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Geographic Information System (GIS) Benefits and Constraints

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Published: Tue, 27 Feb 2018

Benefits and Constraints of Using Geographic Information System (GIS)

1. Introduction

1.1 Research Background

This is no more evident than in the proliferation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) across a variety of disciplines, with the common goal of capturing, storing, analysing and visualizing spatial information. GIS in practice, by virtue of its technical complexity and cost, has traditionally been limited to the operations of Governments and commercial organisations (Craig et al., 2002). Despite these barriers non-profit organisations and community groups are increasingly looking to adopt GIS on the premise that it will be able to positively transform their operations through better decision making and influencing public policy through greater analysis and the presentation of professional visualisations (Sieber, 2000b, Sieber, 2000a). Given this burgeoning interest, there has been a concerted effort by GIS and Society (GISoc) research groups to develop and espouse concepts such as Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) which provides a unique approach to make GIS and spatial data available to non-traditional users allowing them to integrate local knowledge and engage in decision making (Sieber, 2006).

1.2 Research Objectives

The focus of this research project is to investigate the benefits and constraints for the application of a Geographic Information System (GIS) within a community based project. Specifically the research considers a reframing of PPGIS to help better guide the processes, resources and characteristics required to implement a community based GIS. The following questions will guide the research and development of the community-based GIS:

  1. Do contemporary PPGIS pragmatic approaches address the original ontological debates of GIS and Society?
  2. Can psychogeographic principles help better guide the requirements for a community based GIS?
  3. What spatial data sets are available and usable for community groups within Melbourne, Victoria?
  4. Do available datasets satisfy the requirements of community groups?
  5. Can community knowledge be effectively integrated with traditional spatial data sources?

1.3 Research Rationale

As people become more aware of local, regional and global issues through the mainstream media and the Internet they, as a result, expect to be better informed by Governments and organisations and allowed to contribute to decisions that shape their own lives and the society in which they live. If those issues comprise spatial knowledge, then a GIS is a natural option for facilitating discussions and conveying local knowledge (Carver, 2003). Despite this opportunity to empower communities many GIS practices (including PPGIS) and available spatial data often do not adequately represent community needs and concerns (Elwood, 2006). This research thus aims to explore and develop a framework for which current GIS and related technologies can be successfully reconstructed to allow communities to express their own knowledge about place and spatial relations through visualizations and narratives. Specifically, the proposed research has been designed to assist the Blackburn Lake Sanctuary (BLS) Advisory Committee to implement a GIS which will be enable them to store and map the location of various vegetation and salient features within the BLS in Melbourne, Victoria. By integrating publicly available data sets with community knowledge it is hoped that it will further legitimise the activities of the BLS Advisory Committee while not compromising their goal of contributing to local government policy and increasing the effectiveness of their activities.

1.4 Research Methodology

Contained here is an outline of the subsequent chapters and research methodology. The research will be organised into three major chapters – literature review; case study; and discussion and conclusions.

Chapter Two – Literature review – examines the relevant literature regarding GIS and Society, PPGIS and psychogeography providing an overview of the historical background and ontological framework of these research paradigms. An examination of the principles of psychogeography and the research design of previous PPGIS studies will be completed, providing a comparative study of their different methodologies and methods. These comparisons will assist in developing a theoretical framework for a community-based GIS which will guide the case study to follow.

Chapter Three – Case study – introduces the Blackburn Lake Sanctuary case study and attempts to implement the methods established within the theoretical framework introduced in chapter two. An exploratory case study has been employed because it is a valuable method for investigating the nature and effects of implementing technology within a complex milieu (Sieber, 2000b). In order to increase the rigour and validity of the case study observations, open-ended interviews and questionnaires will be conducted.

Chapter Four – Discussion and conclusions – reviews the research objectives in relation to the major research findings as well as the limitations of the methods and theories employed. Pattern matching techniques will be employed to compare the observed and verified information with the framework developed through the research project. If the observed and predicted information correspond then the research methodology maybe strongly validated (Sarantakos, 1998). This chapter also addresses the limitations of the research and future research opportunities.

1.5 Conclusion

This chapter has established the objectives and rationale for conducting research into developing a community-based GIS. A research methodology has also been proposed to describe how the research statement and associated objectives will be achieved. The next chapter will review the relevant literature – including theoretical models and research methodologies used by previous researchers in the field of PPGIS and psychogeography.

2. Literature Review

2.1 Introduction

In the previous chapter, the objectives, rationale and methodology were presented to help guide the research into developing a community-based GIS. The research outlined in this thesis covers a number of interdisciplinary fields – all of which are continually evolving. These fields include public participation GIS (PPGIS), community mapping and psychogeography. This chapter begins by investigating the role of GIS in society including the motivation and foundation for PPGIS and the advantages and disadvantages of PPGIS praxis. The chapter also explores the topic of psychogeography and the reasons why its principles may help characterise and drive the successful development of a community GIS.

2.2 GIS and Society – a brief history

“Mountains dark with forests rose above the rooftops, the jagged black summits silhouetted against the evening light. Higher than them all, though, was the tip of the Schneeberg, glowing, translucent, throwing out fire and sparks, towering into the dying brightness of a sky across which the strangest of greyish-pink cloud formations were moving, while visible between them were the winter planets and crescent moon.” (Sebald, 2002: 50)

Storytelling is an extremely powerful means for conveying an image of the world and in some way or another every story takes place somewhere and relates knowledge of geography and a sense of place (Cartwright, 2004, Erle et al., 2005, Cartwright et al., 2009). One way to represent geographic stories and our understanding of the spatial organisation of the physical environment and its relationship with humans is through a map. An attempt to bring together the science of geography with the art of map making has been the Geographic Information System (GIS) – which is a computer system for capturing, storing, querying, analysing and displaying geographically referenced data (Chang, 2008). What differentiates a GIS from other databases and computer systems is its ability to combine large amounts of spatial data from diverse sources, group the data into layers or categories, analyse the data for patterns or relationships and produce improved visualizations (Sieber, 2000a, Sieber, 2000b). For these reasons GIS technology has become an important tool for use by many levels of Government, Universities and organisations involved in activities ranging from conservation, advertising and marketing, health, crime, land-use planning and social services – or any activity containing a spatial component (Sieber, 2006).

However it is only recently that GIS use has expanded to non-traditional users such as non-profit organisations and community groups. This accessibility has been the result of decreased costs in hardware, software and improved user interfaces which means the user no longer has to learn specialised command languages (Craig et al., 2002). The attraction to the utility of GIS, by non-traditional users, is much the same as traditional users in that it can assist in new ways of understanding a problem, but it may also help in influencing public policy through more sophisticated analysis and the presentation of professional looking images (Sieber, 2000b).

Despite this perceived ease-of-use and increasing ubiquity, the GIS has been criticised by some circles as being an elitist technology which merely enhances existing power structures (Carver, 2003). This critique is heavily influenced by postmodernist principles, which place an increasing emphasis on the contributions of wider society and recognises that knowledge and values are constructed through a multiplicity of social and cultural forces. These arguments first surfaced within the paradigm of critical cartography which exposed the inherent subjectivity in, and rhetorical content of maps, thus implying that maps are as much a reflection of (or metaphor for) the culture that produces them, as they are an abstraction of the physical environment (MacEachren, 1995). These examinations have also been employed within social and critical GIS debates which challenge the use of GIS in decision making as being objective and neutral. Instead it has been maintained that GIS utility is often confined to ‘experts’ whom produce privileged knowledge given their unique access to data, technology, resources and position to structure the inquiry and design the output (Duncan and Lach, 2006). This view of GIS as a return to the principles of technocratic positivism may be construed as anti-democratic because decisions reliant on a GIS may exclude diverse forms of spatial data, such as community knowledge, in favour of ordered Government data conceptualised into points, lines and areas (Crampton and Krygier, 2006). Many academics, such as Pickles (1995), believe that the increased popularity of GIS within the geography discipline has meant that the availability and access to geographic data has become more influential than knowledge or experience of a unique environment or subject (Craig et al., 2002).

Concerns regarding the hegemonic and subjective role of GIS lead to a number of workshops in the mid-nineties on ‘GIS and Society’ (GISoc) sponsored by the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) (Craig et al., 2002). GISoc was focused on how the spread of the technology was affecting “the political, economic, legal and institutional structures of society; and how societal processes affect the form taken by the technology itself” (Carver, 2003: 65). GISoc research furthermore questioned whether current GIS practices and available spatial data adequately represented community needs and concerns and whether a new ontological framework was needed to help empower less privileged groups in society (Elwood, 2006). It was questioned whether it would be possible to develop a ‘bottom-up’ GIS which could successfully incorporate community participation and thus either displace or validate decisions made with ‘top-down’ GIS approaches, implemented in most Government and commercial GIS projects (Craig et al., 2002). From these reflections the notion of Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) was developed and defined as “a variety of approaches to make GIS and other spatial decision-making tools available and accessible to all those with a stake in official decisions.” (Schroeder, 1996) In other words, the intention of PPGIS praxis was to incorporate local community perspectives into decision making, ideally leading to solutions which might otherwise not have been attained using traditional data sources and esoteric problem framing and analysis (Carver, 2003).

Even though PPGIS was initially seen as a reconstructed democratic GIS, there is still much polarized debate regarding whether GIS technology is empowering or marginalising. These opinions, however, can often be seen as a reactive and predisposed view of information technology (IT) in which individuals and groups must react to the technology as having a positive or negative social effect (Sieber, 2000a). The effectiveness and social and political implications of GIS use within communities, however is much more complex and is generally contingent on a set of unique local factors such as culture, policies, standards, people and technology (Duncan and Lach, 2006). While PPGIS applications are an extremely positive move to address the original GISoc concerns regarding the social, political and knowledge practices of GIS – contemporary PPGIS have seemingly introduced new contradictions concerning data access, representation and hegemony (Elwood, 2006). For instance, although much literature acknowledges the importance of bridging the gap between technology and community knowledge, many PPGIS applications continue to adopt a technocratic view of GIS and are often lacking extensive public interaction let alone the integration of community data (Sieber, 2006).

The next section of this thesis examines more closely the current contradictions in PPGIS applications, paying particular attention to the ambiguities in the use of the terms public and participation. The purpose in critiquing the underlying assumptions of these terms is to further an understanding of the original ontological meaning of PPGIS and how the varying use of the terms has affected the incorporation of community knowledge in PPGIS projects.

2.3 What does the Public and Participation in PPGIS really mean?

Any process or technology which enhances a communities access to information and provides the chance to participate in decision making should be seen as a step in the right direction; however the original ontological framing of GISoc has become misconstrued by some practices of PPGIS (Carver, 2003). The original concept and application of PPGIS has been reshaped and become more disparate over the years as a range of disciplines (such as urban planning and conservation), have applied different approaches and technologies to achieve a unique set of priorities and goals (Sieber, 2006). Furthermore the growing enthusiasm of Governments and commercial organisations for participatory planning has lead to a number of diverse initiatives which vary in terms of the inclusiveness of community knowledge and empowerment potential (Elwood, 2006). However, public participation is a complicated concept that can have multiple meanings which lead to numerous interpretations and societal expectations (Schlossberg and Shuford, 2005). An examination of the nature of public and participation practices in GIS applications is thus critical in developing a greater understanding of the ambiguities in the PPGIS process and how these may have diverged from the original vision of GISoc.

It is extremely important to identify whom the ‘public’ is when engaging a PPGIS project because it will ultimately determine who is included within the project and what types of outcomes and goals may be achievable (Schlossberg and Shuford, 2005). The Collins English Dictionary (1982) defines ‘public’ (adj) as a means “of relating to, or concerning the people as a whole” reflecting the intended meaning within PPGIS; and many applications do continue to be developed for a general public (Sieber, 2006). There is however a number of PPGIS projects who take a more ambiguous view of ‘public’ and often use it interchangeably with definitions which more loosely resemble a stakeholder. In other words many projects deem their public to be those who are affected by, bring knowledge or information to, and possess the power to influence a decision or program (Sieber, 2006). The public and their interests are often, however, very different from stakeholders and thus would heavily influence the problem framing and objectives of a GIS project (Wood, 2005).

Furthermore a public can be demarcated by a range of factors such as geographical, economic, social or political; and the composition of a public may change over time (Schlossberg and Shuford, 2005). Determining what constitutes the public has become especially complicated as technology has become more pervasive. For instance a web-based GIS may potentially be accessible by a wider portion of society however it raises questions around digital divides and geographic scale. Thus, is anyone who is able to access the application still deemed part of the public even though they maybe geographically distant to the issue and decision making? (Sieber, 2006) In general people local to an issue should be interested enough to get involved in a debate given their geographic proximity. It has been demonstrated however that as scale increases not only do people at regional, national and global levels become interested and involved in an issue but also a higher percentage of people at the local do as well because it has amplified into a wider discourse (Carver, 2003). Consequently Aitken (2002) suggests that instead of perceiving issues or decision making as being scale dependent and developing PPGIS projects for stakeholders which have their scale fixed, GIS projects should, alternatively, be directing their attention towards developing a GIS which would enable community issues and knowledge to jump scale from local to larger public discourses or vice versa (Aitken, 2002, Sieber, 2006). This is an important aspect because there is often a concern that local activities are dismissed as being part of community politics and are denied significant advancements by State and Federal Governments and thus the opportunity to emerge and engage individuals at all scales (Aitken, 2002). From this perspective a community-based GIS, where community is defined as “a group of individuals who are bound together by a common characteristic or a common intent and who enjoy a relatively high degree of mutual social interaction” (Jones et al., 2004: 105) offers the prospect of transcending the rigid scale conceptualised upon community politics and local activism enabling them to contest structures of power and dominance at the very scales they exist (Aitken, 2002, Gaile and Willmott, 2005).

Harris and Weiner (1998) acknowledged in their research on the power relations associated with GIS use – that participatory GIS practices have the potential to simultaneously empower and marginalise groups (Sieber, 2006). As a result it is imperative to understand the nature of the participatory process and who benefits and why (Craig et al., 2002). One such way to help conceptualise the levels of public participation is through a ladder metaphor. First conceived by Arnstein (1969), the basic premise of the ‘participation ladder’ is that each rung of the ladder represents a different level of participation – the bottom rung represents zero opportunity to participate while each rung above represents increased level of participation in the decision making and thus greater public empowerment (Carver, 2003). Wiedemann and Femers (1993) later produced an adaptation of the ladder which conceived of public participation as not only providing access to information but also suggesting that informing the public of decisions is another form of participation (Tulloch and Shapiro, 2003). This concept is significantly flawed as it firstly misrepresents the commonly understood meaning of the word participation in PPGIS which The Collins English Dictionary (1982) defines as “to take part, be or become involved, or share.” Secondly the ladder metaphors do not acknowledge the potential for participation to change over a period of time (Schlossberg and Shuford, 2005). Thirdly, the participation models fail to include oppositional groups whom do not cooperate with public decision making but participate in the formation public policy through other influential methods such as protests (Sieber, 2006). The incorporation of the word participation in many GIS projects implies a method of consensus building which presupposes a level of top-down decision-making as well as a degree of homogenization between participants. Certain individuals however may be better able to participate or contribute to decision making than others. Consequently, disproportional levels of participation may effectively disempower individuals and adversely affect the desired outcomes of a community (Sieber, 2006). Consequently some scholars have insisted on applying ‘participatory’ for autonomous grassroots activities and employing ‘participation’ to describe those projects which are more top-down in their approach (Elwood, 2006). Again while this is a neat way to demarcate GIS projects which employ various degrees of top-down and bottom-up methods – these definitions fail to acknowledge that both methodologies are crucial to any successful GIS project and community decision making. In fact it is fervently maintained that in order to enable citizens to better identify and comprehend how the role of GIS and technical discourses are bound up in decision making and how decision making can be informed by GIS knowledge, communities must have access to spatial information developed by Governments and commercial organisations as well as contributing their own spatial knowledge (Brown, 1998).

Within this section it has been demonstrated that the attitudes and arguments that frame many PPGIS projects have succeeded in producing an illusion of influence and contribution by communities to decision making when actual control still resides with the traditional powers, such as Government. Instead of attempting to build an impossible consensus amongst a public with disparate tastes, values and experiences, a community-based GIS should concentrate on developing a community’s ability to construct their own facts with the aid of available third party resources, from which their personal geographic stories may emerge and translate to various members of society (Wood, 2005). Another way forward could be to draw upon principles of Situational psychogeography which also attempts to combine subjective and objective modes of study by positing that one’s self cannot be divorced from the urban environment and that one’s psyche and knowledge of the city must transcend the individual if it is to be of any use in the collective rethinking of the city (Sadler, 1998, Wood, 2005). In the following section an examination of the origins of psychogeography will be conducted – clarifying how the principles behind this practice may help establish a framework for practice of GIS and Society and specifically the incorporation of local knowledge in GIS.

2.4 What exactly is Psychogeography?

During the 1950s a number of highly politicised groups emerged in opposition to the ideals of modernism; these groups promoted programs that would reform the practice of art and life by directly intervening in the human environment and bringing about a social revolution (Sadler, 1998). One such group were the Lettrist International who conceived of the notion of Unitary Urbanism, which would later be the developed into the praxis of Psychogeography. Unitary Urbanism was envisaged as “the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behaviour.” (Knabb, 2006: 52) In other words, Unitary Urbanism was considered a social project whose vision was the unification of space and architecture with the social and individual body (Sadler, 1998).

In 1957 the Lettrist International and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB) merged to form a new artistic-activist movement known as the Situationist International (SI). The SI was similarly critical of modernist principles which anteceded the rational mind at the expense of the imagination. These criticisms are most clearly evident in the SI’s opposition to modern architecture and urban planning which they argued shaped people into rigid patterns of behaviour (Sadler, 1998). Furthermore they believed that increasing urbanism and capitalism had reduced life to mere production and consumption behaviour that ensured that “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (Debord, 1964) In other words experienced space had been reduced into mere representations of spaces and in turn re-envisaged as capitalist spaces (McDonough, 2002). SI believed that members of society were increasingly experiencing life as spectators devoid of dialogue and without a sense of being involved or interacting with one another. Once this ‘spectacle’ of modernity and urbanism, represented through images, products and activities, and authorised by the state, had been unveiled, society would be able to rediscover the authenticity of city life underneath (Debord, 1964). By resisting the hegemony of the state the SI sought to radically transform urban spaces through different practices including the subversion of cartography. Specifically by directing the spectator’s senses towards the contradictions in the abstractions and mediations of the state, the aim was to draw the spectator “into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life” (Debord, 1957: 25).

Taking from the original methodology of Unitary Urbanism, psychogeography was proposed as a method of urban investigation which studies “the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” (Debord, 1955) In other words, psychogeography was intended as a methodology to help make people aware of the ways in which the urban environment and everyday life is conditioned and controlled and encouraged the exposing of these concerns (Plant, 1992). Psychogeography in practice utilised a technique conceived as the Theory of the Dérive, in which individuals dérive (literally: ‘drifting’) through an environment letting themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain while still seeking to unmask the contradictions in the abstracted space (Plant, 1992). The dérive was an attempt to reappropriate the meaning of the city by removing the myths in the state’s representations by having people walk and experience the landscape first hand, thus constructing through narratives a more concrete collective space (Mcdonough, 1994).

While the dérive offered a new way of surveying urban space, a new way of representing these spaces had yet to be found. The SI were not disillusioned with the idea of mapping practices, in fact they regarded mapping as an important component to aid in the changing and organisation of urban spaces (Pinder, 1996). They believed however, that the structures and imperatives utilised in mapping exposed the desires of those wishing to impose order upon the city. The SI ambition was thus to illustrate the strange logic and apparent disorder of cities by producing maps which demonstrated those intimacies of the city typically absent from a traditional street or topographic map (Sadler, 1998). Consequently the SI developed a concept called Détournement, which loosely translates as a diversion or rerouting of pre-existing aesthetic elements (Knabb, 1995). An example of this is where existing maps and aerial photographs were juxtaposed or rearranged to produce a new spatial meaning; an alternative experiential or existential truth (Ungar, 2005). Thus the SI were able to reconstruct the cartography of a city by reconciling conventional geographies, sociologies, and cartographies together with experienced spaces, producing a map which is “terrestrial, fragmented, subjective, temporal, and cultural” (Sadler, 1998: 82).

While Debord announced the disbandment of the SI in 1972, the traditions underpinning psychogeography continue to influence many works of literature, films, urban design and geographic practices (Ford, 2005). Wood (2005) draws attention to one contemporary psychogeography project – Jake Barton’s ‘City of Memory’ – which combines psychogeographic principles with a GIS to build a collective urban memory through the participation of a number of people. In an interview with Wood, Jake Barton described his project as utilising ‘top-down and ‘bottom-up’ resources to create an ’emergent’ and ‘curated’ experience. Precisely by extending these terms to form the foundation of any GIS and Society project, Wood hypothesised that what would emerge was a GIS designed by a third-party or community-based intermediary (top-down); the public would formulate a specific framework that fits their unique goals (bottom-up); the bottom-up and top-down activities and goals are not independent of each other, but rather co-exist (curated); the outcome of the project has not been foreseen or influenced towards a specific outcome by any party, but rather emerges organically from the facts obtained and analysed (emergent). Thus resulting in a map and information which “has not been exactly made by the public but which without it has no content at all and deflates into a frame around nothing” (Wood, 2005: 13). Following on from this preliminary research by Wood a wider investigation of these terms will be conducted, laying the framework for a more appropriate community-based GIS as originally envisaged in GISoc debates.

2.5 Top-down

Top-down integration of GIS is usually undertaken by an outside individual or agency who provides the GIS model, data, analysis and representation (Talen, 2000). Often the major distinction between a top-down and bottom-up approach, in participatory projects, is determined by where the decision making lies and by the level of commitment required by the public. With a top-down approach a Government or organisation would typically provide the data and representations which would be used in deliberation with the public, who are required to make a short-term commitment. In contrast, a bottom-up approach would require the public to have ongoing access to GIS data and the resources to capture data, conduct analysis and produce representations (Talen, 2000). Governments and commercial planners will often implement a participatory GIS with top-down goals in order to better understand a neighbourhood dynamic, improve public sector management and enhance social service provision. This process theoretically serves the public by introducing policies and services based on a community’s perception of the data, analysis and representations framed by Governments and planners (Sieber, 2006).

Top-down GIS models can also help circumvent deterrents such as cost, complexity and access to data which often impeded non-profit and community groups from implementing a GIS. The cost of hardware and GIS software have decreased dramatically over the years and there are now many open source GIS solutions available for free use; however it has been shown that any cost and resources required in the implementation, operation and maintenance of equipment, no matter the amount, will be a significant barrier for adoption, especially for underprivileged groups (Brodnig and Mayer-Schönberger, 2000, Leitner et al., 2002). Furthermore many individuals may lack knowledge about the availability and means of obtaining a GIS and spatial data (Elwood, 2007). Many of the GIS packages available are user-friendly for many operations, however the more functionality a group requires for their GIS, the greater


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