HCI, Urban Planning, and Participation

I particularly enjoyed reading Haklay and Tobón’s article, as public participation in urban planning is a topic that I take great interest in. The article notes that especially in an age of increased personal computer usage, empowering users of GIS is crucial to not only improve individual and social development in communities, but to also gain a greater understanding of the design and capabilities GIS systems.

In urban planning, encouraging public participation is often a tricky endeavor. While reasons for being unable to participate vary greatly, one cause includes the inability of individuals to travel to meetings due to, for instance, mobility issues or scheduling conflicts. As a result, it is possible that those who are able to participate represent a relatively small portion of a community. Perhaps improving GIS to be more accommodating to all types of users, from the novice to the expert, will enable participants to move up Arnstein’s “ladder of participation” to a level of greater citizen involvement and power.

The article provides two examples of citizen workshops, which both provide insight into how a GIS can be better designed to facilitate usage. From the first example, I think that one of the main points is the importance of a system’s learnability and flexibility. In this case, learnability refers to “the time it takes a person to reach a specified level of proficiency.” This process will vary for every user, and as such, a GIS tailored to improve urban planning participation may have to include many different features to involve, for example, those who have limited vision. Moreover, flexibility is defined as “the extent to which [a system] can accommodate tasks or environments it was not originally planned for.” This point very much relates to another issue Haklay and Tobón bring up, which is that creators of a GIS must be constantly involved in the design process, which may arguable be a never-ending activity.

From the second workshop example, I think that one of the key issues is the accessibility of a GIS. The development of a web-based urban planning or e-government platform meant that individuals could remotely access information or be included in decision-making. I think that this process has profound implications for those with mobility issues, as already mentioned, in that one no longer has to travel a great distance to participate.

Lastly, while increasing citizen engagement may appear at first to be entirely positive, one has to wonder to what extent should this be encouraged. On the one hand, it may not be possible to completely cater a system to the needs of every individual. In other words, at some point generalizations have to be made, which may hinder how those with varying levels of expertise or capability interact with a system. On the other hand, citizen engagement is often unquestionably considered a positive aspect that should always be fostered. Perhaps this notion itself should be questioned, because, for example, it is possible that too much public engagement can lead to the reduced capacity of organizations to operate efficiently.

– jeremy

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