Public participatory GIS: A new kind of GIS Application?

Peter A. Kwaku Kyem, PhD, GISP.
Professor of Geography
Central Connecticut State University
Connecticut, USA.

The recent upsurge in the implementation of GIS projects in local and indigenous communities around the world provides clues to how the forces of technological change, advocacy, and public expectation have reshaped the course of GIS development and the power relations that define its research and applications. As GIS has continued to play an expanded role in the way we analyse spatial data, manage our resources, view, and understand spatial phenomena, the empowerment of underprivileged groups has emerged as a popular field of GIS research and applications. The practice is the result of a spontaneous merger of participatory learning and action methods with geographic information technologies (Rimbaldi e.t. al, 2005). The new initiative in GIS applications has come to be known as participatory GIS (PGIS). Additional terms that have been used to describe the community-based GIS Applications include public participation GIS (PPGIS) which was first used at the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) workshop at Orono in Maine, community integrated GIS (CIGIS) and recently, participatory 3-dimensional modelling (P3DM). To advocates and GIS experts who are engaged in PGIS applications, the technology provides a critical complement to grassroots efforts that are undertaken to empower communities and underrepresented members of society.

Development of PGIS practice
The expanded applications of GIS in society generated a great deal of concern among GIS scholars beginning in the mid-1990s. Prominent among early misgivings were the claims that GIS applications generate imbalances in power and unequal access to data and technology (Obermeyer, 1991). The technology’s primary function of preparing data to facilitate official decision-making was seen to be identifying the technology more with powerful members of society than it did with underprivileged groups (Johnson 1993; Curry 1994). Other critics of GIS contended that the technology imposes a particular logic and a way of knowing and representing nature spatially. There were claims that GIS presents only the official version of a worldview that is biased toward a scientific, masculine, and a data-driven representation of reality with little opportunity for representing the experiences of underrepresented groups (Taylor 1991). Some authors also argued that GIS empowers rich and powerful members in society and disenfranchises the weak and poor through its ability to promote selective participation of groups in public policy decisions (Pickles 1991; Mark 1993). In a direct challenge to the PGIS initiative which emerged later, some critics argued for an end to GIS applications in traditional societies because of the technology’s assumption of subject-object dualism (Lake 1993) and the incompatibilities between the Western culture (within which GIS emerged) and that of people in non-Western societies (Rundstrom 1995).

The critiques about equal access to data and technology, public participation, and the negative impacts of GIS on society were not only suggestive of problems with GIS applications, but also highlighted the need to introduce the technology to groups who would likely lose out in public policy debates that involved GIS applications. In an early attempt to ensure a level playing field for GIS applications, Chrisman (1987) advocated the development of a GIS that would facilitate multi-cultural and cross-cultural applications. Other scholars argued in support of expanded GIS applications by claiming that the technology is socially constructed and that GIS assumes its identity within specific social contexts (Campbell and Masser 1995). For some scholars, the lack of access to GIS technology was a limitation on the freedom of those that had a good understanding of their needs but could not verbalise their problems within a context that included GIS (Metzendorf, 1988). Accordingly, to ensure public participation and equal access to information at a time of widespread computer usage, it became necessary to address imbalances in access to GIS technology among some of society’s most vulnerable groups (NCGIA, 1996). However, the actual origin of the PGIS movement is rooted in discussions that were held under the rubric of the GIS and Society debate. The debate occurred under NCGIA Research Initiative 19 that sought to explore social implications of how people, space, and environment could be properly represented in GIS (NCGIA, 1996). The discussions among critics and GIS experts created conditions for the emergence of the PGIS movement. It strengthened GIS applications by focussing attention on impacts that the technology can have on society, especially, the differential access to data and technology amongst groups in society. Thus the PGIS movement came into being to offer alternative applications to traditional GIS usage and thereby democratise applications of the technology.

Goals of PGIS applications
Since the GIS technology was initially developed for the acquisition, processing and displaying of spatial data to facilitate official decision-making, traditional GIS applications emphasise the analytical, cartographic, data handling and computer science aspects of the technology (Reeve and Petch, 1999). In contrast, the PGIS movement represents the vision of GIS practitioners who have developed an interest in the socio-political contributions that the technology can make to empower less-privileged groups in society (NCGIA 1996). PGIS is therefore about the role of GIS in a broader consideration of the empowerment of communities. The community-based GIS applications are often designed to move underprivileged groups from a situation where they have no influence on decisions that affect them, to one where they can fully participate and have a decided impact on the outcomes. The PGIS initiative is therefore viewed by many as an alternative to traditional GIS applications with an agenda to empower groups who are often ignored in GIS applications. It is considered to be a post-modernist transformation of GIS applications, or an activist agenda that is directed at democratising society, technology and spatial data usage (Lake 1993). Thus, the PGIS initiative aims at developing a system that is adaptable to inputs from ordinary citizens and non-official tasks (Obermeyer, 1998). In this regard, PGIS provides tools that allow communities to achieve some leverage in their dealings with state bureaucracy (Reeve and Petch, 1999). Benefits from PGIS applications therefore include advocacy for popular causes, a better understanding of local issues and accessibility of communities to digital spatial information.

The twin paths to PGIS development
The PGIS movement has evolved along two main tracks to fulfill its goals. First, there is a body of early research that is cast in the mode of the GIS and society debate which is devoted to examining traditional GIS applications in public and private commercial organisations. Such PGIS studies address issues of access to spatial data, equity, and whether or not GIS can empower groups within local and indigenous communities. This literature provides a critical review of traditional GIS applications but the analyses also raise doubts about beneficial uses of GIS, including misgivings about the empowerment of underprivileged groups through community-based GIS applications. Another aspect of the PGIS movement focuses on the implementation of non-traditional GIS applications in local and indigenous communities. In such applications, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development scientists and advocates use the GIS technology to assist native and indigenous groups to redefine boundaries and reclaim ancestral lands (Beltgens, 1995). Some of the applications focus on social narratives, and the recording of local knowledge to enhance participation and control over decisions that affect the people (Arvello-Jimenez and Conn, 1995; Forbes, 1995). Other community-based organisations have used GIS to make a case for the inclusion, participation, and recognition of the rights of indigenous people (Laituri, 2001; Nietschmann, 1995) and to resolve conflicts over resources with state authorities (Kyem, 2001). The PGIS applications occur within several organisational arrangements including community-university partnerships, grassroots social organisations, community-based in house GIS groups, web-based PGIS and neighbourhood GIS centers.

Distinguishing features of GIS and PGIS applications
Although traditional GIS and PGIS applications have many things in common (i.e., computer technology, software and experts), the goals, target audience, and organisations involved in both applications are different. A summary of the main characteristics of traditional GIS applications and PGIS practice are shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Characteristics of traditional GIS applications and PGIS practice
Characteristics of traditional GIS applications and PGIS practice

As illustrated in the table above, PGIS applications focus mainly on the empowerment of underprivileged groups while traditional applications of the technology emphasise the production of spatial data to facilitate official decision-making. Community groups define the agenda for PGIS applications and research whilst GIS experts and officials in public and large private corporations set the agenda for traditional GIS applications. Whilst the focus of traditional GIS applications is often on the outcome, PGIS projects tend to emphasise the processes by which outcomes of the GIS applications are attained. Furthermore, while equity and the empowerment of underprivileged groups are crucial goals in PGIS applications, the interests of indigenous groups and less powerful members of society have rarely been addressed directly in traditional GIS applications. Traditional and PGIS applications therefore differ in terms of the social contexts within which the technology is applied, the nature of organisations and issues addressed, intended beneficiaries of such applications and the outcomes of such efforts.

The future of PGIS applications
PGIS applications bring non-native GIS experts into local communities to investigate and highlight issues that would often not be explored. The applications therefore create a medium for nurturing and transforming local struggles into national debates to compel action from public officials. This aside, the coalescing of PGIS applications within local and indigenous communities provides opportunities for political access and legitimacy to the course of underprivileged groups in society. The PGIS movement also has the potential to improve geographic knowledge across scales and thereby foster GIS applications across different cultures. On the other hand, after more than a decade of PGIS applications, there has been little or no discussion of the impact that the applications exert on institutions and organisations in the target communities. Neither has the claim of empowerment of local groups through PGIS applications been evaluated in any detail. Even though GIS applications have become widespread and GIS software has become cheaper and user friendlier today, it is still difficult to find capital and the expertise to set up and maintain PGIS projects for long periods of time. PGIS applications continue to depend on foreign experts who are believed to translate external practices into the internal norms of the PGIS organisations they represent as they learn to conform. We also know little about how the filtering of spatial data through foreign GIS experts confounds the representation of issues that are of greatest concern to people in the communities. PGIS applications are also threatened in some parts of Asia where initial successes of the project have attracted the wrath of some state officials and professional mapping organisations.

On the other hand, PGIS applications have improved over the years. Since its inception in the 1990s, the applications have spread from inner city neighbourhoods and indigenous communities in Western developed nations into local communities around the globe. The movement has also witnessed its share of rapid advances in computers and spatial technology. PGIS applications have incorporated multimedia and currently, there is an interesting convergence that is taking place among multimedia, the Internet and spatial information technology. This new development offers opportunities for PGIS practitioners to use the Internet as a platform for hosting multimedia GIS applications. With the integration of PGIS applications into the worldwide web, the tools for public participation expand to include on-line procedures for accessing text, audio, video and three dimensional viewing. This can motivate participants and generate very high levels of participation in addition to a high responsive feedback from participants engaged in PGIS applications. With the Internet, PGIS applications will be programmed as part of an interactive system at a website to expand access to citizens who may be affected by a policy decision but may not be physically present in meetings to express their concerns. The Internet therefore provides a means for sharing, maintaining and disseminating data besides the possibility of conducting interactive spatial analysis over the web to expand participatory opportunities to all affected citizens and communities.

There is little doubt that the Internet could expand PGIS practice but the on-line applications raise several concerns including limits to the participation of local groups in the decision making process. The uneven development of structures for Internet access in several local communities today means that relatively very little participation in the decision making process will occur among people in poor communities. There are concerns about how genuine communication and effective interaction can be maintained between stakeholders, the mediators and community groups in a web-based PGIS application. The integration of PGIS applications into the Internet therefore raises prospects as well as concerns for the future of PGIS applications among less privileged people. It is unfortunate and also ironic that a PGIS movement that came into existence partly as a result of disillusionment with applications of a complex GIS technology should be riding on the wings of the same technological innovation to alienate some of the very people it was designed to serve. On the other hand, the new development seems to be unavoidable. There is little doubt that the Internet will exert profound impact on many areas of human activity of which PGIS application is no exception. But just traditional GIS application was transformed as it came into contact with social forces, on-line PGIS applications will evolve in accordance with public expectation, societal demand and ongoing developments within the spatial technology. Ultimately, the future of PGIS applications would be determined by the choices we make today regarding the Internet and spatial information technology, the uses we design for spatial technologies such as GIS, the social issues we choose to address and the institutional arrangements in which the technologies may be embedded in the future.

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