Research into Practice

Pros & Cons of Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) in Urban Planning

March 24, 2021
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Maptionnaire 10 years

Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS) is a collection of digital tools that allow planners to solicit online, map-based data.

This article explores how PPGIS can help urban planners solve these and other challenges of community engagement.            

Maptionnaire 10 years
This blog is a part of our 10-year anniversary series. The series explores community engagement research, and translates findings into practical ideas.

Introduction: Towards More Influential Urban Planning with PPGIS

Incorporating public participation into regional and urban planning offers an array of potential benefits: it can lead to more just and equitable planning processes and outcomes, make public officials accountable to community input, and increase the quality of planning decisions.

However, launching and managing public participation processes poses several challenges in front of urban planners: it’s hard to reach out to the wider public and gain representative results. It’s often hard to make use of public participation data in planning projects.

PPGIS offer a potential avenue for addressing these challenges of public participatory planning. PPGIS have been increasingly taken up by planners, researchers and municipalities in an effort to reach a broader public and enhance their participatory planning processes.

Not familiar with the term PPGIS? Here we explain what PPGIS and participatory planning are. Also check this article about various uses of GIS in urban planning.

What Are The Primary Challenges of Participatory Urban Planning?

While public participation is quite common in contemporary urban and regional planning, traditional methods of soliciting public feedback can be difficult. There are three primary challenges in running public participation in the planning process.

Challenge 1: Effectively Arranging Public Participation

Motivational factors play a role in facilitating public participation.
Motivational factors play a role in facilitating public participation.

Researchers identify three primary motivations for facilitating active participation:

  • A pragmatic recognition that participatory planning fosters better decisions that are more likely to be implemented.
  • The normative notion that people's participation in decisions that affect them is a democratic right.
  • A desire to promote trust amongst stakeholders.

While planners are often driven by the motivation to enhance democracy and promote trust, there has been some neglect of the pragmatic aspects. Recognizing these could highlight their relevance to the planning process and encourage planners to take a more context-sensitive approach to participation.

Additionally, the availability of digital tools to facilitate public participation has been held back somewhat because developers tend not to be aware of the end-user needs of planners and participants in planning processes. There are also barriers to digitalization that arise from tensions between planning practice and law. Finally, individual planners' own ideas concerning digitalization and their ability to influence their organization to implement it vary.

Challenge 2: The Ability to Reach a Broad Spectrum of People

People who choose to participate in planning processes do so as a personal choice, presenting their opinion either individually or as part of a larger collective. However, the choice to not participate does not necessarily mean that the individual is indifferent; silence can be caused by a variety of factors, including lack of access to the means of feedback. This can be because typical techniques to facilitate participation do not effectively support a diversity of input.

However, digital tools offer a method for broadening participation. There is evidence that digital tools attract different sets of participants than traditional methods, so they should complement, not replace those methods. Broadening participation and increasing response rates also depends on the survey design and planned outreach for stakeholder engagement, which are much more manageable with digital tools.

If these tools are effective, they can turn the voice of a crowd into a source of wisdom and evidence for planning processes. In order to do this successfully, such tools should support a diversity of opinion, preserve the independence of participants from the influence of others, allow participants to draw on their personal and local knowledge, and provide a means of aggregating individual opinions into a collective decision.

Challenge 3: Producing High-quality and Versatile Knowledge                    

Residents are the place-based experts of their cities.
Residents are the place-based experts of their cities.

Residents have strong attachments to the places they live, and effective participatory planning practices should reflect this.

In particular, participatory planning should capture not only "objective" knowledge about places but also residents' subjective attachments and social concerns. This is a knowledge-informed model of planning as opposed to evidence-based that only relies on "objective" knowledge.

Knowledge-informed planning acknowledges that data collected may be contradictory, and relies on a deliberative process to elaborate and reconcile knowledge. In turn, this deliberative process can generate new knowledge.

Adding a place component to the participatory planning process makes the knowledge gained potentially more usable and influential. However, questions about data quality and translating experiential knowledge to the formal planning process remain.

How Does PPGIS Address These Challenges in Real-world Applications?

Kahila-Tani, Kyttä and Geertman (2019) examined 203 case studies in which planners and practitioners used Maptionnaire as a PPGIS platform. Maptionnaire allows anyone to create, publish, and analyze map-based questionnaires.

These Maptionnaire surveys were carried out between 2014 and 2017. Each had a minimum of 20 participants, and was an average of 6.4 survey pages in length. The surveys were left open to participants for an average of 164 days, and contained an average of 33.7 map-based and traditional survey questions. 60% of the surveys were carried out in Finland, with the remainder distributed among a variety of other countries.

The most common languages of the surveys were Finnish and English. Most were monolingual but a small proportion were offered in multiple languages. The study also included a review of other Maptionnaire projects that incorporated feedback from users and comments on PPGIS tools by attendees of the 2017 Metrix conference in Helsinki. 

The results shed light on how PPGIS can address the challenges that face public participatory planning more broadly.

Solution 1: Usability of PPGIS for Public Participation

Transparency in community engagement is ever more important.
Transparency in community engagement is ever more important.

In general, PPGIS has been enthusiastically taken up by the planning sector. Most major Finnish cities currently use PPGIS tools in their planning and management efforts.

PPGIS was rated as highly usable by planners, who cited better collection, presentation and processing of data as well as increased transparency in the overall planning process.

PPGIS was most commonly used in initiation and evaluation phases of planning, but appeared during other phases as well, suggesting that it is flexible enough to be deployed throughout the planning process. The ability of PPGIS datasets to be archived and referenced later also enables the comparison of results between multiple surveys carried out over time in the same place.

Two potential pitfalls of PPGIS in organizing public participation arose:

  • First, the most common users by far of PPGIS are city planning officials rather than grassroots and community actors. This means that while PPGIS can strengthen top-down participation, its usefulness in fostering bottom-up engagement is less clear. However, PPGIS does offer the potential for these perspectives to be bridged by providing a platform where different perspectives can be visualised together.
  • Second, there is the potential for PPGIS to be misused if planners simply rely on its innovative renovation or use it out of a sense of obligation to solicit public feedback rather than investing in its possibilities for good-quality data collection and analysis.

Solution 2: Reaching More People

In general, the Maptionnaire PPGIS platform generated a wealth of user involvement: 203 surveys engaged a total 94,757 participants (an average of 467 per survey), who collectively mapped 286,703 points, lines and polygons. Nearly three-quarters of the surveys were directed towards residents, with most of the rest targeting decision makers or other project actors. Only 4% of the surveys involved NGOs, associations, and other expert groups affected by the planning project the survey was based on.                  

Younger people are easier to engage with online tools like Maptionnaire.
Younger people are easier to engage with online tools like Maptionnaire.

In terms of representativeness, some surveys attracted a good range of socioeconomic and geographic diversity while others struggled. Some surveys saw overrepresentations of middle-aged women or young adults, both populations not typically reached through more traditional methods of public participation.

PPGIS seems to be particularly successful in attracting children and young people, both groups underrepresented in traditional participatory processes.

Surveys with good representation seemed to be those that involved large datasets and that sent personal invitations to participants selected through random sampling rather than surveys that relied on open marketing to attract participants. While open marketing remains a primary means of soliciting participation, it is possible to combine targeting and open recruitment and compare the results received.

Given PPGIS's use of digital technology, however, there is the potential for digital divide issues to crop up and exclude participants who can't access or use web-based technologies. There are other potential accessibility issues as well, such as language or visual ability. The Maptionnaire platform can be adapted to make it more accessible to a wider range of audiences, such as the elderly or speakers of non-majority languages.

Surveys in Maptionnaire can also incorporate branching questions that dynamically adjust the survey to participants' responses, tailoring questions in the same survey to different groups. 

Solution 3: Producing Different Kinds of Data 

PPGIS allows for the collection of a variety of data: qualitative and quantitative, map-based and traditional surveys, scientific and comment-based data. This versatility offers considerable potential but also raises potential issues for data quality. For example, there are potential problems with geographic accuracy of responses. Matching a response to a specific geographic element, especially for users who have difficulty navigating or interpreting maps.  Nevertheless, previous studies of PPGIS accuracy have showed relatively high levels of spatial accuracy. In addition, Maptionnaire allows for an address finder to be included in surveys, potentially enhancing accuracy.

One proxy for data quality is to measure the effort that the participant puts into the survey through frequency of mappings. On average, participants across the cases generated 7 mappings, indicating a satisfactory degree of engagement. Maptionnaire also provides methods to increase data quality: for example, lists presented in questions can be randomized to avoid bias based on the order of responses. Participants' anonymity can be preserved, encouraging them offer more reliable and honest answers. There is also the ability to hide other participants' responses, so that they do not influence the user's response.

Analyzing PPGIS datasets can be challenging; in addition to the potential complexity of the data gathered, there is the potential for cherry-picking advantageous or convenient responses. At the same time, PPGIS offers the possibility of combining experiential, subjective geographic knowledge with "hard" GIS used in city planning, creating opportunities for innovative forms of analysis.

PPGIS also tends to solicit positive place-based comments, compared to traditional public participatory planning processes which often generate negative feedback. Overall, the data gained from PPGIS has the potential to complement other data sets and be an influential source of knowledge for planning.

Key Points of Using PPGIS for Urban Planning

  1. Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS) offers a set of tools that can address some of the challenges inherent in public participatory planning.
  2. Effectively arranging public participation, reaching a broad swath of the public, and creating high-quality public knowledge are the three primary challenges that PPGIS has the potential to address.
  3. Based on an analysis of 203 cases of public participatory planning, PPGIS offers some potential solutions to the above challenges - although not without creating some possible pitfalls.
  4. The potential advantages and disadvantages of PPGIS are highly context-dependent, and there is a need for multiple complementary approaches to public planning processes that make use of PPGIS while shoring up its weaknesses.

Further reading:


Source: Kahila-Tani, M., Kyttä, M., & Geertman, S. (2019). Does mapping improve public participation? Exploring the pros and cons of using public participation GIS in urban planning practices. LANDSCAPE AND URBAN PLANNING, 186, 45-55.

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