Environmental NGOs: Community Access to Technology as a Force for Change

David Tulloch, Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture
Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis
Cook College
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey


New Jersey's environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are finding themselves increasingly empowered as users of geospatial technologies. As a result, their constituencies are being empowered too. A commonly presented concern regarding geospatial technologies is the systems require significant technical knowledge in order to be properly applied to a problem. The average citizen lacks basic skills and knowledge, thus limiting the opportunities for public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS). Finding a way in which less technically skilled citizens can participate in the application of a community-based or community-oriented system is a challenge. Special interest groups representing various segments of a larger community can serve as the interface between these citizens and government by operating, evaluating, explaining, querying, training, influencing, or opposing public systems (Sieber 1997).

A basic assumption of this paper is NGOs serve either:

  1. as an interface to an otherwise inaccessible public system, thus rendering it a PPGIS despite the system's initial failings; or
  2. as system developers for a system that can then serve as a PPGIS on behalf of members of the community despite parallel local government efforts.
With these assumptions in mind, this paper will suggest several factors responsible for promoting the acceleration in NGO activity, and thus the empowerment of citizens through a series of NGO-PPGIS. The following four factors or conditions discussed herein are: The exact role of any individual factor in promoting or inhibiting system development may be hard to identify, however, the multiple factors act in concert with one another as a single force for change promoting or inhibiting the development of these geospatial systems (Tulloch 1997). This paper will address these factors and describe how these organizations are interacting. It should be noted that while this paper explores the relationship between geospatial technologies and NGOs within the context of democratic communities, larger discussions of democratic participation (e.g. Evans and Boyte 1992) and the role of representative organizations like NGOs within communities and public policy processes (e.g. Wolch 1990) have been presented as part of social and political science literature.

Factor 1: Physical and Social Conditions - The New Jersey Land Use Puzzle

New Jersey has unique physical and social conditions acting to accelerate the need for environmental response in the state. As the most densely populated state in nation (over 8 million residents in less than 8,000 square miles), New Jersey is home to dense urban areas (e.g., Newark, Camden, Paterson), extensive sprawl, intense industrial areas (e.g., pharmaceuticals, petrochemical), and extensive transportation systems (e.g., Port of Newark, Newark International Airport, New Jersey Turnpike, Amtrak's Northeast corridor) all consuming large portions of New Jersey's surface and impacting even more. However, this intense development is squeezed into a small state along with some impressive natural areas including the New Jersey Pinelands (the largest body of open space on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond and Boston), the Hackensack Meadowlands, the Delaware Water Gap, and the New Jersey Highlands. In addition to the natural areas, New Jersey has extensive agricultural areas providing seasonal produce for Philadelphia and New York City (among the nation's top ten producers of bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, snap beans, cabbage, escarole/endive, eggplant), as well as serving as one of the national leaders in the production of some specialty crops (among the nation's top ten producers of cranberries, blueberries, peaches, asparagus).

What is unique in New Jersey is the cheek by jowl relationship between these diverse land uses (Figure 1, Table 1). Dating back at least to the 1950s, NGOs have formed in response to the conflicts that form at the convergence of the agricultural land, natural areas, and urban development. One indicator of this complex relationship between urbanization and agriculture is the average per acre-value of New Jersey farmland ($8,052) is the highest in the nation (NJ DOA). The constant tension between these broad categories of land use has caused both the destruction of irreplaceable resources and exciting living conditions for residents, and has contributed to the increased role of NGOs as purveyors of solutions to this land use conflict. This condition has existed (albeit to a lesser degree) for decades and cannot alone be credited with the increase in use of geospatial technologies by NGOs.

Factor 2: Incompatible Political Structure - Strong Home Rule has Limited Local GIS

An important forcing function in New Jersey is the state’s tradition of strong home rule. As a result, the state has 566 independent municipalities controlling land use and related environmental issues with only a few able to support local development of GIS. This creates a particularly difficult challenge for the development of NGO systems because local governments have proven an important source of basic spatial datasets in other parts of the country.

With the state sliced into 566 independent municipalities (shown in Figure 2), many communities find themselves without a critical mass and thus unable to generate the tax base necessary to support the development of even rudimentary geospatial systems. Most are small communities: 63% of the municipalities in New Jersey have less than 10,000 residents while over 25% have less than 3,000. It is almost inconceivable that accurate, detailed information could be compiled at any level other than the local level, particularly for data themes like parcels and land use (as opposed to the more generalized land cover described previously). In other states, strong home rule could serve as a negative factor for NGOs who find themselves stymied by the lack of local data. However, in New Jersey this local data void has provided a rallying cry for some NGOs; some NGOs are trying to produce their own complete local datasets while others have focused on ways to encourage the municipalities within their jurisdiction to develop databases.

It should also be noted that strong home rule has also contributed to the environmental and growth management problems in New Jersey (New York Times 1998). The state has been severely limited in its ability to address land use and environmental problems occurring at the local level. A significant portion of New Jersey's sprawl has come as a result of the state's municipalities competing against one another for new development (and property taxes). Strong home rule has also had the unintentional outcome of promoting fragmented landscapes inefficient for providing community services, making farming difficult, and creating landscapes ill-suited for ecologically desirable native species. As such, it has also contributed to the conditions described as part of the first factor.

Factor 3: NJDEP - Sowing Seeds on Fertile Ground

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has recognized the fertile ground readied by the previous factors and sown the seeds for NGO-based GIS participation throughout the state. The NJDEP, acting through the New Jersey State Mapping Advisory Committee (SMAC), has published a series of CD-ROMs providing a variety of statewide coverages (by county) including transportation, land use/cover, soils, wetlands, and floodplains. In addition, the NJDEP has made a limited number (so far around 200) of ESRI ArcView licenses available to local government and NGO offices that have desktop computing hardware.

The NJDEP began disseminating its data as a CD-ROM series beginning in 1996, eventually distributing a total of five CDs (NJDEP 1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 1996d, 1997). These CDs have included state-wide land-use/land-cover, freshwaters wetlands, streams, lakes, watersheds, open space, public lands, legislative districts, floodprone areas, coastal areas, and state, municipal and county boundaries.

In 1997, the NJDEP began distributing specially-attained "free" licenses of ESRI's ArcView to local government agencies and environmentally oriented NGOs. The use of the license was conditional on an agreement by the receiving agency to acquire suitable hardware and assure that a reasonable number of its staff (or the equivalent thereof) would be trained to use the software.

Financially challenged organizations have been able to use this assistance to launch new systems to enable them to participate in public decision-making processes (Gibson 1998).   Karen Parrish (1998) with the Great Swamp Watershed attests graphic capabilities enabled by these basic datasets and desktop mapping software have played an important role in getting and keeping the attention of local environmental commissioners and planning board members. Perhaps, the best application of the graphic skill has been their production of a plan for the watershed's open space and greenways (Parrish and Walmsley 1997).

Factor 4: NGC - Helping those seeds see the light of day

A secondary source of support, particularly for smaller NGOs in New Jersey, is the New Jersey Non-profit GIS Community (NGC). Founded in 1996 by Doug Schleifer, the GIS specialist at the Upper Raritan Watershed Association, the NGC offers environmentally-oriented non-profit organizations "facilities with technical and conceptual support for projects requiring the use of Geographic Information Systems technology" (NGC 1997). While many of the NGC's members are environmentally-oriented, there are also "transportation management associations, community development, health, historical/cultural resource protection and regional planning organizations." The NGC also provides "training and access to GPS technology and have become a data clearinghouse to non-profits for data not formally distributed to the larger GIS community by government agencies and/or other organizations" (Schleifer 1998).

The NGC did not become a reality until it was populated by a membership of various NJ NGOs and designed to provide support for NGOs struggling with GIS problems. While the more sophisticated users in the state enjoy the NGC as a GIS users group, less sophisticated users are able to go to this group for the actual hardware and software needed for geospatial analysis.

The provision of training sessions by the NGC for members has been pivotal for these NGOs. The free ArcView license through the NJDEP required NGOs to get employees/members trained to use the software. As my experiences with the Lawrence Brook Watershed have proven, this training is neither cheap nor easily accessible. The NGC allowed its members to quickly and affordably become compliant with the NJDEP's requirements. Thus, these NGOs have been allowed to quickly start applying the technology to community problems with a level of technical sophistication that would not have otherwise been feasible.

For a NGO operating with a limited budget, the NGC's support (the training, technical advice, and hardware/software use) has been attributed as the difference between success in the GIS realm and selecting other less technical projects (Gibson 1998). A crude (but rather effective) measure of the success of this group is its membership has quickly swollen to forty New Jersey NGOs (Table 2). It holds regular user-group-style meetings in which the more advanced members present their successes and failures as lessons for others.

Outcomes of Non-Governmental Organization Efforts

As a result of the four factors, NGOs throughout the state have become very active in system development. The interplay of these factors is somewhat reminiscent of John Mayo's (1985) "push of technology" and "pull of society," which has subsequently been applied to geospatial technologies (Niemann et al. 1988). The first two societal factors play the role of "pulling" the NGOs into the state's many environmental conflicts. At the same time, the second two technological factors serve to "push" the NGOs through the problems with solutions for addressing the present conflicts.

Simply accepting the free software and data does not assure progress, which makes assessment of system outcomes an important step. The relative newness of the process described in this paper makes assessment difficult at this time, however, some anecdotal evidence demonstrates some areas in which the benefits of these efforts are emerging. Some of these benefits are direct, such as altered outcomes of public meetings, while others are indirect, like the development of a state-wide parcel mapping guide.

In many cases, NGOs are providing political and technical support for the development of systems at the municipal level. This was evident when the SMAC produced a state guidebook for parcel mapping (SMAC 1998) where the volunteer editor/coordinator and many of the contributors were NGO employees. The NGO contributors were individuals whose involvement is largely fueled by the combined efforts of the NJDEP and the NGC. Despite the assistance from both groups, the NGOs still felt the parcel handbook was an important investment of their time hoping to encourage local governments throughout the state to become more involved in the automation of this important base layer. Karen Parrish is also working to equip environmental commissioners with data for land resource-related decisions (Parrish and Patterson 1998). This indirect benefit is one way the NJDEP and NGC may have aided a broader set of geospatial system development efforts than was at first expected.

Direct benefits of the NGO systems are defined, in part, by the missions of the organizations. These organizations often are engaged in efforts to alter land-related resource allocation systems while using geospatial technologies as a tool in that process. For example, the great Swamp Watershed Association reports that their ability to produce sophisticated map products (especially in circumstances wherein the municipality lacks similar resources) has earned them greater influence in local decisions (Parrish 1998). When attending municipal planning board meetings and similar public forums, they report that the boards respond strongly to these map products, often treating them as if produced by the boards own staff. While this benefit lacks the quantitative impact of reduced staff or faster response, it creates shifts in power structures critical to the success of these NGOs.

Using exclusively public data, the author and Caroline Phillipuk, a student, have been helping the newly formed Lawrence Brook Watershed Partnership (LBWP) in its use of geospatial technologies as a means for identifying existing environmental patterns and issues within its jurisdiction. Without the NJDEP and the NGC, assistance from within Rutgers would have been too costly to perform under typical conditions. However, by building on the existing multi-coverage database from NJDEP, some preliminary datasets and map products have been developed serving to guide the LBWP in determining the role to play in its jurisdiction. More importantly, this work has been performed with the knowledge it would eventually be used to address specific issues in the watershed by forming a basis for future analysis and map production that could be performed at the NGC facilities. In this example, the NGC assisted the LBWP to become aware of its GIS potential and allowed Rutgers to help knowing the LBWP would eventually become independent.

While most of the NGOs are still in an early stage of system development, a relatively mature system is being used by the MSM Council. This group, interested in a variety of issues in Middlesex, Somerset, and Mercer Counties, New Jersey, has developed a system relied on by some municipalities (Carnegie 1998). The MSM Council's lead GIS technician, Jon Carnegie, believes that this technological resource is the reason they were allowed to participate in the development of Master Plans for both Franklin and Washington Townships. The geospatial data and technology opened the door and MSM Council was empowered then to cooperate in shaping the community Master Plans.

Working in cooperation with another NGO, the Stony Brook/Millstone Watershed Association, the MSM Council developed a database to support decision making for a major development proposal. When the contentious proposal for a new sewer service area in Hopewell, NJ was considered, this database was used as a basis for considering whether and how this area might be connected to a distant treatment facility. Carnegie (1998) suggests the MSM Council successfully used the geospatial data to apply pressure to reshape the proposal finally resulting in a smaller sewer service area. This is a simple example of how an NGO can be empowered in public decision making processes by geospatial technologies. However, these examples stand out as situations in which the participation is empowered by a group that has tools (sometimes the software, hardware, data, and expertise) that the community agencies lack.


For future studies of PPGIS, this approach provides a general template for providing a jumpstart to groups in areas that might otherwise find themselves unalterably impeded by financial limitations. However, the template is not one easily followed in some locations. Finding a lead agency to provide such high-levels of assistance and finding a central NGO to serve the others can be difficult. It is also hard to tell if the "push" of hardware, software, and data provided by the NJDEP and NGC would be enough in a region lacking the strong social "pull" of environmental problems.

These examples provide an important demonstration of the value of publicly accessible data as a possible antidote to communities (like Louisville, KY) that insist on charging exorbitant rates for access to public data in the name of cost recovery. If the NJDEP chosen a less suitable cost recovery approach, not only would most of the NGOs chosen a non-technological path, but the citizens of the state would have been deprived of the representation by the NGOs.

It seems likely that factors 1 and 2, although very specific to New Jersey, could easily be paralleled in other states or regions with similar conditions. The situation can be generalized as external forces (the environment, home rule) creating a condition in which enough demand for action existed that NGOs could generate strong grassroots support. One could also wonder whether this suggests that even a sophisticated PPGIS could be threatened by a tranquil situation in which few citizens feel compelled to participate or support their representatives (including NGOs). It also seems to suggest that under the conditions of factors 1 and 2, without the help of the NJDEP and the NGC, these citizen groups could risk marginalization when competing with other groups for resources or attempting to sway decisions.

One of the lessons here is that the open and proactive nature of the NJDEP was the first step towards democratization. This begs the question: could the first step towards broader public participation and citizen empowerment simply be encouraging more data producers to engage in the basic democratic act of free and open access?


Carnegie, Jon. (GIS Coordinator for the MSM Council) 1998. Interview with the author. November 13, 1998.

Evans, Sara M., and Harry C. Boyte. 1992. Free Spaces: the sources of democratic change in America. Harper & Row: New York.

Gibson, Andréa. (Project Coordinator for the Passaic River Coalition) 1998. Interview with the author. August 20, 1998.

Mansnerus, Laura. 1998. "Home Rule: A History of Defeat," New York Times, New Jersey Section (September 27), p. 8.

Mayo, John S. 1985. "The Evolution of Information Technologies," in Information Technologies and Social Transformation. B. R. Guile (Ed.) National Academy Press: Washington, DC.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1996a. GIS Resource Data: Southern New Jersey. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (CD-ROM) Series 1, Volume 1.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1996b. GIS Resource Data: Central New Jersey. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (CD-ROM) Series 1, Volume 2.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1996c. GIS Resource Data: Northern New Jersey. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (CD-ROM) Series 1, Volume 3.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1996d. GIS Resource Data: Tidelands Claim Maps and Integrated Freshwater Wetlands with Land Use/Land Cover. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (CD-ROM) Series 1, Volume 4.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1997e. GIS Tools for Decision Making: Mapping the Present to Preserve New Jersey's Future. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (CD-ROM) Series 2, Volume 1.

New Jersey Non-profit GIS Community. 1997. NGC Newsletter. August 1997.

Niemann, B. J., S. J. Ventura, D. D. Moyer, J. Licht, W. A. Chatterton, and H. M. Jacobs. 1988. "Research Needs: The Interaction of Land and Geographic Information System Technology and Society," In Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, 1, 1-16.

Parrish, Karen, and Anthony Walmsley. 1997. Saving Space: The Great Swamp Watershed Greenway an Open Space Plan. New Vernon, NJ: Great Swamp Watershed Association.

Parrish, Karen, and Karen Patterson. (Project director and GIS Specialist for the Great Swamp Watershed Association) 1998. Interview with the author. August 26, 1998.

Parrish, Karen (ed.). 1998. Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook. Parcel Mapping Subcommittee, State Mapping Advisory Committee and Great Swamp Watershed Association.

Schleifer, Douglas. 1998. Interview with the author. August 20, 1998.

Sieber, R. E. 1997. Computers in the Grassroots: Environmentalists, Geographic Information Systems, and Public Policy. Ph.D. Dissertation, Rutgers University, May 1997.

Tulloch, David. 1997. A Theoretical Model of the Life Cycle of Community Multipurpose Land Information Systems Development. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, May 1997.

Wolch, Jennifer R. 1990. The Shadow State: Government and Voluntary Sector in Transition. The Foundation Center: New York.

Table 1 - Broad categories of Land Use/Cover, based on 1986 NJ DEP Anderson classification from aerial photography, showing the distribution of land covers in New Jersey
Land Cover Classification Category
Square Miles
Percentage of NJ

(including residential, commercial, industrial, military and transportation)


(including cropland, pasture, cranberry bogs, and orchards)


(including forests, scrubland, wetlands, and coastal areas)

Other human-altered landscapes

(including mining and transitional landscapes)


Table 2 -- A list of the forty environmental non-governmental organizations (and their preferred acronyms) that are currently members of the New Jersey Non-profit GIS Community. This list illustrates the broad variety of organizations engaged in application of these technologies with the assistance of the NGC.
Association of NJ Environmental Commissions (ANJEC)   Mid-State Health Advisory Corporation (MSHAC)
Bergen (SWAN) Save the Watershed Action Network  (BSWAN)   MSM Regional Council (MSM)
Building Environmental Education Solutions, Inc.  (BEES)   Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA)
Center for Environmental Responsibility  (CER)   The Nature Conservancy of NJ (TNCNJ)
Delaware & Raritan Greenway  (DRG)   Newark Environmental Coalition  (NEC)
Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space  (FHVOS)   NJ Audubon Society  (NJAS)
Friends of Monmouth Battlefield  (FMB)   NJ Community Water Watch (NJCWW)
Friends of the Rockaway River (FORR)   NJ Conservation Foundation  (NJCF)
GeoEnvironmental Research (GER)   NJ RailTrails  (NJRT)
Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association  (GMTMA)   NJ Water Supply Authority  (NJWSA)
Greater Newark Conservancy  (GNC)   NY/NJ Baykeeper  (NJBAY)
Great Swamp Watershed Association (GSWA)   Oldmans Creek Watershed Association  (OCWA)
Green Pond Environmental Foundation (GPEF)   Passaic River Coalition  (PRC)
Heritage Conservancy (Doylestown, PA) (HC)   Rancocas Conservancy  (RC)
Highlands Iron Conservancy  (HIC)   Ridge and Valley Conservancy  (RVC)
Isles, Inc.  (ISLES)   Sierra Club Coalition of Rutgers University (SC)
Keep Middlesex Moving  (KMM)   Soil and Water Conservation Society- Firman E. Bear Chapter (SWCS)
Lawrence Brook Watershed Partnership (LBWP)   South Branch Watershed Association  (SBWA)
Meadowlinks Meadowlands Transportation Brokerage Corporation (MLINKS)   Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (SBMWA)
Morris Parks and Land Conservancy (MPLC)   Upper Raritan Watershed Association (URWA)

Figure 1 - A generalized map of Land Use/Cover, based on 1986 NJ DEP Anderson classification derived from aerial photography, showing the spatial distribution of land covers in New Jersey. The image includes a dark green outline of the New Jersey Pinelands Management District.

Figure 2 - A map showing New Jersey's 566 municipalities which provide complete areal coverage of the state. This pattern of jurisdiction is a product of the state's tradition of strong home rule that stymies many attempts at improved environmental planning.