Professionalizing the GEOINT Workforce

Collaboration drives certification and the maturation of GEOINT tradecraft


The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) is blazing a trail for the geospatial intelligence professional to follow from academia to expertise. For the past 10 years, USGIF has awarded scholarships to high school seniors, college students, and doctoral candidates alike; and the Foundation has in the past seven years accredited 12 academic institutions to award GEOINT certificates. Now, USGIF is extending this pipeline to the professional certification and continuing education of GEOINT practitioners.

This fall, USGIF will offer the first Universal GEOINT Certification to both U.S. and international GEOINT practitioners across multiple industries, military, academia, and federal, state, and local government.

“We know not everyone will follow the exact path of our pipeline,” said USGIF CEO Keith Masback. “There are many roads to becoming a GEOINT professional, but no matter how an individual arrives at this profession, the Universal GEOINT Certification will distinguish them as among the best in this field.”

This certification is a natural evolution in the advancement of GEOINT and perhaps the most important Foundation initiative to date, according Masback.

“The community made up the term GEOINT about 12 years ago and had a vision for what we thought it would be,” Masback said. “We now have a body of knowledge to articulate what is encompassed by this thing we call GEOINT. Initially, we were able to identify the academic requirements that fed into the workforce. Now, as technology changes and tradecraft evolves, the next step in the maturation of this process is to provide professional certification to the workforce.”

Since the term GEOINT was written into law by Congress in 2003, there have been several attempts to create standardization throughout the community, according to Dr. Darryl Murdock, USGIF’s vice president of professional development. What’s different today is the blending of skill sets and the need for expertise that goes far beyond the database maintenance now primarily performed by software. GEOINT is no longer about technology but about the analysis the technology enables.

“It used to be you were either a GIS or a remote sensing professional,” Murdock said. “Those once separate activities are merging. If you’re looking for an overarching and progressive way to apply geospatial science and technology to both everyday and defense and intelligence activities, then you’re talking about GEOINT. The GEOINT professional is the person in government and business who informs decision-makers about spatiotemporal issues and provides timely answers to key questions.”

USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Certification is designed for GEOINT professionals across the globe with at least three to five years of real-world experience and a working understanding of physical and human geography. To achieve certification, candidates must pass a series of rigorous exams based on the fundamentals of remote sensing, GIS, data management, and data visualization.

All exams, recommended training modules, and certification maintenance requirements will fall under the umbrella of USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Credentialing Program. Murdock and his team are building the certification to be “transportable and transparent”—meaning not only will it be globally recognized and applicable to all industries and organizations, but also that USGIF strives to be as transparent as possible in its development and program efforts.

After USGIF’s certification has been in existence for a year, or 500 professionals have participated in exams—whichever comes first—the Foundation will be eligible to seek third-party accreditation for its certification by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Both organizational accreditations provide impartial, third-party validation that a certification program meets recognized credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance.

“Because USGIF serves a global community, we are considering both accreditation paths as ISO processes are recognized globally,” Murdock said. “The U.S. DoD has selected NCCA as its certification accreditation body, so we are considering NCCA to maintain continuity with the DoD community.”

In addition to transparency, collaboration has been a key element in USGIF’s certification development process. USGIF and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in fall 2013 entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) allowing the organizations to share best practices and define a set of GEOINT competencies for the entire community. This set of competencies will inform the processes of both organizations as NGA develops its separate, mandated certification for the National System for Geospatial Intelligence.

USGIF has also reached out to the broader geospatial sciences community to offer a concerted environment for discussing the many disparate but united GEOINT-related credentials.

“USGIF is working collaboratively with existing certification providers with an end goal of having an uncluttered and easily understandable credentialing landscape,” Murdock said.

Why Certification?

GEOINT certification has the potential to benefit all stakeholders—analysts, hiring managers, industry, the defense, intelligence, and homeland security communities, and so on. On the individual level, certification helps personnel demonstrate their ability to perform beyond the skill level at which they were hired, making them more marketable for new positions and eligible for promotions, awards, bonuses, and more.

“Certification brings value to both the industry and the individual professionals,” said USGIF Credentialing Manager Ayana Nickerson, who has helped establish a number of successful certification and training programs throughout her career. “This certification will generate increased awareness of and credibility for the GEOINT profession overall.”

Today, GEOINT has grown from strictly an intelligence discipline to become ubiquitous to casual users. Anyone with access to the Internet can pull up commercial satellite imagery to look at their backyard, but if you want to dig a ditch knowing you’re not going to hit a utility line—information you may bet your life on—you want precise information from a professional.

“That really drives the need for credentialing,” said Michael Hauck, executive director of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). “With the commercial proliferation of geospatial technologies it’s easy to be an amateur. So how does one tell whether the information they are looking at is professionally provided and is known to be of a certain accuracy and precision?”

David DiBiase, director of education for Esri and former director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Pennsylvania State University, sees the profession evolving from an academic standpoint as well. DiBiase notes higher education currently turns out the most geospatial science credentials, including the certificates awarded by USGIF-accredited academic programs.

Whereas GIS and remote sensing used to be focus areas within geography, forestry, or environmental science departments, in the last 10 to 15 years there has been a steep increase in the number of master’s degree programs specializing in remote sensing, GIS, or geospatial intelligence, and even a rise in dedicated bachelor’s degree programs. This represents a broad trend toward the professionalization of the field, according to DiBiase.

“For a long time, people thought of GIS and related geospatial technologies simply as tools that were used in a variety of occupations,” DiBiase said. “That remains true but also there is now a growing community of people who identify themselves as GIS or GEOINT professionals.”

As the field becomes more competitive, professionals seek credentials for an edge in the job market. Conversely, employers seek a method for differentiating the hobbyists from the experts or the exceptional from the average.

Dr. Andrew Hock, senior director of advanced technology programs for commercial SmallSat developer and data analytics provider Skybox Imaging, oversees a small research and development group of elite GEOINT analysts tasked with creating the advanced algorithms that extract data from the trove of images produced by the company’s growing constellation.

“If I saw [Universal GEOINT Certification] on a candidate’s resume—for this R&D group that has to understand how a human mind extracts information from geospatial data—it would definitely be a feather in their cap,” Hock said.

Sue Kalweit, a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton, looks closely at personal initiative and professional development when choosing a new employee.

“The certification would indicate the candidate’s interest and commitment in being a geospatial professional, suggesting they would want to continue developing their skills, knowledge, and professional network,” Kalweit said. “I want to hire people who want to grow in their professional career and demonstrate an interest in taking the initiative to do so. The certification also would signal that the candidate has met certain standards for geospatial skills and knowledge that are needed in the workplace, thus indicating their readiness to immediately support clients in providing geospatial services.”

In the GEOINT Community, a common standard is sought to professionalize the industry in the same way other professionals—doctors, lawyers, and engineers, for example—demonstrate skill and earn prestige.

GEOINT credentialing benefits the NSG/ASG and industry by developing common standards for practitioners, identifying those practitioners that are competent, increasing trust, and facilitating movement across the enterprise,” NGA Director Robert Cardillo said via written statement.

As GEOINT continues to become more critical in many industries, Masback believes the certification will quickly grow from a nice-to-have to a necessity.

“USGIF’s intent is the Universal GEOINT Certification will set apart the highest qualified GEOINT professionals and grow into a needed professional designation similar to well-known credentials such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification or Certified Defense Financial Manager (CDFM) requirements,” Masback said.

Essential Knowledge

The development of any new certification begins with creating an essential body of knowledge (EBK) for that profession. USGIF produced its Universal GEOINT EBK by conducting a cross-industry job analysis to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical to the GEOINT workforce.

“Through the development of the Universal GEOINT EBK, USGIF is creating a set of GEOINT industry standards,” Nickerson said. “Such a set of standards didn’t previously exist. Our credentialing program will be built using these validated standards.”

Although USGIF’s GEOINT certification is rooted in the defense, intelligence, and homeland security communities, the Foundation takes a broader view of the profession and has designed the program to be relevant to international professionals as well as those applying GEOINT in commercial industries—hence calling it a “Universal” GEOINT Certification. U.S.-based and international subject matter experts from GEOINT-related verticals such as defense and intelligence, federal and civil, public safety and emergency response, business, oil and gas, forestry, and agriculture all helped generate and validate the EBK.

In June, upholding its commitment to transparency, USGIF published the EBK, which outlines six knowledge areas and more than 200 topics GEOINT professionals should be proficient in to perform successfully. These topics include remote sensing fundamentals, database design and management, data security, visualization principals, and imagery enhancement, transformation, classification, and analysis.

In addition to informing certification requirements, the EBK will also enhance the earlier stages of USGIF’s GEOINT pipeline. Beginning this fall, USGIF-accredited universities will use the EBK as a guide for program curricula.

USGIF’s academic accreditation guidelines were developed and have since been updated using the Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (GIS&T BoK) produced by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science in 2006, then the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) introduced by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2010, according to Dr. Maxwell Baber, USGIF’s director of academic programs. The inclusion of the EBK will foster more well-rounded and technologically current curricula for GEOINT students.

“The GEOINT EBK provides a set of professional standards complementary to the GIS&T BoK and GTCM, produced with input from professionals both within and externally to the national security enterprise, with balanced emphasis on remote sensing, GIS, data management, and data visualization,” Baber said. “USGIF is updating its accreditation guidelines to align curriculum requirements to the new GEOINT EBK while continuing to recognize the significance of GIS&T BoK and GTCM.”

As the accredited programs are periodically reviewed and updated, the EBK and associated certification exams also will be reviewed frequently to ensure content continues to evolve and equate with real-world job skills.

Community Collaboration

Renee Domingo, director of emergency services and homeland security for the city of Oakland, Calif., in front of the main monitoring screen at the city’s Domain Awareness Center (DAC). In 2014, the DAC combined emergency data and information sets from city police, fire, the Port of Oakland, and others. Photo Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez

In April 2014, just before the GEOINT Symposium in Tampa, Fla., USGIF hosted a Future of Geospatial Certification Workshop to gauge interest in community-wide collaboration on certification. Representatives from NGA, ASPRS, the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), the American Association of Geographers, Esri, the U.S. Geological Survey, USGIF-accredited academic programs, and others met for an unprecedented dialogue. The gathering resulted in a greater community understanding of USGIF’s budding Universal GEOINT Credentialing Program, a decision to collaborate among interested organizations moving forward, and increased professional trust among stakeholders.

“USGIF is an honest broker and neutral ground for discussing continued development of geospatial credentials,” said Talbot Brooks, director of Delta State University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies. “When I participated in [the] meeting last year in Tampa, I was a bit stunned to see representation from more than 25 geospatial organizations. … I also have great respect for the USGIF leadership team as they are able facilitators and consensus builders.”

USGIF in October 2014 hosted a daylong forum as a follow on to the Tampa workshop. Representatives from across the broad spectrum of the geospatial science and remote sensing communities convened at USGIF headquarters in Herndon, Va., to discuss lessons learned, best practices, and how USGIF’s credentialing program might be integrated with existing certification processes. USGIF intends to reconvene this gathering each fall.

Two organizations crucial to these conversations since the early days of USGIF’s EBK development are ASPRS and GISCI. Earlier this year, USGIF signed a memorandum of understanding with ASPRS and a memorandum of agreement with GISCI to further inform the Foundation’s development of its credentialing program.

ASPRS offers six certifications related to photogrammetry and remote sensing while GISCI is known for its GIS Professional (GISP) certification.

“We are very pleased that we have entered into this relationship with USGIF as we are convinced it marks a continuing step in the geospatial evolution of our profession and industry,” said Bill Hodge, executive director of GISCI. “This agreement gives USGIF and GISCI the opportunity and means to continue our conversation to find a common ground in geospatial certification and credentialing as both efforts move forward in our respective organizations.”

DiBiase, who has participated in USGIF-hosted credentialing discussions, said USGIF is working earnestly to ensure its activities cohere rather than fragment the GEOINT Community.

Hodge agreed the trend is moving toward cooperation, not competition.

“The concept of competing certifications has been the historic framework and mindset, and we’re looking at moving into an era of complementary certifications and credentials,” Hodge said.

These information-sharing partnerships are also intended to explore the possibility of reciprocity among existing GEOINT credentials and those currently in development.

“ASPRS has a long-standing certification program in photogrammetry and in mapping sciences,” Hauck said. “It makes sense for us to work with USGIF and its credentialing program to find alignment where we can. For both USGIF and ASPRS, it’s about providing service to our members and the community at large.”

Mission Focused

USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Certification will be applicable across multiple commercial industries, such as oil and gas, where professionals with GEOINT skills are essential to inform decisions such as where to drill a well or how to lay out a pipeline route. Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

Training is another area where reciprocity might be possible, according to Murdock. USGIF will offer its own training modules as well as recommend outside training programs to its Universal GEOINT Certification candidates. However, the USGIF credentialing program will be training-agnostic, meaning training will not be a prerequisite to sit for any of the exams.

“Each test required to achieve USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Certification will have recommended training associated with it, and we will partner with USGIF member organizations and interested parties that have training that matches our EBK,” Murdock said. “We are not reinventing the wheel. We will develop what we need in terms of training that doesn’t already exist.”

USGIF’s training will also be offered to help Universal GEOINT Certification holders meet their certification maintenance requirement to demonstrate ongoing professional development.

“This could come in the form of vendor-neutral training, event attendance, academic coursework, etc.,” Nickerson said. “The specific ways an individual can maintain certification are still being defined, but the purpose of maintenance is to promote continuous learning.”

The training modules under USGIF’s credentialing program will also provide a resource for companies and organizations to train their employees.

“We would like to help USGIF members reduce costs by providing them with training solutions,” Nickerson said.

David Alexander, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Geospatial Management Office, said the Universal GEOINT Certification has the potential to reduce the department’s training burden during the onboarding process.

“We would like to spend less time on training new geospatial analysts on how to apply their GEOINT education to DHS and more time on integrating new hires into the mission and culture of the organization,” Alexander said. “A GEOINT certification that included use cases and example scenarios on how to use geospatial and imagery analysis to support border security, incident management, special security event planning, immigration enforcement, and other DHS missions would help build practical expertise with new hires, so they could start making an impact on day one.”

DiBiase said certification usually affects a community as a whole even more so than individuals.

“If a profession is coherent and recognized and respected by society, than the industry overall will benefit,” he said.

DiBiase invoked his own twist on a John F. Kennedy quote: “Ask not what certification can do for you, ask what certification can do for your profession.”

In addition to advancing the GEOINT Community, Alexander believes certification will help unite it.

“GEOINT is a critical resource that provides numerous benefits in relation to operational efficiencies and mission effectiveness,” Alexander said. “[Certification will] strengthen our collaboration and bring the community closer together to achieve common outcomes.”

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