Empowerment, Marginalization 
And Public Participation GIS 

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Initiative Description

GIS is alternatively seen as a powerful tool for empowering communities or as an invasive technology that advantages some people and organizations while marginalizing others. This is a critical issue which divides both academicians and thoughtful critics of society. "GIS and Society" is therefore one of the top GIS research issues facing this country, as determined by UCGIS, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science. The NCGIA addressed the issue in Initiative-19 (March 1996) as well. In neither of those cases was there a successful merger of the two positions, merely an acknowledgment of the validity of the stance of the other. This initiative will examine the two-edged nature of the GIS sword by defining and executing research projects that involve researchers looking critically at the use of GIS by community groups or by others using the technology in ways that impact individuals and communities.

Another of the major themes which arose from Initiative 19, "GIS and Society," was the nature of alternative GIS designs which might better reflect community interests and empower its members. This topic was explored at the Minnesota specialist meeting in the context of public participation, then more deeply in a subsequent workshop to define the characteristics of this alternative GIS, sometimes called GIS2, in Orono Maine in July 1996. This topic continues to be salient as we try to understand the nature of distortion enforced by the map metaphor of reality and enhance the technology to incorporate a broader spectrum of ways of knowing.

Finally, COST-UCE C4 Urban Civil Engineering, Information Systems, European project for Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research held a February 1998 workshop on Groupware for Urban Planning which included a component on public participation. NCGIA was a cosponsor of this workshop.

Collectively, we use the term Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) to cover the range of topics raised by the intersection of community interests and GIS technology. The research agendas generated by the various meetings listed above provide the foundation to explore, in context, the relationships between GIS and communities. This initiative is concerned with the social, political, historical, and technological conditions in which GIS both empowers and marginalizes individuals and communities. Included in this list of research agendas are the following potential topics:

The core planning group met in Boston on March 28, 1998 in conjunction with the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers. The group decided its primary concern was to learn from those using GIS and information technology to support the community in the decision-making process. To this end, we envisage three activities as part of this initiative.
  1. Identification of Major Community IT/GIS Activities Around the Country



    This effort will build on an inventory completed by the Urban Institute a few years ago in its National Neighborhood Indicators Project. If will go beyond efforts supported by local government to identify significant efforts by academic and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). this inventory will be completed by a graduate student, working under the direction of the core planning group, during the summer of 1998.

  3. Specialist Meeting



    Through an open, widely distributed solicitation we will attempt to attract professionals who have been deeply involved in a rich array of experiences.

    Acceptance into participation in this specialist meeting includes a requirement to write a paper reflecting on these experiences; we hope to publish a collection of these papers as a book on PPGIS. A second major activity of this specialist meeting is planning for the conference described below. This meeting will be held in Santa Barbara in October 1998.

  5. A Large Conference of Participants in Major PPGIS Activities



    A major conference will be held summer or fall of 1999 featuring speakers who have been involved in a wide range of community IT/GIS activities. tentatively we intend to feature activities from the following types of communities: urban neighborhoods, indigenous people, third world, and environmental. Speakers will be selected who represent a rich array of experiences in their communities. We hope to raise funds to cover expenses for multiple individuals from each of the selected sites, representing a range of experiences from technical to policy to citizen.