Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS)

GIS has become crucial to public policy making because of its facility to combine and then analyze geographic data from diverse sources (e.g., Statistics Canada census information, Natural Resources Canada vegetation data, and local land ownership information). GIScience researchers and GIS practitioners have explored methods to involve the public impacted by decisions in public policy making, for example using GIS in public meetings to help visualize problems and increasing transparency through disseminating the geographic data used in the decisions. This field of study is called PPGIS. PPGIS was the subject of my dissertation research, in which I hypothesized that GIS could effectively be utilized by small all-volunteer and mid-sized conservation and environmental nonprofit organizations. The conventional wisdom held that the converse was true. At the time, the software was extremely expensive; the user interface was clumsy; very little geographic data (e.g., roads, vegetation, water bodies; census information) was available in electronic format and even less was accessible by the general public; and the learning curve for the software was extremely steep. From my dissertation research, I made the following contributions to the field:

  • grassroots groups did and could use GIS to influence public policy (e.g., use GIS analysis in court to protect a threatened species by spatially linking it to an endangered species);
  • in some cases, the sophistication of their GIS implementations exceeded the GISs of the public agencies that were crafting the policies;
  • these grassroots groups existed in a social network of supporting universities, public agencies and vendors, that allowed them to substitute for a lack of resources and
  • many of the groups actually rejected the formal decision-making process and use GIS to contest policy (e.g., in courts).

The type of grassroots group I chose—environmental and conservation organizations—were early nonprofit adopters of GIS and have been found to presage the characteristics of GIS adoption in all other nonprofit users (e.g., urban community based organizations). I wrote the first dissertation in PPGIS—the name was coined in 1996. I have continued to actively contribute to a field that has blossomed thanks to the work of a small group of pioneers to which I belong. I established the first conference on PPGIS, which continues to this day.

More recently, I've been exploring the use of geospatial technologies on Web. 2.0. I've just received a grant to investigate the use of the Geoweb to communication global environment and climate change. 

Our vision is a dynamic framework that applies the technologies of the Web 2.0, the Geoweb, to stimulate, mediate, facilitate, and advocate public understanding, engagement and finally action on the impacts of climate and environmental change. On the practical side, we seek a flexible framework of approaches, policy recommendations and techniques that embraces the Geoweb with its multifarious solutions instead of stand-alone models. On the theoretical side, we propose to address scientific, technical, and participatory issues that challenge the accomplishment of that vision through a variety of case studies that will test the use of the Geoweb for two-way communication on the impacts of climate and environmental change.

My graduate student, Christopher Wellen, is working on a masters degree on Geospatial Ontologies of the Cree.

Thesis Abstract: Indigenous peoples have been using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to represent their interests with the state and record traditional knowledge for decades. However, GIS technology has been put to use as-is in indigenous contexts, typically with base data created by the dominant society. This is problematic because indigenous peoples may not think of their landscapes in the same way as the dominant societies in which they reside. This thesis seeks to address this problem by creating a GIS based on the spatial ontology of the Wemindji Cree, a Cree village on the East Coast of James Bay. This thesis will focus on placenames, stories, and landscape feature categories unique to the Cree, and will address seasonal change, a significant component of indigenous spatial ontology. A system design that integrates web pages for places and stories with a GIS database connected to a map server is a suggested architecture. The GIS database would be based on Cree landscape feature categories. An iterative methodology for system design is proposed, where a prototype is built and brought to Wemindji, then modified based on user feedback. Landscape feature categories will be elicited following Mark and Turk (2003). The requirements of users will also be investigated regarding interface. It is anticipated that Wemindji students can benefit from a system such as proposed, though elders and hunters may require non-digital forms of geo-spatial information, as they are not accustomed to computers or are away from Wemindji for a major part of the year.

My graduate student, Lynette Obare completed a masters degree (2003) entitled Forest User Needs, Gender, and Geographic Information Systems: An Integrative Approach to Managing the Forest of The Lost Child.

Thesis Abstract: This thesis investigates possibilities for local involvement in natural resource decision–making and how that involvement differs by gender. The thesis also explores the possibilities of using geographic information systems in a participatory framework (public participation GIS) to improve that involvement and create a better-integrated forest plan. The research was conducted in 2001 in the Naimina Enkiyio forest in Narok District of Kenya to better understand the impact of proposed changes in resource tenure on gender-based needs of the forest users. It uses a feminist political ecology approach to determine the role of institutions, gender and economic pressures on natural resource management. This study hopes to advance the dialogue on incorporating gender issues in institutions managing common forest resources amid changing lifestyles and evolving common property regimes. It suggests possible arrangements for an inclusive stakeholder involvement in forest management using PPGIS.

Publications related to PPGIS

Sieber, R. E. 2007. Spatial Data Access by the Grassroots. Cartography and Geographic Information Science 34(1): 47-62.

Sieber, R. E. 2006. Public Participation Geographic Information Systems: A Literature Review and Framework. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 96(3). 491-507.

Sieber, R. E. 2004. Rewiring for a GIS/2. Cartographica 39(1): 25-39. Sieber, R. E. 2003. Public Participation GIS Across Borders. The Canadian Geographer 47(1): 50-61.

Sieber, R. E. 2002. Geographic Information Systems in the Environmental Movement, In W. Craig, T. Harris and D. Weiner, ed. Community Empowerment, Public Participation and Geographic Information Science. London: Taylor and Francis. Pp. 153-172.

Sieber, R. E. 2000. Conforming (to) the Opposition: Geographic Information Systems in the Conservation Movement. International Journal of Geographic Information Systems 14(8): 775-793.

Sieber, R. E. 2000. GIS Implementation in Grassroots Organizations. Urban and Information Systems Association Journal 12(1): 15-29.