What Helps to Increase Public Participation in GIS?

Mark Altaweel


One issue that has repeatedly arisen since GIS become relatively popular by the 1990s is who has access to it and how much of the wider public can participate in creating data, particularly in information that might be used to shape policy and decisions by government. Public participation in GIS (PPGIS) is, once again, a major concern but is increasingly being addressed by diverse, often de-politicized contexts.

Open Source GIS Increases Participation

The free and open source software for geospatial (FOSS4G) and open GIS movements are ostensibly the most likely way to broaden participation at a technical level, particularly among individuals who do no belong to major private, academic, or government institutions that typically purchase licenses for proprietary GIS software such as Esri products. More than simply providing open source GIS, community information system (CIS) has been one way to increase public participation, which includes establishing partnerships such as local communities and typically university or public institutions that have allowed GIS interfaces and data to be developed that fit or address community needs and allow increased public participation in data gathering and presentation. For instance, in a CIS-based GIS project, the data and software were developed to highlight inequality in food distribution and access in inner-city neighbourhoods of Milwaukee.[1]

Open GIS software is being successfully utilized by an environmental organization in Milwaukee, to contest urban poverty. Source: Welcenbach Maps from Ghose & Welcenbach, 2018.
Open GIS software is being successfully utilized by an environmental organization in Milwaukee, to contest urban poverty. Source: Welcenbach Maps from Ghose & Welcenbach, 2018.

Critique of PPGIS has emerged in that there has been a lack of theory and conceptualization of how PPGIS can be used in depoliticized environments. PPGIS emerged in the 1990s within a greater political framework which has evolved to include now more local, economic, and non-political issues. Emergent theories in economic and social justice as well as political participation may need to incorporate PGIS as part of planning and policy in understanding how PGIS can increase or at least enhance community participation in important development, poverty, environmental, and other issues.[2]

Training Increases Participation in GIS

One of the main limitations to PPGIS is not only proprietary access but also technology knowledge that allows participation. When communication and training are given to community members, then increased use of PPGIS is more likely, enabling planning and other community-based initiatives to more effectively incorporate multiple stakeholder considerations in planning and development activities. In effect, PPGIS cannot be simply about providing technology, but there has to also be a training and information dimension that enables increased and effective participation.[3]

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One study has showed that high number of participants using online GIS may not result in higher user feedback or input into information applied in the GIS. In such cases, users may often only go online for brief moments or simply look at some parts of the site without actively participating in the research or study that may relate to their community. Thus, what is also important for PPGIS projects is that there are active methods that try to create long-term users or users who are more than passive participants in community-based GIS initiatives. This might mean giving incentives or creating online sites that attract greater participation such as through increased education but also through clear demonstration of how PPGIS could lead to long-term benefits.[4]

What is evident is that issues that are most central to community interests, such as development and how policy could affect community members, are more likely to create interests. For instance, in Norway, PPGIS has shown that use-based rather than pure conservation efforts have more favorability in environmental conservation programs.The language of conservation is often given by government or officials, but community members see that use-based conservation that accounts for traditional or cultural use of environmental regions are more central. Such use also emphasises conservation but the emphasis is seen more on human relationships to the landscape rather than as restrictive language on what one can do in their environment.[5]

Community participation in GIS through PPGIS is a worthy goal and has been applied in many studies for decades. Challenges are sometimes the limitation of proprietary software; however, even when such challenges are addressed, community education, interactive sites, and creation of interfaces and sites that fit the language communities understand are some of the key ways in which increased and more active participation are possible. Studies do show positive results when PPGIS works well in enacting policies that are acceptable by a wide number of stakeholders. To accomplish this, communication and effective outreach are critical.


[1]    For more on community information system, see:  Ghose, R., & Welcenbach, T. (2018). “Power to the people”: Contesting urban poverty and power inequities through open GIS: Power to the people. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien, 62(1), 67–80. https://doi.org/10.1111/cag.12442.

[2]    For more on the theory and critique of PPGIS, see:  Radil, S. M., & Anderson, M. B. (2019). Rethinking PGIS: Participatory or (post)political GIS? Progress in Human Geography, 43(2), 195–213. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132517750774.

[3]    For more on participation and training in relation to GIS and PPGIS specifically by communities, see: Kahila-Tani, M., Broberg, A., Kyttä, M., & Tyger, T. (2016). Let the Citizens Map—Public Participation GIS as a Planning Support System in the Helsinki Master Plan Process. Planning Practice & Research, 31(2), 195–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2015.1104203.

[4]    For more on retention and user participation in PPGIS online efforts, see:  Tang, Z., & Liu, T. (2015). Evaluating Internet-based public participation GIS (PPGIS) and volunteered geographic information (VGI) in environmental planning and management. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 59(6), 1073–1090. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2015.1054477.

[5]    For more on community participation in Norway and perception of land use, see:  Engen, S., Runge, C., Brown, G., Fauchald, P., Nilsen, L., & Hausner, V. (2018). Assessing local acceptance of protected area management using public participation GIS (PPGIS). Journal for Nature Conservation, 43, 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2017.12.002.

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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.