Web 2.0 notion of democratisation and Participatory GIS

An interesting issue that emerges from The Cult of
the Amateur is about Participatory GIS or PPGIS. As Chris Dunn mentioned in her recent paper in Progress in Human Geography, Participatory GIS makes many references to ‘democratisation’ of GIS (together with Renee Sieber’s 2006 review, these two papers are excellent introduction to PPGIS) .

According to the OED, democratisation is ‘the action of rendering, or process of becoming, democratic’, and democracy is defined as ‘Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.’ [emphasis added].
The final point is the notion that is mostly used when advocates of Web 2.0 use the term, and it seems that in this notion of democratisation, erasure of hereditary or arbitrary differences is extended also to expertise and hierarchies in the media and knowledge production. In some areas, Web 2.0 actively erodes the differentiation between experts and amateurs, using mechanisms such as anonymous contributions that hide from the reader any information about who is contributing, what their authority is and why we should listen to them.
As Keen notes, doing away with social structures and equating amateurs with experts is actually not a good thing in the long run.
This brings us back to Participatory GIS – the PGIS literature discusses the need to ‘level the field’ and deal with power structures and inequalities in involvement in decision making – and this is exactly what we are trying to achieve in the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project. We also know very well from the literature that, even in complex issues, individuals and groups are investing time and effort to understand complex issues and as a result can become quite expert. For example, the work of Maarten Wolsink on NIMBYs shows that this very local focus is not so parochial after all.
I completely agree with the way Dunn puts it (p. 627-8):

‘Rather than the ‘democratization of GIS’ through th[e] route [of popularization] , it would seem that technologizing of deliberative democracy through Participatory GIS currently offers a more effective path towards individual and community empowerment – an analytical as opposed to largely visual process; an interventionist approach which actively rather than passively seeks citizen involvement; and a community-based as opposed to individualist ethos.’

Yet, what I’m taking from Keen is that we also need to rethink the role of the expert within Participatory GIS – at the end of the day, we are not suggesting we do away with planning departments or environmental experts.
I don’t recall that I’ve seen much about how to define the role of experts and how to integrate hierarchies of knowledge in Participatory GIS processes – potentially an interesting research topic?

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mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

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