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My formal education and training is in archaeology and history.  Archaeology was my first career-related love, history was more or less a by-product.  Here in the US, most archaeology is actually a sub-discipline of anthropology (but not all.  A discussion for another time), so while my field of study was archaeology, my degree is in anthropology.  Why, you may ask, is archaeology considered a sub-field of anthropology?  The reasons are complicated, but in a nutshell the answer is:  Because Franz Boas said so.

Anyway, that argument aside, modern American anthropology consists of four basic sub-fields:  archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology.  There is some overlap and intermingling betwixt these sub-fields, but not as much as you would think.

Anthropology is, relatively speaking, a young science.  In the grand scheme of scientific endeavor, it really hasn’t been around that long (compared to – say – astronomy).  Because of this, it has undergone some well-documented changes in a relatively short period of time.  In its earliest manifestation, the field was basically cultural anthropology – a group of dedicated researchers (mostly men) who went into the world to spend some time amid strange peoples and learn their ways.  This often occurred amongst marginal and/or aboriginal peoples, mainly because – let’s face it – white people are boring.

Then Franz and his ilk came along, and they sliced anthropology up into its current major subdivisions (yes – I’m oversimplifying.  I’ve only got so much time here), due mainly to the fact that the field of anthropology was getting larger and more complicated.  So now the budding anthropologist needed to know more.  Now the discipline demanded more of them, namely what was then called four-field competency.  A couple of generations ago, this was something you could expect to find in any given anthropologist.  While they would have had their own particular area of specialization and expertize, you could reasonably expect them to be able to hold their own in any of the four sub-disciplines.

But time marched on, and anthropology again became larger and more complicated, so that by the time I got to it, anthropologists were no longer expected to possess four-field competency.  By this time, four-field exposure was considered to be adequate (this should not be taken as a comment on the quality of education in regard to anthropologists.  A person can only be expected to carry so much around in their head, and as the field expands, the requirements must narrow).  Today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if four-field exposure is no longer considered necessary.  As time has gone by, the field of anthropology has become more and more specialized.  And this occurs even within the sub-fields.  American archaeology is immediately, broadly, divided into two categories:  Prehistoric and historic (the dividing line being drawn at the arrival of white people).  This gets even further subdivided, in ways I won’t go into here.

So a couple of generations ago, any given anthropologist could reasonably have been expected to be able to ‘do anthropology’.  Dropped into any situation in which the skills of an anthropologist (of any sub-field) were needed, it could safely be assumed that they would be able to perform as necessary.  A generation later, this was no longer the case.  And we get further away from it every day.  This is mainly because anthropology is (as previously stated) a young science.  It really hasn’t been around very long, and it’s barely out of its toddler stage.

This progression is not unique to anthropology.  All sciences grow from infancy into maturity (a state yet to be achieved for many sciences), the major difference being the length of the time period over which this occurs.  For some, it’s centuries.  For others, generations.  For others, considerably less.

Which brings us to GIS.  While you could (rather effectively) argue that the practice of GIS has been around for centuries, the discipline of GIS has only been around for a few decades (give or take).  In that time it has progressed through infancy and well into toddler-hood, possibly beyond.  The speed with which this occurred can be problematic.  As an anthropologist, I could safely stand on my own generational ground and look behind and before me.  I could see the ‘old days’, where four-field competency held sway and where anthropologists could be expected to ‘do anthropology’.  I could simultaneously look forward to where anthropologists would no longer really understand the interrelationship of the four sub-disciplines and where specialization would hold sway.  In the field of GIS, however, many of us have watched the development of our discipline happen right in front of us.

My first exposure to GIS was in the form of a class called ‘Computer Mapping’ (that’s right – while the term ‘GIS’ had been around for a short while, it hadn’t yet graduated into common usage).  For software, we used MapInfo (waaaaaaay before Pitney Bowes).  I was (as you may have guessed) studying archaeology at the time, and the usefulness of GIS to the discipline did not escape me.  The purpose of the class was to (eventually) produce a road atlas.  The end result for me personally was to seal my doom and condemn me to a lifetime of Map Dorkitude.  Toward the end of that class, I purchased my first copy of ArcView (for only $250.  At that point, at least, ESRI offered substantial discounts to students).  I spent the following Summer teaching myself how to use it (Map Dork!  Map Dork!).  By the end of that Summer, I think it’s safe to say that I was quite able to ‘do GIS’.  Because – let’s face it – at that time, a general proficiency with ESRIWare equated to an ability to ‘do GIS’.

But that was a long time ago (in GIS-time, at least.  Not so much in real-time.  I’m not that old), and the ability to narrow GIS to a particular skill set (or software vendor) is long past.  Sure – there’s a certain baseline skill set – a core of knowledge – that all practitioners of GIS possess and use, but the field has progressed so far beyond the baseline that the mere possession of the basic tool kit no longer enables or qualifies a person to ‘do GIS’.  As a matter of fact, the very idea of ‘doing GIS’ has almost become absurd.  We cannot assume that a speed skater and a football player are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing sports’.  Neither can we say that a chemist and a geologist are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing science’.  Therefore, I think it’s a little ridiculous to say that a person setting up a server stack and a person taking a waypoint on a mountaintop are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing GIS’.  GIS – as a discipline – has progressed too far and grown too much and gotten too complicated to wrap into a single package that a single individual can ‘do’.  So the idea that one can be certified to ‘do’ GIS is either an extreme absurdity or an extreme conceit.  In either case, it’s a concept I refuse to buy into.

And this brings us to the first and primary reason I won’t have anything to do with GISCI and their GISP program.  I don’t believe that GIS can be effectively stuffed into a pigeonhole that would easily lend itself to certification.  In all fairness, though, I’m not all that sure GISCI claims to certify people to ‘do’ GIS.  From their home page:

“A GISP is a certified geographic information systems (GIS) Professional who has met the minimum standards for ethical conduct and professional practice as established by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI)”

In other words, a GISP is someone who has been certified by GISCI to be – well – certified by GISCI.  I leave it to the individual to determine the value of this.  Now – it could be that somewhere within GISCI’s ‘minimum standards’ lies the ability to ‘do’ GIS (as they perceive it).  I can’t really say, because I haven’t been able to find a definition of GIS on GISCI’s website (I’ll be the first to admit that my search for one has not been exhaustive).  I did find this tidbit, though: “The GIS Certification Program is an opportunity to define the profession of GIS.”

So, to recap:  By paying GISCI, not only can we become certifiably certified, but our certification may someday help us to determine what it is that we are certifiably certified to do (although actually doing it may require another certification).  Hot damn!  Sign me up!

But let’s try to be charitable here.  Maybe GISCI is sincerely trying to respond to a need, however ineptly they may be doing so.  Does GIS – as a discipline – need some sort of certification or licensing to achieve legitimacy?  I believe this is a valid question, and I think the answer is “no”.  This question has been debated within the community for quite some time now, and the opinions seem to be pretty evenly divided.  If you think about it, this is one of those cases where a lack of consensus equates to a “no”.

Let’s take it a step further:  If not necessary, would such a certification or licensing process be desirable?  For much the same reasons, I think the answer to this would also have to be “no”.  In this case, though, I don’t think it’s so much that the community wouldn’t like to see something of the sort in place, but what they would like to see (in such a case) is something other than what GISCI has to offer.  And GISCI seems to be doggedly determined to stick to their program.  And they seem equally determined to convince the rest of us that we need what they’re selling.  Another reason I’m not interested.

Other than that, the only thing GISCI and their GISP program seem to be offering is a code of ethics.  Sorry, but I again feel the need to respectfully decline.  It’s not that I have anything against codes of ethics, per se, it’s just that I find them to be pretty much useless.  There is an old saying:  ‘Locks only stop honest people’.  In a similar vein, a code of ethics will only really be adhered to by people who don’t, in fact, need such a code in order to act ethically.  Those who are prone to act in an unethical fashion will certainly not be stopped by a code of ethics (especially when it really counts – when nobody’s looking).  A code of ethics is only useful when it has teeth.  GISCI’s code is only enforceable with those who live in fear of having their certified certification taken away.

So at the end of the day, GISCI simply isn’t offering anything I have a use for.  I am not saying that their program is without value, just that it holds no value for me personally.

Which brings us to the last item on my list, and the only one that I feel could actually be called a ‘complaint’.  While I have no use for GISCI and GISP, they do not, in fact, annoy me.  What does annoy me is their fanboys.  I’m not talking about their proponents and/or supporters, many of which I have had lively, entertaining and informative conversations (sometimes even arguments) with.  I’m talking about the zealots.  Like the yahoo who told me that GISP is not about competency but about commitment to the profession.  In much the same way the phrase “No thank you. I have my own belief system and would rather not read your literature.” somehow transforms into “No thank you.  I’d rather eat babies and burn in Hell.” on the trip from your mouth to the ears of the stranger who came knocking on your door, so does the statement “I don’t need a certification to validate what I do.” somehow become “Your support of said certification invalidates you and what you do.”  In some quarters, the support of GISP borders on the religious.

So allow me to make this as clear as I can:  My indifference to your certification does not – cannot – invalidate it.  My opinion of GISP does not determine its value or lack thereof.  If pursuing and achieving a certification is meaningful to you, then you should by all means do so.  But do not expect me to attach the same meaning to it.  I will make my own choices in the matter.

And, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just express my commitment to the profession through a dedication to competence.


Not too long ago now, bad things happened to Haiti.  And not just the usual bad things, which are pretty bad – Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere (and the fact that the hemispherical distinction is made should tell you a few things about poverty in other parts of the world).  I am talking, of course, about the earthquake and the resultant aftershocks.

Like most other Americans (I suppose), I heard about it in the news, and I closed my eyes and dropped my head and spent some time mourning for people I had never met.

I then considered what I could do to make things better and, again like most Americans (I suppose), I came to the conclusion that I should just throw some money at the situation.

Shortly thereafter, though, I caught wind of a bit of a movement (for want of a better word).  Map Dorks had taken a good look at the existing maps of Haiti, and had found them wanting.  And so the call went forth to all Map Dorks:  Relief efforts in Haiti need accurate maps.

And let me tell you, boys and girls, the Map Dorks stepped up. With the help of imagery provided by the likes of Yahoo, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye (who acquired satellite imagery the day after the initial quake), armies of mappers converged on Open Street Map and kicked serious ass all over Haiti.  In the space of a day the maps of Port-au-Prince went from looking like a hill town in upstate New York (disclaimer: I LOVE hill towns in upstate New York) to looking like Manhattan.  And they are accurate in ways that maps of Haiti have never been. Within a day a Garmin IMG file was produced and a day after that someone whipped up an iPhone app to leverage the OSM data for use on the ground.  And we (Map Dorks, I mean) haven’t stopped.  My life is crowded these days, but I can still find the time to give an hour or two to Haiti every day.  It really isn’t that hard to do.   And I think it’s rather more significant to the people on the ground in Haiti than the 20 bucks I can afford to send.

But this is all beside the point.  The point is the response to this crisis of Map Dorkia, who – for better or worse – are (on some level, at least) my people.  And my people have behaved admirably in this situation.  There are a couple who have been especially helpful and noteworthy (I’m talking about you, Kate and Dave), but while they are unique they are not unusual amongst Map Dorks.  When the call went out, many answered.

And because of that,  I am very, very, proud of my people.



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January 2010