Participatory Mapping: Best Practices, Tools, and Examples

October 11, 2023
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Urban planners can’t just rely on their expert knowledge when making critical decisions. It’s already commonplace that cities should be planned for and with people, having the goals of sustainability, happiness, and well-being in mind.

Participatory mapping is one of the methods for engaging communities in the planning process. In this blog post, we will explore the concept and the phases of participatory mapping, key types and tools, its pros and cons, and best practices for including mapping exercises into the planning process.

What is Participatory Mapping? The Definition(s)

As always, there is no precise definition that would sum up all the different functions of participatory mapping and the ways planners and researchers implement it. 

Participatory mapping is a process in which community members contribute their own experiences, relationships, information, and ideas about a place to the creation of a map.
Cochrane and Corbett, 2018 

What we need to add is that participatory mapping is always a collaborative process that is used for the collection, analysis, and representation of spatial data. It empowers communities to share their knowledge and needs and, by doing so, influence future planning decisions. 

As a result, you are getting a map of an area that represents values and perceptions — the intangible knowledge of the locals — that goes far beyond socio-demographic data. Then, planners and researchers better understand the challenges and needs of the community and use these insights directly in the planning process.

The area of interest and the engaged audience can vary in scale — from a block of streets with a hundred residents to a neighborhood to a crowded city. The process is versatile, and with the right combination of tools and questions, you’ll get valuable insights for making planning decisions.

Let’s take a closer look at the tools and methods used in participatory mapping.

Methods and Tools in Participatory Mapping

Instead of listing dozens of tools and service providers, let’s have a look at the framework behind various participatory mapping methods.

a framework for participatory mapping: types of engagement and tools
The framework shows the types and tools of participatory mapping. Copyright: Maptionnaire.

First, the engagement can happen remotely and in person, and while remote participation is chiefly enabled by digital solutions, in-person engagement can combine analog and digital tools. Also, instead of thinking about participation exclusively as a group vs. individual activity, it’s more fruitful to differentiate between synchronous and asynchronous participation. 

Often, no single solution will fit the preferences of all your target audiences, so it’s beneficial to organize a few concurrent activities: for example, combine asynchronous online surveys with in-person workshops that use the same map-based survey for participatory mapping. During an in-person engagement workshop, participants can receive additional guidance when doing the mapping exercise, while an online mapping survey will reach a broader and more diverse audience. 

When it comes to the tools themselves, there are two most common options: tabletop mapping and online map-based surveys (based on PPGIS technology). 

Tabletop mapping

Are colorful pens, stickers, a map of the area, and a few blank sheets of paper all you need? Don’t forget about the cost of renting a room, advertising the event, securing a few facilitators, and providing refreshments for participants. 

Although tabletop mapping seems easy and cheap to organize, it can end up being costly. Also, there is always a limited number of participants who can join one event, so you might need to repeat the process several times, which raises the cost per engaged individual.

Nevertheless, analog participatory mapping activities (when done synchronously) are engaging and fun and they nurture the feeling of connectedness among the participants. You can also ensure that each participant gets immediate assistance.

However, the biggest downside of a tabletop mapping exercise is the low data quality: the results are hard to categorize, analyze, and digitize. And in most cases, planners and researchers need the data in a digital format to report the results and include the data in further planning processes. Map-based surveys, on the other hand, are quite advantageous in this respect.

Map-based surveys (aka PPGIS)

In a map-based survey, participants answer questions about a certain area by pointing out features on a digital map. In Maptionnaire — a participatory mapping platform based on PPGIS technology — one can answer by drawing a point, a line, or an area to any questions determined by the organizers. 

For example, participants can mark their most visited institutions in a community, draw a favorite recreational route, and circle an area where they feel the least safe. On top of each map-based question, participants can answer follow-up questions, for example, why this area feels unsafe or what infrastructure improvements are needed along the route. In Maptionnaire, participants can also upload photos and other files (e.g., audio) as an answer.

youth engaging in participatory mapping on a smartphone with maptionnaire
Digital participatory mapping tools like Maptionnaire make engagement easy and exciting, especially for the youth. Copyright: Maptionnaire.

Furthermore, online map-based surveys can combine the participatory mapping activity with conventional survey questions (e.g., multiple-choice questions and sliders) and questions about background information.

So how do you get started? You need a platform that lets you design a map-based survey. Google Forms or Survey Monkey lack mapping capabilities — unlike Maptionnaire which has map-based functions at its heart. Maptionnaire has a flexible subscription system, so just drop us a line and we’ll prepare an offer for you. Once the survey is ready, some effort and budget must be reserved for outreach. Then, you simply monitor the data collection process and analyze the final results. Given that there is no limit to the number of participants (in one of the projects, a Maptionnaire survey engaged more than 35,000 people), the cost per engaged person is much lower than in tabletop mapping exercises.

What’s more, Maptionnaire’s participatory mapping tools are proven to be easy, fun, and clear. Many participants value that they can fill in the survey at their own pace and often from the comfort of their homes. An additional bonus is that individual and asynchronous participation (usually enabled by digital mapping tools) is less biased since participants are not influenced by others’ answers.

But the key advantage of map-based surveys (at least those done with Maptionnaire) is that the resulting data is fully digitized and is available as a GIS dataset. The data is easy to export to any other planning or analysis tool or archive for further reference. Also, Maptionnaire has in-built analysis and reporting tools that enable you to analyze data without extensive GIS knowledge.

Another common misconception about digital tools is that they don’t allow for any facilitation and support (meaning that participants are left with their questions and problems alone). However, you can always include contact details for those who need support and record walk-through videos to familiarize participants with the tool.

Phases of Participatory Mapping

  • Define the objective of the participatory mapping project and your target audience
  • Decide on the method and the tool (the combination works best, otherwise go with digital mapping tools for a broader outreach) 
  • Design the mapping survey or an analog mapping exercise & test
  • Spread the news about the process: use the channels where your audience hangs out and ask for help from local stakeholders
  • Collect data and facilitate the process 
  • Analyze data 
  • Communicate the results both to participants and stakeholders
  • Take action based on the learnings

Pros and Cons of Participatory Mapping


1. Community Engagement
Participatory mapping fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment among residents. It allows them to actively participate in shaping their neighborhoods, which enables planners to design more sustainable and community-driven solutions.

2. Local Knowledge
Communities possess invaluable local knowledge that may not be accessible through traditional planning methods. Participatory mapping captures this often intangible knowledge, helping planners make more informed decisions.

3. Transparency
The process is transparent and democratic, enhancing trust between planners and the community. This can lead to better cooperation and long-term partnerships.

4. Data Analysis and Visualization
Participatory mapping produces spatial data that is understood almost intuitively and is impactful within the planning process. When using tabletop mapping, you’ll spend some time digitizing the results, but digital PPGIS mapping tools provide a smooth transition from data gathering to analysis.

5. Data Specificity
Participants can give more specific information about a location when they can point it on a map instead of describing the location in words. In their turn, planners get an exact location (and not an abstract description). With Maptionnaire, all the participatory mapping data is stored in a GIS-backed format.  


1. Resource Intensive
Implementing participatory mapping can require quite some time and budget from the organizers. Using online mapping tools like Maptinnaire actually lowers the cost per engaged person and saves you time by resulting in digitization and analysis (so the subscription costs pay off).

2. Data Quality
Ensuring the accuracy and reliability of community-contributed data can be challenging during analog mapping exercises. It’s tedious to transfer the results onto a digital map and structure all the post-its — digital mapping tools alleviate these troubles.

3. Limited Representation
There is a risk of excluding marginalized groups who may not have access to technology or be able to participate in workshops due to language and cultural barriers — or simply because they don’t have time. Consider inclusivity issues and opt for several engagement methods that would include as many diverse groups and states as possible.

4. Overcrowded Data
It’s easy for participants to go with the flow and share a lot of experiences and ideas during a participatory mapping exercise — even if these insights are outside of the scope of the project. Also, if asking too many questions, the resulting map can easily become overcrowded. To avoid these challenges, focus on a few most relevant issues. 

5. Mapping and digital literacy
Lack of digital and mapping skills can prevent some people from engaging. Therefore, include guidelines, organize service points, share contact information, and opt for a variety of methods. It doesn’t mean that you have to steer away from using digital tools — use a combination of methods to engage all demographics within the community.

Best Practices for Better Results

Here are a few learnings that will help you maximize the benefits of participatory mapping in urban planning projects.

1. Reach out to your community on their terms

Engage with community leaders and organizations to ensure a diverse and representative group of participants. Use multiple outreach methods to reach a broad audience.

2. Communicate clearly and in the right languages

Communicate the goals, process, and expected outcomes of the participatory mapping project to participants in a clear and accessible manner. Cities are rarely monolingual these days, so include communications in most of the used languages.

3. Offer training and support

Provide training and ongoing support to community members and planners involved in the mapping process. This will help ensure data accuracy and enhance the capacity of all stakeholders.

4. Ensure the data makes an impact

Integrate community-contributed data with existing datasets and professional analysis to make informed decisions. This is much easier to achieve if most of the data comes automatically in a GIS-backed format that feeds easily into other planning software. Also, check that data privacy and security are maintained.

5. Close the feedback loop

Establish a feedback loop to share project outcomes with the community, demonstrating the impact of their contributions and fostering a sense of accomplishment. Maptionnaire’s engagement pages are a  fantastic tool to keep your community up-to-date with participation opportunities and results. 

6. Assess the effectiveness

How successful has the exercise been? Have you engaged the right people, has the data been used properly? Consider setting up a few KPIs for community engagement to follow throughout the process.

Participatory Mapping Examples

We learn best from examples — so here is a list of planning projects that used participatory mapping for citizen engagement and data collection. In all cases, the results have been incredibly impactful, while the exercise itself nurtured the feelings of trust and shared responsibility among the participants.

Your Takeaway

  1. Participatory mapping is a transformative approach that bridges the gap between urban planners and researchers, on the one hand, and local communities and stakeholders, on the other.
  2. By employing participatory mapping and embracing the power of local knowledge and technology, planners can create more inclusive, sustainable, and community-driven urban environments. 
  3. By following best practices and continually refining the participatory mapping process, planners and researchers can harness the full potential of citizen knowledge and make cities better places for all.

Do you want to use a digital participatory mapping tool for your next engagement activity?

Maptionnaire is an engagement platform with spatial features at its heart, used by hundreds of planners and researchers worldwide.
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