For example, in many planning situations people will gather in a room, spread a map on a table, point to areas, and verbally recollect, describe or speculate. At times, these discussions will be augmented with documentation or imagery. In other cases, they will be augmented with analytic tools.
Where the recollection is about fairly structured recent activities, (such as past planning meetings), the conversations can be augmented with records and systematic documentation of past interactions. However, access to this information is frequently not random and can be dependent on a specialized information recording and retrieval "system" such as a meeting secretary or stenographer. Furthermore, such methods of recollection rarely incorporate spatial referencing (using such things as historical maps). Where a systematic documentation is lacking, as with recollection of the past environmental conditions of an area, the high degree of dependence on human memory can lead to problems based in the inconsistency of individual memories. This is exacerbated by the fact that personal points of view tend to be subjective. For example, someone may recall traffic on a particular street to have been particularly heavy, while another may think of the same stretch of roadway as lightly traveled.
Where there is a lack of documentation or data to support these recollections, arguments related to inconsistent memories are likely to persist. These arguments can dominate a discussion and shift the focus of a meeting from the matters at hand. GIS support of recollection in collaborative contexts has been somewhat limited due to a number of factors including fairly weak historical references. While GIS (in combination with historical data) can indeed be used to facilitate recollection about characteristics such as demographic trends, property values, and other generalizable information, it is less adept at conveying the past character of an area. Furthermore, using this technology to assist recollection depends on systematic archival of spatial "snapshots".
The lack of familiarity with a given site in the context of a description of existing conditions can be aided through the use of an up-to-date map that is used as a central reference point. Individuals describe present conditions verbally and augment this by gesturing to a map spread on a table or tacked to a wall. Such descriptions may be further augmented using thematic data and visual imagery. The thematic data may be provided in the form of land-use maps, or demographic conditions of an area. Visual imagery may include photos or video tape of selected sites. The juxtaposition of the above media can strengthen a collective understanding of the various characteristics of a given site. Until recently, GIS has been unable to effectively support descriptions of existing conditions due to issues of speed, human interface and integration with other forms of media. While many of these issues are being addressed using modern GIS tools that take advantage of inter-operability and component software, the techniques for the effective juxtaposition of this information for retrieval in collaborative contexts need to be further developed.
Augmentation of collaborative settings with analytic tools such as GIS has traditionally been handicapped by a lack of immediate response, and abstract output that tends to exclude from such conversations those who are not technically-sophisticated. A degree of immediacy in response to user queries about alternative scenarios can be afforded through the implementation of direct manipulation interfaces. Such interfaces translate human desires into commands that the computer can understand. Multimedia representational aids support information flow in the other direction by augmenting numeric values with graphical representation and associated imagery to transform abstract data into concepts that the human can understand. Both direct manipulation and multimedia representational aids have been made possible by recent increases in computing power available to the masses. While the tendency to apply such power to the undertaking of previously unattainable analyses is important, the ability to improve the communicability of existing analysis tools, especially in collaborative contexts, should not be overlooked.
How does it change the way people interact in the context of face-to-face communications? The availability of broadly manipulable tools in group planning contexts can lead to the consideration of a much broader range of alternative scenarios. While one might argue that this can lead to better-informed conversations, it can also make it difficult (or impossible) for a group to reach consensus. Furthermore, while multiple representations may minimize arguments based on "apples and oranges", they can also confuse or mislead. Just as this technology has the ability to create compelling representations of spatial scenarios, it has the ability to create compelling misrepresentations. While this issue is not new to spatial analysis, it can be exacerbated through the use of multiple representations in collaborative contexts, therefore it is important to understand the potential pitfalls of unintentional misrepresentation so that measures can be taken to minimize it.
How can these tools be effectively, inexpensively, and fairly delivered to the contexts that can best benefit from their use? Modular tools with spatial referencing (such as GIS components combined with WWW client and server software) are a step towards the effective delivery of a mechanism that augments recollection, description and speculation. However it is still necessary to develop conceptual designs so that these tools can be properly implemented. Such designs can result from an iterative process of observation, development, testing, and feedback.
Finally, evaluative mechanisms need to be developed that provide feedback about where these computer-based tools fall short in their design, implementation and execution. Such mechanisms will have the capacity to expose whether the use of planning support systems such as these can lead to better-informed conversations, planning, and/or decision making.
The best way to address these questions is through collaborative research initiatives such as that which is proposed here. It is hoped that such interactions can lead to a broader understanding of the methods, tools, and techniques used by others in previous and ongoing research.
Shiffer received his Ph.D., and Master's of Urban Planning, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Shiffer has had additional training in communications, human-computer interaction, and psychology. He has earned a Bachelors degree in Geography from De Paul University in Chicago.
In addition to his academic work, Shiffer consults with a variety of public and private agencies on information technology and communications issues. He is an active professional speaker and author on the application of information technology in the area of city planning and development.
Shiffer, M.J., (1994) "A Geographically-Based Multimedia Approach to City Planning", in Plaisant, C. (ed.), Human Factors in Computing Systems, (New York: Association for Computing Machinery), pp.265-266.
Shiffer, M.J., (1993) "Environmental Review with Hypermedia Systems", in R.E. Klosterman and S.P. French (eds.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management, vol. 1, pp. 587-606 (also forthcoming in Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, volume 22).
Shiffer, M.J. and Wiggins, L.L., (1993) "The Union of GIS and Multimedia", in Castle, G.H. (ed.), Profiting from a Geographic Information System, (Ft. Collins, CO: GIS World, Inc.), pp. 336-341.
Shiffer, M.J. (1992) "Towards a Collaborative Planning System", Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, volume 19. pp. 709-722.
Wiggins, L. L. and Shiffer, M. J. (1990), "Planning with Hypermedia: Combining Text, Graphics, Sound, and Video", Journal of the American Planning Association, Spring, 1990. pp. 226-235.