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
Email Contact

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.

Review Article
  • Thank you for writing the article, it really struck a chord with me May 11, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Jan Van Sickle'
    Dear Jack,

    It sounds as if you and I began in surveying at about the same time. I began helping my father, an engineer and land surveyor in 1964. In the 80s, I headed up one of the first two GPS crews using the first GPS receiver, the Macrometer. I have been in surveying, GPS and GIS ever since.

    And I could not agree more with your article. I have just left a company where I led the team that collected, processed and reported GPS ground control positions around the world. This control was used to ortho-rectify the satellite imagery that populates Google's Earth product. What a splash that has made. My team and I completed this work in Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Sweden, Myanmar, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, VietNam, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, UK, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, Columbia, Panama, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, South Africa, India, Ecuador, Madagascar, Spain, Portugal, Canada and the United States.

    I organized partnerships with surveying and geospatial firms in all of those countries and more.
    I was most recently working on such arrangements in China and Russia.
    During the work I was constantly cajoling the company to make the most of the international market that I was opening, they had not been working internationally before I came on board. In fact, one of the motivators for bringing me on was the fact that they had a crew locked up in Abu Dhabi in their first attempt to do work overseas. Obviously they needed help. While I was able to rectify those problems and we carried the remainder of the contract off without such incidents, they would not actually make the effort to build on the relationships I established around the world. I mean I was corresponding in several languages, dealing with various government entities, universities and making phone calls in the middle of the night to places halfway around the world. And my email was active to say the least. It was exhilirating and it was also frustrating, what an opportuinity missed.

    The work would be done in an area and they would have left without any more contact. Well, I continued to maintain correspondance on my own anyway. As a matter of fact I just yesterday got a request from UlanBaatar in Mongolia, from my partner there, to travel there and give a seminar on my GPS book. He would also like to have help on a book he is preparing on GPS in the Mongolian language. There are numerous instances of similar feedback on my international list of friends, it is great. And it underlines the truth of what you are saying.

    So back to your point, you could not be more correct, the international market in geospatial, GIS etc is enormous. If it would only be recognized. For example, The company I worked with worked through the contract and then business fell off for them, in my opinion because they did not follow up on the inroads already in place. So I am now looking for my next opportunity. As I do I am keeping my eyes open for people who see the potential that is out there.

    Thank you for writing the article, it really struck a chord with me. If there is anything I can do to assist you in building your international presence please do not hesistate to call or write.

    Jan Van Sickle
    GPS and GIS

    Edited by ibsystems on 05/23/06 02:44 PM.

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  • Great article! May 11, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Fiona Bruce'
    I really enjoyed your article on GIS Cafe. It is refreshing to read articles of this nature - it helps to put things into perspective.



    Fiona Bruce
    Senior Consultant
    Pre and Post Sales Support
    Ordnance Survey

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  • Any way to elevate this to US Legislature? May 11, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Darwin Dahlgren'
    I liked your article regarding the global market for GIS. I have two companies ( and both of which have performed and are performing work overseas. I think that the USA does not assist US companies vying for international work in GIS unlike some of the countries that you mentioned.

    I wonder if there is a way to elevate this need to help capture this work within the USA legislative or executive branches.


    Darwin Dahlgren
    Lambda Tech International

    Edited by ibsystems on 05/23/06 02:44 PM.

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  • Great article! May 11, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Laura Drumgoole'
    Jack McKenna your writing and knowledge are as fascinating as ever. I am truly humbled.

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  • The US and the Mapping World February 27, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Sharon'
    This article should make ALL American owned mapping companies stop and think about how they should desire to expand to other countries. The business is there, why isn't America?

      10 of 11 found this review helpful.
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