Public Participation GIS and Participatory GIS in the Era of GeoWeb – editorial for a special issue

As part of the AAG 2015 conference, Bandana Kar, Rina Ghose, Renee Sieber and I organised a set of sessions on Public Participation GIS – you can read the summary here. After the conference, we’ve organised a special issue of the Cartographic Journal (thanks to Alex Kent, the journal editor) dedicated to current perspectives of public participation GIS (PPGIS) and participatory GIS (PGIS).

The process of organising a special issue is quite involved – not all the papers that start the journey managed to finish, and even at the last point, 2 papers that are part of the special issue will appear in the next issue of the journal due to physical limitations and the number of pages that appear in each issue!

Working with an editorial group across the US, Canada, and the UK was also a challenge, especially as we were all busy, as usual. Bandana Kar kept us going and because of her continued efforts and encouragement, the special issue was evolving. So it’s only right that she is the lead author of the editorial piece. Our editorial points to the evolution of PPGIS and the need to understand how it is shaped up in the era of web-based mapping and rapid increase in the use of mobile technologies. The papers in the special issue (you can find them here) are addressing this evolving landscape and are all worth reading. We finish our editorial with the following statement:

‘In this sea of changing tools and technologies it appears that P/PGIS may be competing with other approaches and terminologies. At its core many of the new projects remain mission-driven, are led by local residents, and requires generation of data and knowledge to resolve a specific problem. The data generated through platforms old and new still suffer from lack of interoperability and data quality issues. Analytics may have been improved since the days of the command-line but still require considerable expertise; moreover, evidence-based policy, especially from the non-credentialled, must have entree into politics. Moving forward, researchers and practitioners should focus on not answering the place of P/PGIS amid new technologies and approaches but instead examine the extent to which new participatory technologies are effective in integrating local, scientific and personal knowledge in resolving political decisions and societal issues of interest to local communities.’

The paper is available here and if you don’t have access to the journal, email me and I’ll send you a copy.


The Participatory City & Participatory Sensing – new paper

The Participatory City is a new book, edited by Yasminah Beebeejaun The Participatory City cover, which came out in March and will be launched on the 1st June. The book gather 19 chapters that explore the concept of participation in cities of all shapes and sizes. As Yasminah notes, concern about participation has started in the 1960s and never gone from urban studies – be it in anthropology, geography, urban planning, history or sociology.

The book is structured around short chapters of about eight pages, with colour images that illustrate the topic of the chapter. This make the book very accessible – and suitable for reading while commuting in a city. The chapters take you for a tour around many places in the world: from London, Berlin, Bangalore, to Johannesburg, Mexico City and to small towns in Pennsylvania and Lancashire (and few other places). It also explores multiple scales – from participation in global negotiations about urban policy in the UN, to the way immigrants negotiate a small area in central Dublin, as well as discussion of master-planning in several places, including London and Mexico City.

The book demonstrate the multi-faceted aspects of participation: from political power, to gender, environmental justice, indigenous rights, skills, expertise and the use of scientific information for decision making. Each of the chapters provides a concrete example for the participatory issue that it covers, and by so doing, make the concept that is being addressed easy to understand.

Not surprisingly, many of the success stories in the book’s chapters are minor, temporary and contingent on a set of conditions that allow them to happen. Together, the chapters demonstrate that participation, and the demand for representation and rights to the city are not futile effort but that it is possible to change things.

With a price tag that is reasonable, though not cheap (€28, about £21), this is highly recommended book that charts the aspects of urban participation in the early part of the 21st century, and especially demonstrating the challenges for meaningful participation in the face of technological developments, social and economic inequalities, and governance approaches that emphasise markets over other values.

My contribution to the book is titled ‘Making Participatory Sensing Meaningful and I’m examining how the concept of participatory sensing mutated over the years to mean any form of crowdsourced sensing. I then look at our experience in participatory sensing in Heathrow to suggest what are the conditions that enable participatory sensing that is matching the expectations from participatory processes, as well as the limitations and challenges. You can  find the paper here  and the proper citation for it is:

Haklay, M., 2016, Making Participatory Sensing Meaningful, in Beebeejaun, Y. (Ed.) The Participatory City, Jovis, pp. 154-161.


Levels of participation in citizen science and scientific knowledge production

The previous post focused on citizen science as participatory science. This post is discussing the meaning of this differentiation. It is the final part of the chapter that will appear in the book:

Sui, D.Z., Elwood, S. and M.F. Goodchild (eds.), 2013. Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge. Berlin: SpringerHere is a link to the chapter.

The typology of participation can be used across the range of citizen science activities, and one project should not be classified only in one category. For example, in volunteer computing projects most of the participants will be at the bottom level, while participants that become committed to the project might move to the second level and assist other volunteers when they encounter technical problems. Highly committed participants might move to a higher level and communicate with the scientist who coordinates the project to discuss the results of the analysis and suggest new research directions.

This typology exposes how citizen science integrates and challenges the way in which science discovers and produces knowledge. Questions about the way in which knowledge is produced and truths are discovered are part of the epistemology of science. As noted above, throughout the 20th century, as science became more specialised, it also became professionalised. While certain people were employed as scientists in government, industry and research institutes, the rest of the population – even if they graduated from a top university with top marks in a scientific discipline – were not regarded as scientists or as participants in the scientific endeavour unless they were employed professionally to do so. In rare cases, and following the tradition of ‘gentlemen/women scientists’, wealthy individuals could participate in this work by becoming an ‘honorary fellow’ or affiliated to a research institute that, inherently, brought them into the fold. This separation of ‘scientists’ and ‘public’ was justified by the need to access specialist equipment, knowledge and other privileges such as a well-stocked library. It might be the case that the need to maintain this separation is a third reason that practising scientists shy away from explicitly mentioning the contribution of citizen scientists to their work in addition to those identified by Silvertown (2009).

However, similarly to other knowledge professionals who operate in the public sphere, such as medical experts or journalists, scientists need to adjust to a new environment that is fostered by the Web. Recent changes in communication technologies, combined with the increased availability of open access information and the factors that were noted above, mean that processes of knowledge production and dissemination are opening up in many areas of social and cultural activities (Shirky 2008). Therefore, some of the elitist aspects of scientific practice are being challenged by citizen science, such as the notion that only dedicated, full-time researchers can produce scientific knowledge. For example, surely it should be professional scientists who can solve complex scientific problems such as long-standing protein-structure prediction of viruses. Yet, this exact problem was recently solved through a collaboration of scientists working with amateurs who were playing the computer game Foldit (Khatib et al. 2011). Another aspect of the elitist view of science can be witnessed in interaction between scientists and the public, where the assumption is of unidirectional ‘transfer of knowledge’ from the expert to lay people. Of course, as in the other areas mentioned above, it is a grave mistake to argue that experts are unnecessary and can be replaced by amateurs, as Keen (2007) eloquently argued. Nor is it suggested that, because of citizen science, the need for professionalised science will diminish, as, in citizen science projects, the participants accept the difference in knowledge and expertise of the scientists who are involved in these projects. At the same time, the scientists need to develop respect towards those who help them beyond the realisation that they provide free labour, which was noted above.

Given this tension, the participation hierarchy can be seen to be moving from a ‘business as usual’ scientific epistemology at the bottom, to a more egalitarian approach to scientific knowledge production at the top. The bottom level, where the participants are contributing resources without cognitive engagement, keeps the hierarchical division of scientists and the public. The public is volunteering its time or resources to help scientists while the scientists explain the work that is to be done but without expectation that any participant will contribute intellectually to the project. Arguably, even at this level, the scientists will be challenged by questions and suggestions from the participants and, if they do not respond to them in a sensitive manner, they will risk alienating participants. Intermediaries such as the IBM World Community Grid, where a dedicated team is in touch with scientists who want to run projects and a community of volunteered computing providers, are cases of ‘outsourcing’ the community management and thus allowing, to an extent, the maintenance of the separation of scientists and the public.

As we move up the ladder to a higher level of participation, the need for direct engagement between the scientist and the public increases. At the highest level, the participants are assumed to be on equal footing with the scientists in terms of scientific knowledge production. This requires a different epistemological understanding of the process, in which it is accepted that the production of scientific insights is open to any participant while maintaining scientific standards and practices such as systematic observations or rigorous statistical analysis to verify that the results are significant. The belief that, given suitable tools, many lay people are capable of such endeavours is challenging to some scientists who view their skills as unique. As the case of the computer game that helped in the discovery of new protein formations (Khatib et al. 2011) demonstrated, such collaboration can be fruitful even in cutting-edge areas of science. However, it can be expected that the more mundane and applied areas of science will lend themselves more easily to the fuller sense of collaborative science in which participants and scientists identify problems and develop solutions together. This is because the level of knowledge required in cutting-edge areas of science is so demanding.

Another aspect in which the ‘extreme’ level challenges scientific culture is that it requires scientists to become citizen scientists in the sense that Irwin (1995), Wilsdon, Wynne and Stilgoe (2005) and Stilgoe (2009) advocated (Notice Stilgoe’s title: Citizen Scientists). In this interpretation of the phrase, the emphasis is not on the citizen as a scientist, but on the scientist as a citizen. It requires the scientists to engage with the social and ethical aspects of their work at a very deep level. Stilgoe (2009, p.7) suggested that, in some cases, it will not be possible to draw the line between the professional scientific activities, the responsibilities towards society and a fuller consideration of how a scientific project integrates with wider ethical and societal concerns. However, as all these authors noted, this way of conceptualising and practising science is not widely accepted in the current culture of science.

Therefore, we can conclude that this form of participatory and collaborative science will be challenging in many areas of science. This will not be because of technical or intellectual difficulties, but mostly because of the cultural aspects. This might end up being the most important outcome of citizen science as a whole, as it might eventually catalyse the education of scientists to engage more fully with society.

Mapping for Change activities covered in GIS Development

In its February issue, the magazine GIS development published an article on the activities of the social enterprise Mapping for Change. Please note that the image at the start of the published article is not from our activities and that the article was truncated for publication – we are currently working on a more comprehensive version that we aim to publish later in the year. Dr Hanif Rahemtulla contributed significantly to organising the writing of this article.

The article describes how we utilised community mapping, participatory sensing and mashups technologies to deal with a range of environmental issues with communities across London. It also provides information about our recent projects, including the North Dorset Climate Action map.

The article can be accessed here.

Mapping for Sustainable Communities – presentations

The Mapping for Sustainable Communities seminar that was organised by myself together with London 21, on the 17th June, was a fantastic event that I thoroughly enjoyed. With over 100 participants, coming from academia, practice and from communities across London and further afield, it was a unique opportunity for discussion between these 3 groups which, unfortunately, is rare.

The day was fairly intensive with a series of presentations from a wide range of speakers, providing a range of views and opinions. At lunch, and especially during the afternoon workshops, there was more time for discussion and exchange of experiences. It was very satisfying to see people stand and discuss the various aspects of participatory and community mapping during the reception at the end of the day, after a heavy day of listening and talking about these issues.

The seminar covered the whole range of technical options – from paper to 3D computer mapping. It also covered various views – from the more theoretical to the practical.

As a conclusion from the day, it is clear that there is a good potential for community and participatory mapping in many aspects of life in the UK. Particpatory mapping can we be used to celebrate the wonder of places, find about their history, or identify issues that are of concern to the community. We need to take into account the local organisational and governance structures, and be sensitive to the needs of the communities within which we operate. There is an ethical dimension that should not be overlooked, but it is important to find the cases where we can make an impact with these tools and use them to make places more sustainable.

In case that you have missed the seminar, or would like to see the presentations from it, here is the outline of the day, with a link to the presentations on SlideShare:

  • Mike Batty (UCL) – Participation through Online Technologies: Experiences with 3D-GIS, Second Life and Multimedia in London (Mike’s presentation was too interactive – so for more information about the issues that he presented, see the CASA website)
  • Community Showcase, where five of the communities that we are working with talked about their experiences.