Extending Electronic Meeting Systems for Collaborative Spatial Decision Making: Obstacles
Brenda G. Faber
Senior Research Analyst
1201 Oakridge Drive, Suite 100
Fort Collins, CO 80525
(970) 282-5499 (FAX)
This paper discusses considerations for the development and application of
collaborative Geographic Information Systems (GIS). A collaborative GIS is a
geographic information system which has been extended from a traditional
single-user tool to incorporate group interaction with geographic data sets. A
collaborative GIS provides an interactive, real-time environment for resource
managers, policy specialists, scientists, and citizen groups to debate land
One approach to implementing a collaborative GIS system is to create a "GIS
extension" to a commercially available electronic meeting software package.
Such a system allows meeting participants to work individually or in groups to
construct various geographic scenarios electronically. The scenarios are
collected and combined via the electronic meeting system local area network.
Implications can be modeled and discussed as scenarios are suggested. Decision
rationale for final recommendations are recorded automatically using electronic
meeting software functionality.
This paper is a collection of recommendations and observations based on
experience in prototyping collaborative GIS systems within an electronic
meeting system environment.
A commercially available, single-user GIS can be a powerful tool for supporting
group deliberation on land-resource issues. A skilled technical facilitator,
using a large or projected workstation display, can assist a group in exploring
various scenarios and trade-offs through real-time GIS analyses. However,
there are obstacles inherent in this approach:
In the corporate world, a practice that is growing in popularity is the use of
electronic meeting systems (EMS). An EMS is a type of Group Decision Support
System (GDSS) or "groupware" which supports electronic exchange between meeting
participants. Each participant uses an electronic input device (numeric keypad
or personal computer) to submit votes or comments. The EMS system software has
a client/server LAN architecture with a file server collecting all data
generated by participants. The system summarizes participant input for
immediate display back to the group. This framework makes it possible for
participants to present their opinions or positions quickly, efficiently, and
with parity. Typical activities supported by commercially available EMS's
- To be successful requires that the GIS technician accurately understand and
interpret comments from the group;
- Use of a single-workstation display limits meeting participants' ability to
study or highlight areas of individual concern;
- Use of a single-workstation display does not allow negotiators to discuss or
build upon solutions developed by other group members;
- Decision rationale, arrived at verbally, is difficult to retrieve for
subsequent public inquiry and regulatory review;
- The opinions of more outgoing or assertive participants may have
disproportional influence on the analysis;
- Other barriers, such as a history of litigation, may also exist that prevent
participants from speaking openly.
EMS's have been shown to enhance both productivity and efficiency in business
meetings. It is the author's position that this proven collaborative
architecture offers an excellent foundation for incorporating selected GIS
capabilities for collaborative spatial exchange. The extended system not only
allows teams to share textual and numeric data, but provides the ability to
annotate, share, and analyze spatial information as well.
The following are considerations for adding a geographic framework to the EMS
environment. Note that the recommendations given are based on experience in
developing collaborative GIS systems for same-time/same-place (face-to-face)
meetings within a resource negotiation context.
Most EMS packages are designed for business meetings. Thus, the majority of
EMS interfaces have been purposefully designed to be simple and intuitive
(assuming the lowest common technical denominator for executive participants).
It is important to carry this premise forward when adding a spatial component
to the EMS. The collaborative GIS developer should assume that participants
will be GIS novices and may even be unfamiliar with a computer keyboard.
- Voting (Yes/No, Multiple Choice, 10-Point Scale, etc.)
- Issue Prioritization
- Criteria Evaluation
- Group Writing
- Electronic Brainstorming
- Project Analysis
- Surveys and Questionnaires
A critical design objective when implementing a spatial addition to an EMS
should be to create a seamless and consistent extension to the existing
software. This will minimize confusion for novice users. Where possible,
existing communications protocols and user interface appearance should be
incorporated into the new function. EMS products which support initiation of
other applications from within the EMS environment offer a convenient method
for maintaining this consistency.
In addition, collaborative GIS extensions should reflect the most basic
principles of electronic exchange:
Finally, a collaborative GIS system design should have a high degree of
flexibility, such that it can be easily customized for a client's particular
data set and application.
Experience in developing and customizing collaborative GIS systems for clients
has resulted in the following recommendations for a core set of spatial
functionality within a collaborative GIS framework:
- simultaneous input, allowing everyone to state their position or opinion at
- anonymous input (if desired), which can minimize the effects of dominant
personalities and pre-established group hierarchies;
- summarized display of all input for group review; and,
- automatically generated meeting documentation, available for review at any
The following are observations assembled from a number of collaborative GIS
workshops. Explanations for these effects and their implications to
collaborative GIS development need to be explored in greater detail.
- Data Import Tool--allows for importing most GIS data formats onto the
collaborative GIS platform;
- Geographic Exploration Tool--allows negotiators to interactively explore
supporting data via a simple menu interface. Data may include geographic data
layers, economic statistics, policy statements, photographs, etc. Participants
customize presentation of the geographic data to fit their own perspective
(e.g., overlay selected landmarks, zoom into particular regions, highlight
areas of interest). Thus, the negotiators are no longer dependent on GIS
technicians for data review and access;
- Geographic Proposal Tool--allows for graphical submission, compilation, and
tracking of geographic proposals via annotated data layers. Each participant
constructs geographic proposals by using a computer mouse to "trace" regions on
various data layers. From a technical standpoint, each set of traced regions
constitutes a data layer of digitized polygons which graphically captures the
participant's perspective or position. It is important to emphasize that the
outcome of this activity is a new GIS data layer generated by each participant.
Data layers can be combined and analyzed for immediate display to the group.
Negotiators no longer have to wait weeks for analysis results. The
implications of various scenarios can be modeled and discussed during the
meeting as they are generated.
- Geographic Prioritization Tool--makes use of electronic voting/prioritization
utilities to establish land management priorities as weighting factors for
subsequent geographic analysis and modeling. Participants first use an EMS
voting application. For instance, they might rank the importance of land
characteristics or score objectives based on a multicriteria land-use
objective. The resulting combined scores from this exercise are then applied
as weighting factors for any number of GIS analysis techniques.
- Database Link to Spatial Changes--provides the capability to track decision
rationale for changes made to data layers during a negotiation session. If a
database of initial issues is available, map changes can be linked to the
appropriate database record(s) to document how each issue was addressed. A map
change can be retrieved by clicking on an issue in the database, or conversely,
the prompting issue can be retrieved by clicking on an area of the map. In
addition, map changes negotiated by the group are tagged with a rationale
statement with captures the essence of the discussions leading to the decision.
This ensures that a record of decision rationale is maintained and is readily
accessible for public inquiry and regulatory review.
- Geographic Negotiation Tool--a hybrid tool which evolved while prototyping
collaborative GIS systems. Involves the use of a whiteboard to encourage
participant interaction and collaboration. Data layers displayed on a
facilitator's workstation are projected on a whiteboard using a video display
device. Then, in a method similar to the Geographic Proposal Tool described
above, participants work together to propose land-use scenarios by
interactively tracing/erasing areas with marker pens. This encourages the
group to collaborate verbally to generate a group proposal. Once the group
agrees on a proposal, the meeting facilitator captures this work by tracing the
pen marks overlaying the projected display with a mouse. A full array of
analysis techniques can now be applied to combine and analyze this data for
- Geographic Modeling Tool--supports scenario gaming within a resource
negotiation session. This might include simulation models or quantitative
models. For example, construction of a reservoir may have profound effects on
an encompassing watershed. An interactive modeling tool would allow reservoir
designers and stakeholders to experiment with placement/capacity of the
reservoir in terms of potential impacts to the surrounding watershed habitat.
Note that models incorporated into the system must be simple and interactive.
Complexity of the models must be balanced with overall meeting objectives and
limitations. Results should allow negotiators to assess high-level physical,
economic, and/or political implications without bogging the meeting down in
complicated details or excessive processing times;
- Data Export Tool--translates data back to the format of the client's
database, including generated data layers, databases, and model results.
While the collaborative GIS systems described in this text are designed
specifically for face-to-face negotiations, a demand is growing for a similar
mechanism to support remote land-resource negotiations. For example, a land
management plan may require public input from local land managers, coordination
support from regional agency representatives, and policy input from governing
bodies at the state or national level. Work needs to be done on characterizing
distributed land-resource negotiation tools. These tools would encompass many
of the capabilities of a collaborative GIS, but must be customized to operate
in a distributed mode.
The proven collaborative architecture of commercially-available Electronic
Meeting System software offers an excellent foundation for incorporating
selected GIS capabilities for collaborative spatial exchange. The spatially
extended system not only allows teams to share textual and numeric data, but
provides the ability to annotate, share, and analyze spatial information as
well. Experience and thoughtful implementation can result in a collaborative
spatial decision support system providing an interactive, real-time environment
for resource managers, policy specialists, scientists, and citizen groups to
debate land allocation issues.
Brenda Faber is a Senior Spatial Systems Research Analyst with the Consortium
for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). Brenda is
currently representing CIESIN as a visiting scientist at the Terrestrial
Ecosystems Regional Research and Analysis (TERRA) Lab in Fort Collins Colorado.
Brenda holds M.S. degrees in Image Processing and Electrical Engineering and a
B.S. degree in Mathematics.
- A common facilitation error is to over use the electronic exchange
mechanisms. For example, often there is a tendency to assume that the
collaborative GIS tools will produce the "answer". Though the tools may make
the negotiation session more efficient or effective, no solution is ever
achieved without good old-fashion verbal debate. Collaborative GIS tools are
best used as an occasional supplement to verbal debate, to stimulate discussion
and focus the group on critical issues.
- Visual cues and landmarks are critical for orienting participants to the GIS
data layers. Lack of adequate overlays showing familiar landmarks will
inevitably disrupt the meeting and cause frustration among participants.
- It appears that groups have a much lower tolerance for computer response time
than is typically acceptable for individuals working with single-workstation
applications. Even the smallest amount of dead meeting time, while processing
a computation, causes participants to become fidgety and restless. Though in
our applications no single computation took over 3 minutes, participants
visibly began to lose interest as the pauses continued to occur with each
change iteration. Our meeting facilitators tried to compensate for this effect
by moving to a new issue while the previous change is processing, or by
processing changes during breaks or overnight. However, this seems to defeat
the intrinsic value of the collaborative GIS which supports reviewing and
discussing a change as it is recommended. This observation may have
significance for further development of collaborative GIS systems with resource
- Applying and displaying a change, as it is recommended, appears to be a very
significant step in establishing group consensus. It is common for groups to
modify or reverse a decision, once they are able to view an applied change.
- The ability to individually interact directly with the data (select a
coverage, zoom, overlay landmarks, etc.) seems to strengthen participant
ownership of the negotiated results. Being able to touch the data themselves
seems to give some participants a greater sense of control of the process.
Along these lines, Colorado State University Psychology Department is currently
conducting research to determine if the use of collaborative GIS systems
increases the perception of "voice" (i.e. active individual contribution) in
the resource negotiation process. Existing research in social justice
indicates that increased perceptions of voice are correlated with increased
perceptions of fairness, and with acceptance of both favorable and unfavorable
Experience in collaborative spatial decision making:
Faber, Brenda G., W. Wallace, J. Cuthbertson, Advances in Collaborative GIS
for Land-Resource Negotiation, The Proceedings of the GIS'95 Ninth Annual
Symposium on Geographic Information Systems, Vancouver, B.C., March 1995, GIS
World, Inc., Vol 1, pp 183-189.
- applied research in use of groupware technologies for quantification of
stakeholder values and preferences
- applied research in conceptual modeling and data visualization
- conceptualization and development of the TERRA Active Response GIS (AR/GIS),
integrating electronic meeting system software with GIS capability
- customization and application of the AR/GIS system to:
- Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver, B.C. - land allocation simulation
- Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest - Forest Plan Revision Process
- City of Scottsdale - City Information System prototype
- IBM technical manager of GIS research group - developing GIS temporal
analysis for terrestrial change prediction
Faber, Brenda G., W. Wallace, and H. Sargent, Use of Groupware Enabled GIS for
Land Resource Allocation Issues, Proceedings of the Sixth International
Symposium on System Analysis and Management Decisions in Forestry, Pacific
Grove, CA, September 1994.
Faber, Brenda G., R. Watts, J. Hautaluoma, J. Knutson, W. Wallace, L. Wallace,
A Groupware-Enabled GIS, The Proceedings of the GIS /94 Symposium, Vancouver,
B.C., February 1994, pp 551-561.