Making a Living in the Global GIS Marketplace
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Making a Living in the Global GIS Marketplace

February 23, 2006 -- I was a trainee surveyor and photogrammetrist with the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland in the late 60’s. Life was good. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were at the height of their popularity. I was young and had not yet acquired a spare tire. Although there was some conflict in the world at that time, it was on the whole a safe place for surveyors. The most stressful mission I was sent on by the Ordnance survey was running a line of levels up the Falls Road in Belfast. As it turned out, the locals were very nice to us. I have found that people tend to be very nice everywhere, at least if you are nice to them. (Exceptions include the County Tax Assessor in North Carolina who spent the entire hour of our meeting spitting tobacco juice into a Coke bottle. She was quite a gal).

I was shocked and awed when my US based employer decided to focus a part of our core business on the poor and disadvantaged populations in developing countries – which we believe can be empowered through property ownership. As a result, I have spent the past two years traveling in the developing countries of Latin America, the Eastern Caribbean, the Middle East and Eurasia.

My primary function is to ensure that the geospatial foundations for national mapping projects are completed on time, within budget and to internationally accepted accuracy standards. The geospatial mapping and GIS foundation are the means by which the door to the property title insurance market is opened. Once the issue of who owns what property is settled, this provides the assurance needed for financial institutions to provide primary and secondary mortgage financing.

The concept revolves around the reality in developing countries that the citizens, when they acquire title to the property they own (or occupy) can obtain secured loans, backed by the property title, for the purpose of improving their property or for buying new property.

The US model is the basis for establishment of the primary and secondary mortgage markets in developing countries. The effect on the economies of those countries is substantial. This is not surprising when it is realized that 12% or more of the US economy is driven by the primary and secondary mortgage and real estate markets. When people buy a home they start to take better care of it. They buy paint, lumber and plumbing supplies. They employ builders to construct additions to their property. They buy a second home. They employ landscapers, plumbers, electricians, and painters. The economic conditions within countries that enable their citizens to own property improves dramatically.

The happy citizens are then persuaded that paying property taxes and getting permits to build or improve a home are necessary functions of society and of benefit to everyone. Taxes pay for improvements in city infrastructure, construction of schools, hospitals and parks. They learn that capitalism can be a good thing. So they register their property and pay taxes on equitably assessed property values. A modern land records management system is created and all the property ownership and mapping information is used to feed a GIS, in addition to a variety of land records management software modules for land registry records keeping, cadastral mapping and tax revenue calculation. The databases are kept current and the information becomes available for use by both the public and private sectors. As a result, a reliable and transparent revenue stream is established to enable local and national governments to provide greatly improved services to the citizens, attract investment and provide funding mechanisms for property and industrial development.

There is a vibrant international GIS market. What I find strange is the paucity of US mapping and GIS consultancy companies in the global arena. There is an an abundance of British, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Argentinian and Chilean mapping and GIS companies vying for the abundance of projects to be found in a large number of developing countries. There are thousands of municipalities in these countries that are urgently attempting to modernize their land records using GPS surveying, photogrammetry, GIS and land records management technology.

I have often wondered why the US companies are not well represented. Is it because the US market is so vibrant that they don’t see the need for the ‘hassle’ of working in an international market? For sure, it’s not a bed of roses working in these far flung outposts of fledgling democracy. I have to admit that I have had to put a cost line item in for daily rates for army protection for a field crew in some countries. Apparently some political parties within some fledgling democracies take exception to the concept of GIS infrastructure creation for the purposes of tax revenue calculation. Perhaps US companies don’t want to bring very expensive GPS equipment, digital mapping cameras and LiDAR sensors into countries where the concept of ‘rule of law’ is just that, a concept and not a reality.

I’m reminded of a presentation I gave at a GIS conference in Central America a couple of years ago. The highlight of my presentation, or so I thought anyway, was when I extolled the virtues of a sigma naught in an aerial triangulation block adjustment of 4.5 microns (or better). The highlight of the next speaker’s presentation was when he told the story of the inhabitants of a remote Latin American village who tied a tax collector backwards onto a donkey (presumably the one he rode into town on) and sent him back out of town. Dead.

It cannot be denied that there is much a US based company must learn in order to be successful internationally. For instance, how to operate within different political and religious cultures, how to identify suitable in-country partners, how to remain compliant with the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), how to protect US employees who work overseas and a myriad of other factors that must be considered.

I have asked some of my friends in the US what their revenue projection for acquiring international work will be over the next five years. They invariably respond to this question by stating that they cannot afford to pursue the international market. I suppose this means that they think that the domestic US market will sustain 100% of their revenues ten years from now. In this rapidly changing era of globalization, that might not be a prudent business plan. I know of one large US based company that predicts that its international revenue will increase from the existing 5% of total revenue to 95% of total revenue within the next ten to fifteen years.

Instead of a company asking “Can we afford to pursue the international market?”, a better question might be “Can we afford not to?”. Just remember, if you get involved with tax related projects, be sure to only provide the tools for calculation of taxes owed. Leave the actual collection of taxes to the locals.

By: Jack McKenna
Sr Geospatial Solutions Consultant
Stewart Information International
5730 Northwest Parkway, Suite 100
San Antonio, TX 78249
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Jack McKenna is the Senior Geospatial Solutions Consultant for Stewart Information International where he is currently working on land reform projects and economic development activities in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Eurasia. He is an experienced photogrammetrist and surveyor with an extensive background in GIS and remote sensing in both the public and private business sectors.

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