Plan Cities in Collaboration with People: Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) in a Nutshell

The world of online public participation and outreach is full of complex terms and abbreviations. Public participation GIS (PPGIS), participatory GIS (PGIS), volunteer geographic information (VGI), crowdsourcing, e-participation, participatory e-planning, and planning support system (PSS) are all examples of broadly used language for describing digitally supported communication and collaboration.

We label Maptionnaire as a Public Participation GIS service. PPGIS is a term born and widely known within the circles of academia. Urban planners and other practitioners are, however, less familiar with it. This blog hopes to help change the situation.

Public participation is essentially the interaction between two sides: The experts that advance urban planning and the individuals or organizations possibly affected by local planning decisions.

The development of information and communication technologies (ICT) has offered new tools and ideas for making public participation more effective and meaningful. The benefits of applying ICT in participation include the adoption of easier and quicker communication methods, increased access to participation, better data quality, and the emergence of more attractive and playful tools for targeting different user groups.

What new technology hasn’t effectively solved is a pitfall widely acknowledged with participatory processes: The question of managing to work truly collaboratively around a specific issue or site.

Ideally, a participation process allows all participants to not only receive information from planners but also to share information. Such two-way collaboration should lead to decisions and outcomes that have been formulated together. In reality, this goal is rarely achieved. Participation is often limited to one-way informing. And rather than supporting working together, many digital tools and platforms have only opened new ways and channels for one-way communication and data collection.

Moreover, participation has conventionally been stifled by spatial ambiguity. Even though public participation is always attached to a certain place, the communication between planners and people has mainly been on-site discussions without proper tools for attaching verbal thoughts to certain locations in an efficient way. Especially when working with a big area, it’s a difficult task to talk about different places and locations with precision.

Public participation GIS (PPGIS) aims to bridge these gaps. The concept combines advanced information and communication technology with a geographic information system (GIS).

As GIS seeks to position everything on Earth, it presents an interesting frame for the public to communicate their preferences, ideas, and experiences. Such information hasn’t conventionally been perceived as a domain of spatial data.

Take a moment to close your eyes and think about where you live. Then begin to draw a mental map of the most important places to you, the spaces that make you feel uncomfortable, the addresses you frequently visit with friends, and so forth.

All these spots in your mental map also have coordinates in the real world. The idea of integrating this kind of ‘soft’ information and knowledge to GIS is the foundation of PPGIS.

The power of PPGIS, thus, is in its ability to turn regular people into experts of their living environment by allowing them to position places that are meaningful and important for them on a map. PPGIS is about opening GIS, a field previously exclusively used by experts, to people who have never worked with geographical data. People participating in the production of GIS data, or location information if you will, support urban planning and development in many new ways.

The technological capabilities for meaningful collaboration don’t, however, necessarily ensure it happens.

Although we need high-quality tools, successfully implemented public participation is not only about them. Many PPGIS stories have proven that no data set alone, no matter how comprehensive they may be, can improve the quality of public participation. Instead, the quality is improved when experts, individuals, and organizations involved in the process understand and value collaboration and co-creation.

With PPGIS, success will follow when all stakeholders appreciate working together for the creation of more sustainable and livable cities, and simultaneously, the ‘soft’ data can be applied and turned into valuable insight to support the effort.

Maarit has written her doctoral dissertation within the same field. Professor Gregory Brown has published many research papers in PPGIS as well.