Renée E. Sieber, Mc Gill University,


The civil society – the general public, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), voluntary associations and social networks – are core stakeholders in democratic governmental decision-making processes. GIS has been promoted as a means to engage members of the civil society in policy making because the cartographic medium can help facilitate a higher level of comprehension of complex spatial planning issues (Mac Eachren, 1995; Kraak, 2004). Despite its popularity, however, GIS has been found to both empower and marginalize (usually simultaneously) those publics (Harris et al., 1995). The terms Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) and Participatory GIS (PGIS) (Sieber, 2006) were coined to situate and evaluate the role of GIS in these decision-making processes (Corbett and Keller, 2005). The Internet has been seen as a medium to broaden public involvement and has been used to assess community engagement in a number of somewhat isolated P/PGIS case studies (Tang and Coleman, 2005; Sidlar and Rinner, 2007; Rinner and Bird, Accepted).

The Geospatial Web (Geoweb) has emerged as a platform that could build upon current P/PGIS practice and broaden public engagement. The Geoweb enables the integration of data from multiple sources and the communication of information through a simple layered map interface using second-generation World Wide Web (“Web 2.0”) scripting languages and applications (Helft, 2007; Scharl and Tochtermann, 2007). Accompanying platform development, there is an exponentially growing volume of user-generated content and online communities that develop and share volunteered geographic information (Gibson and Erle, 2006; Tapscott and Williams, 2007; Goodchild, 2007). This trend has been largely fuelled by the widespread availability of Geoweb tools on the Internet, its platform-independence, and its opportunities for integrating user-generated content. Geoweb-based digital earth platforms such as Google Earth, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, and Wikimapia, allow any Internet user to view location-specific information in an informative, interactive and attractive way, provided that the appropriate information is available. Considerable scepticism surrounds the ‘hype’ of the Geoweb for enhancing meaningful communication among stakeholders (Keen 2007).

To date, Geoweb research and practice focus on the leisure-related or business aspects of Web 2.0. In this paper, we examine the participatory governance potential of the Geoweb and, in particular, its potential to enable a two-way dialogue between government and civil society. In part, this means comparing and contrasting the participatory Geoweb and traditional P/PGIS (including web-based P/PGIS). The findings will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of how citizens might act as distributed sensors for local knowledge (Goodchild, 2007), providing data and information that could aid their governments in addressing and developing policy and legislation that responds to this change. Academically, we seek to close the gap between GIS concepts, methods and tools, and the ad-hoc development of Geoweb technologies and applications.


This paper frames the theoretical social and technological platform for a project on the participatory Geoweb. The platform consists of the following three questions:

  1. What defines effective participation on the Geoweb? Arguably, the Geoweb has changed the manner in which we conceptualize participation. We will discuss how participation in this new global platform spans a multitude of actors and reasons to participate. We also will characterize the politics (cultural, regulatory frameworks) of participation and begin to identify organizational and geographic scales at which participatory processes occur within the Geoweb as compared to policy making, which tends to be jurisdictionally bound.
  2. How do we better contextualize web-based models, applications, and data? The ideology of the Geoweb proposes a transparent and egalitarian infrastructure (Turner 2006), which varies from traditional literature that exposes a wikipedia, June 29, 2010: "the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology, and those with very limited or no access at all. It includes the imbalance both in physical access to technology and the resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen." For us, the digital divide includes access to a range of platforms, from Internet to mobile technologies. It includes the availability of data to make effective use of those technologies (e.g., a coarse resolution digital background on Google Maps may make it difficult to effectively use that technology).">digital divide. We plan to delineate potential divides and needs for technical literacy. Additionally we will cover the need for trust mechanisms to increase government confidence in citizen-sensed data and to navigate the differences between authoritative (i.e., from official sources) and assertive (i.e., from non-official sources) information.
  3. How do we begin to build the cyberinfrastructure and enabling policies that serve two-way interaction? Lastly, we need to understand the migration from Web 1.0 tools to Web 2.0. Many GIS-using organizations have invested considerable resources in existing GIS applications and may be unwilling to invest extensively in the Geoweb (beyond publishing kmls). We will briefly outline the opportunities and constraints posed by rapidly emerging Geoweb development environments, application and standards.

In laying the theoretical foundation for the case studies it is hoped that we will identify emergent knowledge and evaluate changes in stakeholders and policy that result from the use of this new platform and promote case study lessons for broader use in planning and policy decision-making.


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