Linking Environmental Information, GIS and Usability

One of the questions that might arise from a look at my publications and work is ‘how public access to environmental information links to GIS, and what are the reasons to explore usability and HCI in this context?

The answer is straightforward – there are strong links between all 3 areas and, in order to make sense of one of them, you need the others. In my 2001 paper ‘Public access to environmental information: past, present and future’ I go into more details , but here is my current summary of the issue.

One of the core concepts of environmental decision making is the use of information. In current environmental debates you can see how much opponents dispute the accuracy and validity of information, but rarely dispute the need for information or the role of information in decision making. This approach to information in decision making can be traced back more than 40 years, and has been a constant feature of environmental politics.

The next element in the chain is Geographical Technologies – GIS, Remote Sensing, ground-based monitoring and the like. One of the features of environmental information is the heavy reliance on these technologies that, historically, the environmental field adopted early on. For example, consider the following (rephrased) paragraph:

‘Existing technology now makes possible the development of a global resource data base (GRID), which will be a data management service designed to convert environmental data into information usable by decision makers. The technical feasibility of GRID has been assessed by expert groups.

‘GRID technology allows us initially to describe, eventually to understand and ultimately to predict and manage the environment.’

This is not a description of Digital Earth or from a specification document of Google Earth – it is based on UN Environmental Programme documents from 1985 and 1986, when the GRID system was in its first stages. Even today we don’t have anything like the system that is outlined above. Was it a visionary view of the potential of GIS or yet another example of technophilia? In any case, it shows the strong link between GIS and environmental information.

The next element is usability and Human-Computer Interaction. GIS are hard to use (more about this in other posts) and the reliance on them to deliver information creates real obstacles for occasional users – which most users are. I have observed the difficulties of intelligent and competent people during workshops where they were faced with the task of using GIS or web mapping technologies. That’s where my interest in this area emerged.

In summary, the challenge of providing environmental information to the public is not just the technical one of making it available over the Internet – without understanding how to make GIS more accessible for the average user and understanding which are the most efficient, effective and enjoyable ways of helping people to use the information effectively, we can’t really deliver on the promises of the Aarhus convention on public access to information, participation and justice.