Scaling-Up as a Grand Challenge for Public Participation GIS
Dr. Timothy Nyerges
Does it matter whether public-oriented decision
processes and outcomes are transparent, accountable and fully informed?
Participatory decision making is as old as democracy.From national
elections to local land-use planning, participatory decision making
exemplifies the democratic maxim that those affected by a decision
outcome should participate directly in decision processes.
For years, a GIS has been called a decision support system (Cowen 1988).When we connect GIS with
participatory contexts we get "participatory GIS," (PGIS) (Harris et al.1995, Jankowski
and Nyerges 2001) or a "public participation GIS" (PPGIS) (Nyerges, Barndt, Brooks 1997), or community
integrated GIS (Craig, Harris, and Weiner 2001).
The term public is defined by the American Heritage
Dictionary Fourth Edition as "the community or the people as a
whole or alternatively a group of people sharing a common interest as
in the reading public.The term participation is defined as the act of
taking part or sharing in something." Given that the term public is
an adjective qualifying participation in PPGIS, the term PGIS
is actually the broader, more inclusive, of the two phrases - although
some researchers prefer to restrict use of "PGIS" to participatory
development within developing countries.
In the late 1990's, the phrase "community integrated GIS" became
preferred to refocus research effort on community (Craig, Harris and
Weiner 2001).Whether we use "participatory" or "public participation"
or "community integrated" does not matter, as public is commonly
constituted of diverse groups with varying interests.
Regardless of the label, individuals as part of the public and groups
within the public are often marginalized in public decision processes.
Groups/communities traditionally marginalized, i.e., under-represented
in decision processes at macro scales, are now organizing with the help
of action research projects.For example, within the City of
Milwaukee, in a project called Making Connections, residents
helped with GIS maps to form a story about community development
example, drawing on local knowledge of indigenous peoples,
participatory 3D modelling helps visualize landscapes for protected
area management in Southeast Asia.In a third
example, local knowledge from Native American tribes is sensitive
to tribal cultural history.Unfortunately, GIS data recording of such
knowledge could be exploited for development purposes and/or to protect
culturally sensitive sites.In the studies above, as well as in most
PPGIS activities, participation focuses on smaller groups rather than
When examining an ability to give the public a voice in democracy,
marginalized voice is a fairly pervasive problem.Practically speaking,
the general public is constituted of many diverse groups - even if we
consider the public as a whole.The general public is
actually a marginalized group when it comes to participation processes,
as there is no single, directed voice in the public.
Despite many federal, state and local laws that require public
participation, research about local governance indicates that
large-group participation in publicly oriented decisions commonly
involves little meaningful participation.Meaningful
participation can be defined in terms of access to voice (a
deliberative process) and competence of knowledge(s) (an
analytic process) that fosters shared understanding about
values, interests and concerns that underlie the
recommendations/choices to be offered/made by those with a stake in the
decision (National Research Council 1996).
Meaningful participation is a hallmark of a healthy democracy,
particularly deliberative democracy in contrast to representative (make
a vote) democracy.
Deliberative democracy involves empowerment wherein a reasoned
discussion among people promotes shared understanding on a topic
followed by consensus building.Although interest in deliberative
democracy has existed for over 100 years (Gastil and
Levine 2005), research and practice has blossomed since the late
1980's.Over the past decade, hundreds of deliberative democracy events
of varying sizes have occurred across the world.A synthesis of case
studies appears in a Deliberative Democracy Handbook (Gastil and Levine 2005).Several of the chapters
deal with location-based issues, and thus GIS could be useful.However,
no chapters actually refer to GIS, a seeming disconnect and latent
opportunity.Of special note, some deliberative events have involved
thousands of people at once.In 2002, AmericaSpeaks, a
not-for-profit organization located in Washington D.C., organized a
21st Century Town Meeting at the Javitt's Center in New York City that
brought together more than 3,000 people to discuss redevelopment plans
for the World Trade Tower site after September 11, 2001.Unfortunately,
such activity comes at great expense, requiring hundreds of
facilitators at multiple levels of responsibility.
Research about analytic-deliberative decision processes has shown that
meaningful public participation is possible and decision outcomes are
improved (National Research Council 1996).The
analytic component provides technical information that ensures
broad-based, competent perspectives.GIS has provided technical
information in such processes as maps can represent changes in
landscapes.The deliberative component provides an opportunity to give
voice to choices about values, alternatives and recommendations.
Unfortunately, such public participation has been expensive and time
consuming, and involved small to medium-sized groups (10-15 people).
Working through analytic-deliberative participation in small to
medium-sized groups in face-to-face settings is a start, but scaling
analytic-deliberative participation to large groups is a challenge - as
In addition, whether groups are better supported in face-to-face
settings or in asynchronous settings is still an open research
question.It is often thought that face-to-face participatory settings
are superior to asynchronous participatory settings.It only seems
reasonable.However, Dowling and St.Louis (2000)
have shown that an asynchronous nominal group process was more
effective than a face-to-face nominal group process, at least in a
small group setting - a challenge to anecdotal feelings about
face-to-face participatory processes.
Based on the following three observations: (1) public participation is
mandated by many federal, state and local laws encouraging core
democratic process; (2) the Internet is growing in popularity and
access is getting better even for under-represented groups as reported
in several studies; and (3) asynchronous, structured participation
methods have been shown to be at least as good and in some cases
superior to face-to-face participation; perhaps an Internet platform
combining GIS (i.e., data management, spatial analysis and
geovisualization) technologies, decision modeling technology, and
communications technology into a geospatial portal to support an
analytic-deliberative process might be one way to foster meaningful
participation in large groups as well as hold down the cost to all who
wish to participate.This rationale is the basis of the US National
Science Foundation-funded research activity called the Participatory
GIS for Transportation (PGIST)
Project.The principal research question for the project is: What
Internet platform designs and capabilities, particularly including GIS
technology, can improve public participation in analytic-deliberative
transportation decision making within large groups?
Addressing that question involves intensive interdisciplinary work.
From experience on several large interdisciplinary projects over the
past decade, getting researchers to work with one another has been
equally as challenging as getting stakeholders to work together.The
commonality of that challenge and the one for analytic-deliberative
public participation involves resolving mismatch of language meanings,
e.g., the meaning of transportation-based valued-concerns.
Computer-supported resolution of mismatched meanings among many people
is at the core of the grand challenge.Certainly, this essay is not the
first to recognize this challenge.Other literature, e.g., dealing with
boundary objects in science and technology studies, recognize a similar
challenge.The difference here, however, is in recognizing that scale
really matters, and is particularly constraining when working in a
computer-mediated setting.For those who see the World Wide Web as
promoting anytime, anywhere and anytime work, it just isn't so as yet
in connection with analytic-deliberative work at large, participatory
scales - what just might be considered a grand challenge for PPGIS work.
Nyerges, T, M.Barndt, and K.Brooks, 1997.
Public Participation Geographic Information Systems, Proceedings,
13, Seattle, WA, American Congress on Surveying and Mapping,
Bethesda, MD, pp.224-233.