Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 53, May/June 2003
Using geospatial technologies to develop
participatory tools for natural resources management

Linking community participation to geospatial technologies

by Trevor Harris and Daniel Weiner

"The linking of community participation with geospatial technologies remains in its infancy but is taking place in all world regions and in a diversity of social and geographic contexts."


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Over the past two decades there has been a dramatic uptake and diffusion of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into almost all sectors of government, business, NGOs and community organizations. Considerable attention in the field of GIS has focused on the technical development of these systems and on the multifarious applications that draw to varying degrees on the data management, processing, and functionality of GIS to handle large quantities of geographical information and support spatial decision-making. Much less attention has been given to the societal implications arising from the use of GIS, and this imbalance led to the rise of a largely academic debate in the early 1990s under the umbrella term of GIS and Society (Pickles 1995, 1999; Sheppard and Poiker 1995; Harris and Weiner 1996). An important outcome of this discussion was a focus on how public participation might be incorporated into GIS production and use and an examination of geospatial technology applications as social and political processes rather than solely as value-neutral technical exercises. Participant communities have valuable local knowledge that augments conventional GIS applications, and these can be successfully employed in academic research and for development planning.

In this paper, we outline the evolution of participatory GIS (PGIS), identify core PGIS methods, summarize our reflections on PGIS from fieldwork undertaken in South Africa, and draw upon the recent publication of a book devoted to community participation in GIS (Craig, Harris and Weiner 2002). The main message of the paper is that the intersection of participatory community development methods and geospatial technologies is taking place very rapidly but is still in its infancy. As a result, the implications for community empowerment and more inclusive spatial planning, although very promising, remain ambiguous at this time. It is thus useful to step back and reflect on lessons learned and strategic directions for future research, development planning and community engagement.

What is participatory GIS?

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GIS has been extensively discussed in many texts and online materials. Less well known is what has variously been called Public Participation GIS (PPGIS), Community-integrated GIS (CiGIS), and more recently participatory GIS, that arose out of the broader social theoretic critique of the GIS and Society debate initiated in 1994 by the U.S. National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) (Abbot et al. 1998; Craig and Elwood 1998; Elwood and Leitner 1998; Harris and Weiner 1998; Leitner et al. 2002; Obermeyer 1998). PPGIS sought to move beyond theoretical discussion and provide an alternative form of GIS to address issues of differential public access to data, hardware, software and expertise; redress the structural distortion of knowledge in GIS databases and the perceived exclusion of community knowledge; and to broaden issues of democratic GIS-based decision-making (Mitchell 1997). Methodologically, these systems range from community mapping exercises to more sophisticated multimedia GIS that are able to incorporate qualitative representations of local knowledge.

Our work in South Africa contributed to formulating CiGIS and sought to position PPGIS in the context of the political economy of differential access to resources, data, and knowledge representation. Developing a PPGIS without consideration of how such systems are to be resourced or sustained within a community misses a central concern of the GIS and Society critique. CiGIS thus acknowledges a broader kind of public participation in GIS decision-making by assuming that state and local government agencies and NGOs would provide the resources and the infrastructure to support such efforts; the focus then becomes how community knowledge might complement the top-down GIS data typical of more traditional systems. We now prefer the umbrella term PGIS for such systems to acknowledge that their development and use involves not just the public, but also other governmental, NGO, and private sector members of a community.

Participatory GIS emphasizes the participatory methods used in the production of GIS and the importance of participation as a process that can take many forms. For example, popular participation engages with various elements of civil society in a community and assumes both social and spatial differentiation. In this context, PGIS can be conflictual and get caught up in local politics, but is more representative of the diversity of opinions on the ground. Unfortunately, many participatory projects work mainly with local elites and can legitimize top-down planning processes. We contend, therefore, that the primary challenges to successful implementation of PGIS are sociopolitical.

Recent use of the term Participatory Geographic Information Science (PGISci) positions PGIS in the context of an evolving field within the discipline of geography: the science of spatial information. PGISci reflects the emergence of systems that draw upon geospatial technologies and information, such as remote sensing, GPS, and the Internet, as well as GIS. Yet the positioning of PGIS in a science paradigm raises further epistemological and philosophical issues that might appear to be further at odds with GIS and Society conceptualizations of space, place, and the production of knowledge. Most PGIS studies to date are project-based and pursue social justice issues, though increasingly these studies are moving beyond their academic origins and involve community mapping devoid of a GIS and Society conceptual framework.

PGIS methods

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PGIS has emerged as a spontaneous fusion of community development initiatives with geospatial technologies. The case studies undertaken to date suggest that differential access to geographic information technologies (GIT) and the (re)discovery of the power of maps are driving the rapid diffusion of community GIS projects. PGIS situates GIS within participatory research, with a focus on the incorporation and merging of local knowledge with 'expert' information in GIS production and use. While potentially valuable to community and regional planners, this merging of quantitative spatial data with predominantly qualitative local knowledge in the form of sound, voice, text, photos and video represents a significant challenge to GIS practitioners. PGIS methods are thus still evolving and can range from conventional field-based participatory development techniques that primarily utilize digital mapping, to Internet-dependent spatial multimedia.

PGIS methods include a combination of digital cartography, sketch mapping, satellite image and air photo interpretation, GPS transect walks, mental mapping exercises, spatial multimedia, geovisualization, GIS, and more recently virtual GIS. Digital mapping is at the core of most PGIS efforts, to such an extent that there have been recent calls to change the term to "Community Mapping Systems" (URISA 2002). To date, very little GIS functionality for providing spatial analysis has been used in such projects; most of them comprise a digital mapping component and a community interface. GPS transect walks have been used to locate community resources and access, and sketch mapping and mental maps have proven valuable in enabling communities to express their perceptions of landscape, community spatial needs and aspirations, and to collect socially differentiated local community knowledge for incorporation into a GIS. Participatory 3-D modeling is also proving to be a very effective PGIS method (Rambaldi and Callosa 2000). Aitken (2002) refers to these methods as a platform for individual and community "spatial story telling."

Multimedia GIS are becoming more common, though it is the Internet that provides perhaps the most powerful technology for underpinning GIS with participatory methods (Shiffer 2002; Kingston 2002). It is likely that the access and functionality provided by Internet mapping systems will play a dominant role in future PGIS initiatives. This is likely to further complicate the definition of a "community" and the practices of participation. Virtual communities present significant opportunities and challenges, as participation is broadened and communities become placeless. "Community" participation from the home computer will ultimately transform PGIS in ways that we do not yet understand.

Reflections from the field

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Our fieldwork in South Africa was part of a study to examine land and agrarian reform using a CiGIS that specifically sought to merge top-down expert spatial information with bottom-up community knowledge and participation (Harris et al. 1995; Weiner et al. 1995; Weiner and Harris 2003). To this end, we created an Internet-based GIS multimedia system to support our work and explore PGIS issues. The study was important for us in gaining a critical understanding of regional natural resource allocation and especially the political ecology of local water access. The community story of water access provided an invaluable complement to the spatial information provided by the GIS. A community's physical proximity to water, as indicated by the GIS, did not directly equate to its ease of access to the resource; the telling stories of community members -- including one that involved the shooting of two boys, fishing in a nearby stream, by adjacent landowners -- provided a graphic insight into what the points, lines, and polygons on a map really represent to those who live in these areas. A simple GIS buffering exercise would have missed the primary dynamic of water resource management in the region -- that access to water was race- and class-based and not directly related to distance from rivers and dams.

In South Africa, the geography of apartheid alienated African communities from land and water access (Levin and Weiner 1997). Participant communities enabled us to map complex water access patterns that a conventional GIS could not delineate. The communities also provided information about historical changes in water availability resulting from the planting of exotic forestry plantations; this information was consistent with local hydrological stream and river discharge data. Coming in the form of narrative and mental maps, the community input was invaluable in helping us piece together the land and water history of the region, not least because information on the multiple forced removals that occurred, and that contributed to the conflicting multiple land claims made by many black communities, were not officially recorded by the state nor mapped in any GIS. Similarly, the comparison of a state agency's GIS-derived land quality map with a community-derived mental map produced stark differences that raised significant questions about the criteria used by "experts" to construct land quality maps (that assumed mechanization) versus the insights of local farmers who experienced and used the land at a different scale of understanding.

Participatory GIS was thus very important to us for examining the politics of natural resource management and access in this region; it provided us with an understanding of the multiple realities of landscape that were both complementary and contradictory. PGIS are purposefully value-laden and redefine the meaning of "accuracy." They are characterized by the creation and use of countermaps and narratives that help to represent and visualize complex socioeconomic, cultural and political landscapes -- that is, the multiple realities of landscape. Whether such mapping can be translated into improved decision-making remains to be seen, though there are now intriguing case studies where a PGIS can augment place-specific community struggles by "jumping scale" (Aitken 2002; Stonich 2002). An example of this is environmental racism, where local struggles have been regionally and nationally influenced through Internet-based political interaction and coalition-building.

PGIS can also empower communities by representing community knowledge and perspectives about local landscapes in forms that can be digitally stored, visualized, and disseminated (Laituri 2002). Furthermore, the practices of PGIS production can empower communities when participants gain access to data and contribute to GIS development (Parker and Pascual 2002). But there are also cases of PGIS "dis-empowering" local community groups through the introduction of advanced technologies and the creation of a new technical elite (Elwood 2002). Indeed, Rundstrom (1995) went so far as to suggest that GIS was potentially toxic to Native American communities because of the colonial power relationships associated with Western industrialized high technology and because of the inability of the systems to represent landscapes in their full social and cultural complexity. There are now, however, several instances of such groups embracing the technology as a counterpoint to state, federal, and private-sector systems.


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Our journey with PGIS began as an experiment using mental mapping exercises and GIS in South Africa and an invitation to communities to map and talk about local and regional landscapes. It was immediately evident that something special was occurring, for we were overwhelmed by the richness and emotion of peoples' social histories and the aspirations that were expressed as spatial stories about landscapes of struggle. The resulting early PGIS was somewhat crude but highly illuminating. This marriage of community participation with geospatial technologies highlighted the real value of a GIS augmented by socially differentiated local knowledge. One aspect that has become apparent to us from our experiences in PGIS is that, as with any participatory projects, there is a need to distinguish between research, which is academically intentioned, and projects whose primary objective is community empowerment. Unfortunately, these lines have become blurred and some "community" projects have become academic exercises with little (if any) community benefit. This is a common outcome with academic relationships with communities and presents a challenge to the GIS/GIT user community.

The linking of community participation with geospatial technologies remains in its infancy but is taking place in all world regions and in a diversity of social and geographic contexts. In core-industrialized regions, PGIS projects have tended to comprise a mix of Internet-based mapping and/or spatial multimedia systems, whereas in underdeveloped regions they are mostly participatory development projects with an information technology (IT) component. This suggests a global "digital divide" in how communities access geospatial technologies. Another important lesson is the tendency to overstate the technical complexities of PGIS projects while underestimating the importance of political context, which is scale-dependent. Nevertheless, an intermediary technical expert often remains an important part of such projects; this can cloud issues of ownership and representation of community knowledge.

Existing projects demonstrate that PGIS simultaneously empowers and marginalizes individuals and communities, contributes to the development of place-based methodologies, promotes more inclusive community spatial decision-making, and incorporates multiple realities of landscape. Although born in the academy, PGIS is penetrating the administrative and bureaucratic structures of planning agencies, development organizations, NGOs, and the private sector. This rapid diffusion is evidence of a paradigm shift in planning methods and an exciting opportunity to link historically marginalized communities with advanced information technology applications. An additional unintended, but important, outcome of early PGIS, is that in providing a platform for the integration of qualitative and quantitative information, they have contributed to highlighting aspects of place in ways that conventional GIS normally do not. This is significant for social and environmental scientists because of the historic dualism between researchers who employ qualitative methods and those who employ quantitative methods, and because of the methodological difficulties in merging the two.

The primary challenges for the successful implementation of participatory GIS projects are a complex web of technological, social and political factors that are locally constituted and promote more inclusive spatial decision-making. To date, however, there has been no systematic evaluation of the contribution of PGIS to local and regional spatial planning. This is understandable given that PGIS is only now penetrating the administrative and bureaucratic structures of planning agencies. The monitoring and evaluation of projects over a longer time span will provide insight into the effectiveness of such implementations.


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Abbot, J., R. Chambers, C. Dunn, T. Harris, E. de Merode, G. Porter, J. Townsend, and D. Weiner. 1998. Participatory GIS: Opportunity or oxymoron. PLA Notes 33: 27-34.

Aitkin, S. C. 2002. Public participation, technological discourses and the scale of GIS. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 357-366. London: Taylor and Francis.

Craig, W. J., T. M. Harris and D. Weiner, eds. 2002. Community participation and Geographic Information Systems. London: Taylor and Francis.

Craig, W. and S. Elwood. 1998. How and why community groups use maps and geographic information. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 25(2): 95-104.

Elwood, S. 2002. The impacts of GIS use for neighbourhood revitalization in Minneapolis. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 77-88. London: Taylor and Francis.

Elwood, S. and H. Leitner. 1998. GIS and community-based planning: Exploring the diversity of neighborhood perspectives and needs. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 25(2): 77-88.

Harris, T. M., D. Weiner, T. Warner, and R. Levin. 1995. Pursuing social goals through Participatory GIS: Redressing South Africa's historical political ecology. In Ground truth: The social implications of Geographic Information Systems, ed. J. Pickles, 196-222. New York: Guilford Press.

Harris, T. M. and D. Weiner. 1996. GIS and society: The social implications of how people, space and environment are represented in GIS. Scientific Report for NCGIA Initiative #19 Specialist Meeting, University of California at Santa Barbara, November 1996.

Harris, T., and D. Weiner. 1998. Empowerment, marginalization and community-integrated GIS. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 25(2): 67-76.

Kingston, R. 2002. Web-based PPGIS in the United Kingdom. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 101-112. London: Taylor and Francis.

Laituri, M. 2002. Ensuring access to GIS for marginal societies. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 270-282. London: Taylor and Francis.

Leitner, H., R. B. McMaster, S. Elwood, S. McMaster, and E. Sheppard. 2002. Models for making GIS available to community organizations: Dimensions of difference and appropriateness. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 37-52. London: Taylor and Francis.

Levin, R. and D. Weiner. 1997. No more tears: Struggles for land in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.

Mitchell, A. 1997. Zeroing in: Geographic Information Systems at work in the community. Redlands, California: ESRI.

Obermeyer, N., ed. 1998. Special issue: Public participation GIS. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 25(2).

Parker, C. and A. Pascual. 2002. A voice that could not be ignored: Community GIS and gentrification battles in San Francisco. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 55-64. London: Taylor and Francis.

Pickles, J., ed. 1995. Ground truth: The social implications of Geographic Information Systems. New York: Guilford Press.

Pickles, J. 1999. Arguments, debates, and dialogues: The GIS-social theory debate and concerns for alternatives. In Geographical Information Systems: Principles, techniques, management, and applications, eds. P. Longley, M. Goodchild, D. Maguire and D. Rhind. New York: John Wiley.

Rambaldi, G. and J. Callosa. 2000. Manual on participatory 3-dimensional modeling for natural resource management. Essentials of Protected Area Management in the Philippines, Volume 7. Quezon City, Philippines: National Integrated Protected Areas Programme (NIPAP), Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (PAWB-DENR).

Rundstrum, R. 1995. GIS, indigenous peoples, and epistemological diversity. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 22(1): 45-57.

Sheppard, E. and T. Poiker, eds. 1995. Special issue: GIS and society. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 22(1).

Shiffer, M.J. 2002. Spatial multimedia representations to support community participation. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 309-319. London: Taylor and Francis.

Stonich, S. C. 2002. Information technologies, PPGIS, and advocacy: Globalization of resistance to industrial shrimp farming. In Community participation and Geographic Information Systems, eds. W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, 259-269. London: Taylor and Francis.

Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA). 2002. Proceedings of the 1st Annual PPGIS Conference, sponsored by Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Rutgers University School of Planning and Public Safety, New Brunswick, New Jersey, July 21-23.

Weiner, D., T. Warner, T. M. Harris, and R.M. Levin. 1995. Apartheid representations in a digital landscape: GIS, remote sensing, and local knowledge in Kiepersol, South Africa. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems, 22(1): 30-44.

Weiner, D. and T. Harris. 2003. Community-integrated GIS for land reform in South Africa. Online: (


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Author information

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Dr. Trevor M. Harris is Eberly Distinguished Professor of Geography and chair of the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University. Dr. Daniel Weiner is Professor of Geography and Director of the Office of International Programs at WVU. You can reach either of them for comment by email at:

Additional web resources

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Initiative 19: GIS and Society
From West Virginia University, this site provides background information on, and reports and publications resulting from, the NCGIA's "GIS and Society" initiative.

[NCGIA Initiative on] Empowerment, Marginalization, and Public Participation GIS
This initiative led a specialist meeting on a range of topics raised by the intersection of community interests and GIS technology. The site includes links to a number of research papers; for example:

Participatory 3-D mapping
These pages from the Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development (IAPAD) web site provide good information on what P3DM is, how it is done, and when it is useful.

P3DM and PPGIS Bibliography
This online bibliography from the IAPAD web site links to downloadable .pdf versions of several papers of potential interest to readers of this article, including:

Community-integrated GIS for land reform in South Africa
A paper by Drs. Weiner and Harris, currently under peer review by the URISA Journal.

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