Participatory Planning and the Web-Based GIS

Two important, synergistic trends occurred during the 1990s that have changed the face of decision making. The first was the established ubiquity
of the Internet and the Web over a highly interconnected telecommunications environment, which has not only facilitated a network-oriented approach to GIS and environmental modeling (and most other IT applications of significance), but has promoted almost instantaneous communication worldwide. The second is the high level of access to PCs in the industrialized nations promoting a user-centered approach to information gathering and participation socially and politically as actors over the network. Surfing the Web has become an important part of people’s social and business lives. This has been mirrored in the migration of complex decisions from single individuals to large groups of individuals as governments strive to promote inclusiveness to offset the growing socio-economic rifts and marginalization of the poor that has also grown over the same period.

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Such notions are also at the heart of online “community mapping” initiatives in which residents collaboratively produce maps of their locale that feature local knowledge and resources (Parker, 2006). Such projects aim to promote inclusion, transparency, and empowerment. IT is seen on both sides of the Atlantic as transforming lives (e.g., PITAC, 1998), but not all is rosy with the emergence of a “digital divide” (NTIA, 2000; Hull, 2003) where segments of society are nevertheless slipping into the margins of the informational economy (Castells, 1998). The term e-government has been added to our expanded vocabulary of “e” words. We are now in an age of growing participatory or collaborative decision making at the local level, including environmental and planning issues, in which the Web is the major vehicle for access.


Spatial planning has always been a complex process in which the recommendations emanating from a narrowed decision space as an outcome of, say, GIS and environmental modeling within an SDSS framework, needs to be mediated by the social and political reality (highly subjective and selective of perceived issues that they are) into a consensus for action. The environmental awareness that is now ingrained has made the process more complex and yet at the same time there has been a growing distrust or skepticism that scientists and experts know the right answers. Ferrand (1996) identifies three main elements: (1) the environment (the territory and related elements), (2) the proposed project, and (3) a “set of embedded actors” who will usually be a large, diverse group. Reality will inevitably be a social construction as perceived by the planners, the policy makers, and the embedded actors who “emphasize the contingency of information.” Howard (1999) has detailed a number of advantages of Web-based approaches to participation in the planning process:
  • Participation does not have to be restricted to attendance at meetings in specific geographical locations.
  • Access to pertinent information can be from anywhere that has Web access.
  • Access to information is not subject to “opening hours,” but is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Views can be expressed relatively anonymously and in a nonconfrontational situation.
Web-based participatory GIS (PGIS) provides an important adjunct to participatory planning as a means of facilitating and structuring access to data and information in map or mixed-media formats.
  • Static, noninteractive maps that are the digital equivalent of the paper map.
  • Time-slice, noninteractive maps that are changed periodically, such as weather maps.
  • Static, interactive maps (HTML image map) that provide a cartographic gateway to more detailed maps and/or other forms of data and information by clicking on the relevant location.
  • Static, interactive maps that can be zoomed and panned by clicking relevant on-screen icons or scale bars.
  • Dynamic, interactive maps with regular refresh that show changing situations, which are clickable for more information locally, such as traffic congestion maps.
  • Static, user-defined maps that are created online via an interactive menu of options.
  • User-defined, interactive maps that allow the user to undertake online spatial analysis using data layers and allowing subsequent clickable queries of the map.

These are all useful configurations for participatory planning and the first three in the above list require only simple architecture. The last four would normally require a vendor’s Internet server version of their GIS software. A general overview of PGIS is given by Weiner and Harris (2008) and their use in relation to decision making by Jankowski and Nyerges (2008).

Kingston et al. (2000) describes the use of Web-based PGIS as part of a participatory planning initiative that took place in a village called Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire, United Kingdom. The particular planning issues concerned the reopening of a canal through the village center, commercial traffic access to industrial sites, and many old buildings in disrepair.

A Web-based GIS was considered appropriate as the whole community would benefit from being able to provide input to decisions about difficult problems. The design of the system centered on a Java map application called GeoTools, which allows pan, zoom, simple spatial query, and attribute input through a text box. If on navigating the map, a user wished to comment on a building or particular feature, it could be selected using the mouse and a free-form text box would pop up into which comments could be typed. The database would be immediately updated with the comment for collation and analysis at a later stage. Each user was requested to fill in a form that could later be used to profile respondents. The system was found to offer a high degree of flexibility with continual update of the database with comments. Any corrections/changes that needed to be made to the base data as a result of a user’s local knowledge could be carried out quickly.

Kingston et al. observed a high level of proficiency in map usage and where a feature could not readily be found, users would navigate from recognized, known objects. Most problematic for the older generation was the use of a mouse to select features. All users seemed to appreciate the opportunity to write as much as they wished about any issue. Within the respondents was a strong gender bias toward male users and there was an occupational weighting toward professional/managerial and educational employment. The dominant age group of respondents, however, was school-age children.

One significant problem recognized by Kingston et al. centered on making all the data and information available to users in relation to who controls and owns them. Contracts for use of data are often quite restrictive and for Web-based media, owners want to charge on a perview basis, which could make participatory planning very expensive with resources tied up in complex copyright and legal issues. Nevertheless, the basic principles underscoring participatory processes incorporating Webbased PGIS are:
  • All sectors of the community should have equal access to data and information.
  • The community should be empowered through the provision of data and information that maps onto the communities’ needs.
  • The legitimacy and accountability of the process needs to be underscored by a high degree of trust and transparency.
Mercer et al. (2008) have studied the methodological advantages, limitations, and ethical issues of participatory techniques in the context of disaster risk reduction. While the advantages outweigh the limitations resulting in broadening the capacity for dialog between communities likely to be impacted by disasters and the relevant stakeholders with effective knowledge sharing and transfer, it was found that groups can inhibit individual voice, the process can be time consuming, and unequal power levels between the participants influence the interactions. Ethical issues focus on unduly raising expectations: Who is really being empowered, are participants being exploited, and where does ownership reside? Nevertheless, PGIS is becoming far more sophisticated and seen as an increasingly convenient and cost-effective means of carrying through mandated public consultation around planning decisions.

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