO rules call for acceptance if a majority of P-members voting support the proposal (12 of 21), it was approved and the new work item introduced into the ISO/TC 211 program as Project 19122 with Robert Maher identified as Project Leader. A final technical report on this project is to be submitted by September 2001.

It was only upon the publication of these voting results that the GIS education community began to become aware of this pending activity in the ISO. Considerable surprise and concern was raised that TC211 should be addressing this kind of topic when most of the technical standards experts involved in the deliberations are poorly connected to the core education community.

Fortunately, formal ISO protocol does allow, albeit somewhat belatedly, new experts to be identified to join in these discussions. As in all ISO committees, work on this project is to be undertaken by a working group composed of "technical experts" formally appointed by member organizations. All TC211 member countries are welcome to appoint such experts to any project. Given the difficulties of getting a broad international committee together, work group participation must be possible through email and other written forms of communication. Likely due to the disconnect between the technical standards community and the GIS education community, very few people have yet been designated as official technical experts for Project 19122 though the US has appointed Nancy Obermeyer and Karen Kemp.

A first face-to-face meeting of the working group was held prior to the TC211 plenary in Cape Town, South Africa in March 2000. As might be expected given the travel distances involved, the attendance was limited and included representatives, though not necessarily the official technical experts, from South Africa, Germany, Canada, US, Korea, Saudi Arabia and IHD. The group decided that a necessary first task for this working group is a survey of all interested member nations and international organizations which would:

develop an understanding of the national variations with respect to the topic of certification for GIS professions.

solicit active participation by appointment of official members to the project team.

provide content for discussion at TC211 meetings to be held in association with the ISPRS in Amsterdam, July 15-20, 2000.

This survey is currently being prepared by Robert Maher and has a planned response date of June 15, 2000. In the US, we plan to establish soon an open discussion forum and website to allow the broad community as much input as possible on this project.

In addition to this ISO effort, there are also some projects in the works by international professional organizations. Notably, the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) has an active task force to investigate standards of global professional competence within the worldwide surveying community. As we have seen in the US, efforts in this regard are bound to impact the ISO discussions, particularly since the surveying/Geomatics community is a major participant in TC211.

As well, a notable, though nationally focused effort by the Association for Geographic Information (AGI, www.agi.org) in the UK provides a different, though useful model of a method for acknowledging that individuals can build a body of knowledge that qualifies them for membership within the GIS profession. AGI has developed a "Manual and Logbook" for structuring individual continuing professional development (CPD). In the preface to the document, then AGI president Vanessa Lawrence wrote "This manual and logbook is the result of several years’ deliberation and work by members of AGI. It is intended to provide guidelines to allow individual members of the Association to evaluate their current job roles, devise their own development plans, and then record in the log section all professional development activities they undertake for an initial period of three years. In turn the Association will monitor each individual's progress each year and on completion of the third year will issue an appropriate certificate. It is our view that such a scheme is a small, but necessary, step towards the creation of a geographic information profession." Clearly, the carefully deliberations undertaken in the development of this CPD scheme must be included for consideration in the international forum.

So, where are we on international certification? The ISO project is very much current and active. While some in the GIS education community hope that if we ignore it, it will go away, given the progress this initiative has made within TC211, action of some sort is inevitable. It is only prudent that we participate in these discussions. While there does seem to be some apt concern that many of the terms of reference in the original proposal are inappropriate for standardization by the ISO, there continues to be strong international interest in some effort being made at defining the bounds and necessary competencies of the profession.  It is my hope that attention to these questions within the formally structured forum of the ISO will finally bring the community to address these thorny issues. Perhaps standardization is not the answer, but we would all be helped by formal efforts to define the kinds of skills and knowledge that are needed by professionals using GIS in all its forms and implementations.