The participatory creation of maps, above and beyond their interpretation, started in the late ‘1980s. At that time, development practitioners were inclined to adopt Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods (i.e. sketch mapping) rather than venturing into more complex, demanding and time consuming scale mapping. Preference was given to eliciting indigenous knowledge and utilizing local community dynamics to facilitate communication between insiders and outsiders (researchers). The strategies placed little emphasis on charting courses of action that enabled communities to interact efficiently with policymakers. In some developing countries, aerial photography, satellite imagery and official large scale topographic maps were under governmental control and their access restricted because of national security concerns.
The situation changed in the ‘90s, with the diffusion of modern spatial information technologies including geographic information systems (GIS), low-cost global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing image analysis software, open access to data via the Internet and steadily decreasing cost of computer hardware. Spatial data, previously controlled by government institutions became progressively more accessible to and mastered by non-governmental and community-based organizations, minority groups and sectors of society traditionally disenfranchised by maps and marginalized from decision making processes. This new environment facilitated the integration of geographic information technologies and systems (GIT&S) into community-centered initiatives.
The NCGIA Varenius Initiative in North America, “Social Implications of How People, Space, and Environment are Represented in GIS”, beginning in 1996, critically assessed standard GIS, and found it significantly wanting in many dimensions, – in ‘objectivity’, value-neutrality, access, ownership, democratic representation, control, privacy, confidentiality, ethics and public service values. This supported on-going calls for the development and legitimization of an ‘alternative GIS incorporating people’s participation’.
Practitioners and researchers around the world all sharing the goal of empowering the underprivileged adopted a variety of GIT&S to integrate multiple realities and diverse forms of information to foster social learning, support two-way communication and broaden public participation across socio-economic contexts, locations and sectors. This has spurred a rapid development in community-based management of spatial information through what is generally termed Participatory GIS (PGIS).
PGIS is the result of a spontaneous merger of Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) methods with GIT&S. PGIS practice is based on using geo-spatial information management tools ranging from sketch maps, Participatory 3D Models (P3DM), aerial photographs, satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to compose peoples’ spatial knowledge in the forms of virtual or physical, 2 or 3 dimensional maps used as interactive vehicles for discussion, information exchange, analysis and as support in advocacy and decision making. GIS is used mainly as computer cartography with limited GIS functionality. Users employ the outputs mainly as media (re: the power of the map!) to support their arguments.
PGIS practice is usually geared towards community empowerment through demand-driven, user-friendly and integrated applications of geoinformation and GIT, In which obviously, maps and map products become primary conduits. The practice is multidisciplinary, integrating outside experts with socially- and gender-differentiated local knowledge experts. And it builds on high levels of stakeholders´ participation in the processes of spatial learning, decision making, and action.
Georeferencing and visualising ´indigenous spatial knowledge’ (ISK) help communities to engage in peer-to-peer dialogues and promotes their issues and concerns vis-à-vis higher level authorities and economic forces. The integrated and multifaceted process of which PGIS is a component, gives communities confidence in interacting with outsiders and adds authority to local knowledge.
PGIS practice is usually geared towards community empowerment through measured, demand-driven, user-friendly and integrated applications of GIT&S, where maps become a major conduit in the process. The practice is multidisciplinary in nature, relies on the integration of ‘expert’ with socially and gender differentiated local knowledge, and builds on high levels of stakeholders’ participation in the processes of spatial learning, analysis, decision making and action.
PGIS practice has to be embedded into long-lasting interventions in the position to support stakeholders in jointly pursuing set objectives and to eventually deal with conflict resulting from new realities which may emerge from the process (e.g. delineating a static, linear boundary defining access to resources in a context of overlapping / seasonal pastoralist / farming land uses).
Geo-referencing and visualising Indigenous Spatial Knowledge (ISK) helps communities engage in peer-to-peer dialogues and promotes their issues and concerns vis-à-vis higher level authorities and economic forces. Georeferenced ISK is also used in more adversarial contexts like in the case of tenure mapping where indigenous communities have adapted participatory mapping methodologies to regain a maximum measure of control over ancestral lands and resources.
The integrated and multifaceted process of which PGIS is a component, gives communities confidence in interacting with outsiders and adds authority to local knowledge. In fact, there is power associated with the practice as ‘flashy’ map outputs can be highly communicative forms of spatial representation, communicate information easily, convey a sense of authority and are rarely disputed.
As a result, if appropriately utilized, the practice may have profound implications and stimulate innovation and social change. More importantly and unlike traditional GIS applications, PGIS aims at placing control on access and use of culturally sensitive spatial data in the hands of those who generated these thereby protecting traditional knowledge and wisdom from external exploitation.
Source: Rambaldi G., McCall M., Weiner D., Mbile P. and Kyem P. (2004) Overview: Mapping for Change – the emergence of a new practice, PLA 54, IIED, UK