Wonderland A couple events of interest to the geospatial community occurred recently.  The first was the release of the Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model, the second (following close on the heels of the first) was GISCI’s reaction to it.  Both are interesting and worthy of deconstruction.  Let’s begin with the latter.

The GISCI release states:  “Portfolio-based certification made sense in 2004, when no authoritative specification of geospatial competencies yet existed. The Department of Labor’s recently issued Geospatial Technology Competency Model helps fill that gap, and sets the stage for serious consideration of competency-based GISP certification.”

I’m not buying it.  If portfolio-based certification actually did make sense in 2004 due to a lack of an “authoritative specification of geospatial competencies”, shouldn’t the provision of such an “authoritative specification” have been the absolute first responsibility of GISCI?  Shouldn’t an organization that aspires to be the source of GIS certification have played a more active role in the specification of geospatial competencies than simply waiting until someone else did so, and then chiming in with “What he said”?

Actually, GISCI didn’t even go that far.  In true bureaucratic fashion, they have instead formed a committee to discuss whether to advise GISCI to stand behind the Department of Labor and say “What he said.”  Now that’s leadership.

In fact, GISCI would be well served to ignore the Department of Labor’s model (for reasons we’ll get to in a bit), but I’m certain they’ll end up embracing it, because the Department of Labor and GISCI both start with the same fundamental mistake.  Both GISCI and the Department of Labor are laboring under the misconception that geospatial technology (hereafter referred to as GIS.  Because I feel like it) is a discipline narrow enough to certify in toto. As stated previously, this is a ridiculous assumption.  The field is just too damn broad and the skill sets too varied.

And if we ever needed a perfect example of this, the Department of Labor thoughtfully provided it with their Competency Model.  I have to say I had trouble believing it wasn’t a joke (I’m still not thoroughly convinced).  The model is shown as a sort of pyramid, upon which “Each tier consists of one or more blocks representing the skills, knowledge, and abilities essential for successful performance in the industry or occupation represented by the model”, and we are informed that “At the base of the model, competencies apply to a large number of occupations and industries. As a user moves up the model, the competencies become industry- and occupation-specific.”  Tier 4 is where we’re supposed to get to competencies specific to GIS.

Okay.  Are we ready to climb the tiers?

I’m pretty much going to get kicked off the pyramid at the outset, since the first item on the first tier is Interpersonal Skills.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a likeable enough guy, but there’s a good reason I didn’t go into the service industry.  People just annoy me too much.  The rest of the first tier I’ll be okay on.

The second tier I can dance through easily, but I have to linger long enough to argue.  This tier is supposed to represent generalized academic competencies that should apply to the majority of fields.  Both ‘geography’ and ‘science and engineering’ have been placed on this tier, and I don’t believe either of them actually belong.  The average worker in many industries (maybe most of them) doesn’t need to know squat about these.

I’m running into trouble again on the third tier.  Teamwork is a tough one, but I’m actually a rather good team player if I get to be captain, so I might be able to sneak by.  I’m hitting the wall at ‘business fundamentals’, though.  And frankly, this one should be removed from the pyramid altogether.  This is why we have business schools.  So that we can hire people who know how to do business to handle that end of it while we make maps.

The fourth and fifth tiers (the last detailed – the remainder left ‘intentionally blank’) make some sense, but cover far too much ground.  Possessing just a fraction of these competencies would suffice to function rather well in a large variety of GIS capacities, and in many a narrowly focused skill set is actually desirable.  And some of these competencies are nice to have in your tool kit but aren’t actually necessary (such as coding.  You don’t have to know how to build a car in order to drive one.  It does help when it breaks down, though).

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again:  while I think the geospatial technology industry would benefit from some sort of certification process, the people who seem to be going about it are getting it wrong.  Instead of searching for one large ‘blanket’ certification to spread across the entire profession, the smart move would be to build a model similar to the one used for IT.  GIS would be much better served by a large number of small, narrowly-focused certifications rather than one uselessly large one.

Instead of trying to develop an over-arching definition of our profession, why don’t we just make a list of the things we actually do?  Then we can figure out who can do which ones.  Or does that make too much sense?