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There appears to be very little information available about competitive hourly rates for GIS freelancers. Additionally, GIS freelancers never post rates on their websites. Elance has some information on what people are asking, although I believe the rates are well below the industry standard due to the structure of their bidding system (example). The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states the median pay for Cartographers and Photogrammetrists is $27.62 USD, although this is presumably low because it does not taking into account fringe benefits. What is the going rate for GIS freelancers? I am interested in hearing from both freelancers and businesses who contract out work.

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Should this perhaps be Community Wiki? –  PolyGeo Jul 2 at 22:31
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A flag asked for a convincing case to make this CW. I think it's a slam-dunk for many reasons: (1) it is localized to the US; (2) it is localized in time; (3) "GIS freelancer" is an extremely fuzzy, ill-defined category; (4) there is likely to be a huge range of answers depending on circumstances related to location, education, experience, type of work, length of project etc.; (5) it's arguably not even on topic because it's about the workplace rather than GIS; (6) it does not distinguish between actual pay and reported pay (which likely differ). –  whuber Jul 3 at 16:47
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(Continued) In fact, most of these reasons are usually taken to be good reasons to close a question. What we should be asking, then, is for someone to advance a solid argument why this thread should remain open. –  whuber Jul 3 at 16:49
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Aaron, you are free to disagree, but I feel that I am being very generous: The logical (and intended) consequence of your quotation is not that this question should revert to normal but that it should be closed. –  whuber Jul 3 at 16:57
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Perhaps this question would be kinder to the general spirit of Stack Exchange if it was framed from the standpoint of what goes into the calculation of GIS freelance work as opposed to a hard and fast method for deciding if you are underpaid. The knowledge being shared is of great value, but the question is teetering on the brink of what is considered 'in scope.' –  Nathanus Jul 3 at 19:32

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Firstly - this is an excellent question (+1). As a freelancer, I wish I had had this information when I started out!

Secondly - YIKES! Translating that rate into sterling is frightening. GIS professionals must be ten a penny in the US is all I can say if that it the limit of your earning expectations.

Third (and a more serious commentary expanding on Conor's answer) - The answer to your question depends a lot on the sector in which you are applying your GIS skills. This is first and foremost the deciding factor. If I was working in the oil industry I would be charging double what I am at the moment (but GIS for the oil industry is a little bit specialized and some of the skills very niche e.g. bespoke geological software skills required rather than just ArcGIS or what have you).

I set my rate initially by taking my (then) annual salary (gross of tax to allow for some corporate tax and sundries as very roughly equivalent to my income tax and UK National Insurnce) and divided by 200 to give me a day rate. I used 200 because I used to work in a commercial GIS group where there was a concept of '200 chargeable days' - the remaining 165 days being taken up by weekends, sick leave, holidays, personal development, business development (including website maintenance), computer maintenance etc. This was a formula which worked well in my experience. For an hourly rate I divided the day rate by 7 because:

  • I am a highly qualified and experienced professional and well worth it
  • During a normal working day you take time out for lunch, making coffee, going to the toilet, answering the phone and so on - as a freelancer you must allow for this.

Using this simple calculation you can work out what you personally must charge to maintain your current standard of living. Anything less would represent an unacceptable drop in salary and mean it is not worth going freelance.

The aim of going freelance is to get flexibility, self determination, personal satisfaction and because you have noticed how your current employer is benefiting from your skills and you would like a cut of that money. The above calculation is just a baseline and to improve on it, you can put your prices up and you work harder once you get a feel for the market. However, this method of calculating your hourly rate will reflect the market you personally work in and the level at which you are working (as Conor says, it depends on whether you are a junior technician or doing advanced spatial analysis for instance).

ADDITIONAL COMMENT: I should add that, after all the talk about a minimum acceptable rate, it isn't just about the money. As a freelancer I personally have gained a lot more job satisfaction and can meet my clients' needs without all the bureaucracy of a large organisation getting in the way. I am also a lot more hands-on, which I enjoy and which I was losing with increasing seniority in a traditional employed role. This sense of satisfaction and achievement are worth a lot and can't be expressed in a simple monetary rate. This is the hidden bonus (though I grant you, you can't eat it and it doesn't pay the mortgage).

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Thanks for the excellent answer with widely applicable information. –  Aaron Jul 3 at 17:11

It really depends on what kind of work you are doing and the client you are doing it for.

What you do matters:

A freelance GIS Developer like Kirk Kuykendall is going to make a lot more per hour as a GIS Developer with a very specialized skillset than someone who is just digitizing a few thousand points or lines (technician level work) in a GIS.

Who you are working for matters:

Private industry generally pays more than local governments. Local governments generally pay more than nonprofits. Larger clients generally pay more than smaller to medium sized clients.


That being said, here is what I see for small to medium-sized clients:

For GIS developers (anecdotally based on work that I've done) the going rate isn't much different from most other freelance programming jobs ($70-125 USD per hour in the USA, depending on client, type, and length of work.)

I've seen technician jobs as low as $15 per hour (but more often closer to the $27 you quoted) and as such jobs falling more under the "Analyst" paradigm are somewhere in between.

This old web link from 2001 says that they charged $40/hour for their GIS Analyst work. Though the face of GIS has changed significantly since then, I don't find that to be an unreasonable number.

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I'll add that these are the "going rates" for most gigs out there and I'll stress again that this is also significantly dependent on experience. If you are the best in the biz, you can always charge more and people will pay it. As stated in the above link, a good "GIS consultant" can make well over $250/hr, depending on the client, industry, length of job, etc. –  Conor Jul 2 at 22:46

An hourly pay for a cartographer is of course not equivalent to what the same person with the same skill level would charge as a freelancer.

@Conor sugested $70-125 USD. That sounds about right on the low to medium end even here in Canada but could be more for highly specialized tasks such as specialized analysis and development work.

This does not mean however that you will take home $70-$125 USD / hour.

Subtract the cost of doing business business:

  • BUSINESS INSURANCE! You need business insurance which can be costly but this is a must in case you get sued for whatever reason - you make an error, you don't deliver as promised, etc.
  • Income taxes - depending on where you are you will need to pay taxes (The US is different but In Ontario Canada if you make over a certain amount, I believe $30K/ year, income tax must be factored in)
  • Quotes and bidding work takes time, a lot of time. Often involves research and some preliminary GIS work, data availibility, etc. To a freelancer this is unpaid work
  • Promoting your services - again, essential, a lot of time commitment and work and potentially advertizing investment
  • Cost of hardware, software and maintenance - you need to purchase expensive hardware, even more expensive software + software maintenance + a sophisticated backup system. You can probably get away with open source but might hit some walls if the industry you cater to uses industry standards like ESRI or Autodesk products. If this is the case you may just need to make this investment.

Add it all up and initially you may get the $30 - $50 out of the $70-$125 you will bill out.

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