Self-employment in GIS

Mark Altaweel


  • Self-employment in GIS is not as daunting as it might seem
  • Communication, being organized, and balancing multi-tasking are critical skills you will need
  • Build your experience and online profile to succeed
  • Having motivation is perhaps one of the most ingredients to succeed

Self-employment in the GIS industry may seem daunting, but in a recent MapScaping podcast interviewing Kurt Menke, who is the founder of Birds Eye View GIS, useful professional steps that can help people succeed are presented. The good news is that there is no shortage of geospatial needs for companies, giving ample opportunity for GIS specialists.

Related article: Turning Geospatial Skills Into a Business

While tools and data change, geospatial analysis will be around for a long time to come, creating a large market for GIS professionals to thrive within existing firms but also to create their own firms or be independent consultants.

For those interested in starting as a GIS consultant, there might not be a specific formula but one of the first things to know is what niche you want to focus on. One should get to know the industries that work may come from or industries you want to get involved with.

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For instance, forestry, environmental management, urban planning, and others are fields that not only have geospatial needs but having some domain knowledge can help with clients, including communicating with them, and allow you to potentially better understand their problems and what they want.[1]

Communication is Key

You often find that clients simply do not know what they really want so having some domain knowledge and communicating that to your clients can allow you to see how a solution to a problem could be derived.

Communication, therefore, is also another critical skill you will need in order to succeed as a self-employed geospatial specialist. Having good communication skills, where you can formulate and ask good questions, can help you get the information you need from your clients to not only accomplish the task but also learn from them.

This knowledge can help on future tasks and clients can come back to you as they see develop knowledge in their field and have appropriate geospatial skills.

Communication is also  important in making sure your client knows how long it will take to accomplish tasks and you have to adjust to their modes of communicating, which can involve different media, including social media, messaging tools, emails, and phone calls.

Doing good work and communicating effectively can help you get clients to return and establish a good reputation where you might not even need to market yourself much as others spread the word about. 

Building Your GIS Business

Perhaps one mistake people make is they might assume they will spend almost all their time doing GIS. The fact is you have to multitask and likely do work that is not billable.

For instance, answering emails, talking to clients, writing proposals, or even doing your own accounting could be work you find yourself engrossed in. This might mean you should include this ‘non-billable’ work into your budget and part of the skills you need is properly estimating how much time you really will need to accomplish a given task or project.

You might find it that you generally undercharge. You might have to also adjust your rates for different clients, such as different rates for non-profit and private organizations.

Knowing the quality of your clients data is also critical because it will often determine how long it will take you to do a project.

One mistake people make is they might take every job, but in reality some jobs might not be worth your time if the data are difficult to deal with and you might end up wasting a lot of time without accomplishing the task. You need to be sure you are in a position that you can deliver what you promise and that means knowing the data you are dealing with and realistically how long tasks will take.

Having good judgment about the nature of a potential project and client are also critical skills.


One key to start your own business or consultancy is motivation. You should like what you are doing and be motivated to do it.

A positive and negative is that nobody will be there to push you to get tasks done so you might have to develop a motivation or be naturally motivated to finish your work.

But when getting started you also might have to establish a reputation for yourself. If you are just beginning in the field, maybe a key step is to establish an online profile of your work.

Volunteer with organizations so people know you, particularly in areas that you want to do work in. If you demonstrate your skills, people who might not know they need geospatial tools or outputs might see that you could provide benefits to their needs.

Create a niche in areas that you want to work in by take yours skills in geospatial technologies and focusing on these areas.

Experiment with what you do and ask for feedback to get new ideas on how you can market or demonstrate your skills.

Join community sites online and get involved with activities to network and establish yourself.

Document your progress and learn along the way so you can improve your work and what lessons might work better. Feedback can be powerful in improving your skills.

Some good news is you can save a lot of costs these days by using open source tools, as almost any task can be done with open source tools. Some clients may require proprietary tools, which may require you budget for such tools. However, it is now easier for many of us to start our own business using geospatial tools by simply using open source tools that are out there.

[1]    A still useful look at the geospatial industry and different work opportunities, including self-employment, can be found here:  Schuble, T.J., 2012. Careers in GIS: : an unfiltered guide to finding a GIS job. Lulu Publishing, Raleigh, N.C..

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.