An Examination of Participatory GIS: Evidence for Volunteered Geographic Information as a Valid Approach to Data Acquisition & the Integration of Indigenous Information & Perspective in the Total Framework of Knowledge
I. Overview of the Idea
The standard procedures of data collection carried out in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been challenged – particularly in respect to their collective and moral scope – since the inception of the discipline. With exclusive employment of traditional methods, limitations in knowledge procurement and in the attainment of a holistic and multidimensional understanding of the world result. In order to counter these subsequent limitations, the practice and development of a more culturally cognizant science must be engaged.
Why Indigenous Knowledge?
The necessity for the incorporation and analysis of local knowledge stems from the notion of respect for all interpretations of the world around us. More specifically, the recognition that the democratization of structured and hierarchically-based sources of information would inevitably yield the expansion and enhancement of our current framework of knowledge. Additonally, a science that focuses on providing both a platform for indigenous voices as well as validity to native spatial knowledge promotes the proliferation of cultural preservation and community empowerment.
If indigenous knowledge is to be discredited or excluded in Geographic Information Technologies (GIT), a truly comprehensive representation of the world is rendered impossible. Strict and sole adherence to traditional information sources and techniques of acquisition can also be dangerous in that they – whether consciously or not – encourage ethnocentric philosophies. Furthermore, inclusion of all perspectives and practices encourages historically marginalized individuals to participate via communication of personal knowledge and therefore can play an active role in major decision-making processes in which they are principal stakeholders.
How Does PGIS Involve Indigenous Voices?
In seeing the union of indigenous spatial information and GIS as integral to a complete and all-inclusive development of the science, questions of how to attain local intelligence are raised. Participatory GIS (PGIS) integrates the technology and information management devices of GIS with socially and geographically constructed knowledge. It is described as a “newer approach… [that is] context – and issue – driven rather than technology-led and seek[s] to emphasize community involvement in the production and/or use of geographical information…[while simultaneously] celebrat[ing] the multiplicity of geographical realities rather than the disembodied, objective and technical ‘solutions’ which have tended to characterize many conventional GIS applications”(Dunn 616-637). In effect, by way of community involvement, PGIS aims to effectively merge ‘expert’ abilities and technologies with regionalized local information.
II. Evolution of PGIS
Participatory GIS is recognized as an evolving practice. Notable figures in the foundation of PGIS include Daniel Weiner and Trevor Harris who attempted to respond to criticisms of GIS pertaining to issues of authority, management of information and surveillance when they “pioneer[ed] attempts to devise alternative approaches” of data acquisition (Dunn). In general, the 1990s was an era for cooperation and innovation in terms of GI Systems and researchers focused on eliminating the limitations associated with traditional “top-down” methods in GIS and that collaboration has continued and progressed ever since.
Researcher Nancy Obermeyer’s explanation of “characteristics of early conventional GIS in terms of the organizational, technical and theoretical conditions of the time in which they were developed” (Dunn) underscores the reasons for critiques of GIS and the need for an amalgamation of both other sources and alternative means of data attainment. Obermeyer states that GIS practices primarily have entailed “white males employed in academic and governmental institutions in North America and Europe” (Dunn, Corbett) which inherently proves to be problematic in efforts to map and/or create a truthful illustration of the knowledge of the world. It is in part with this acknowledgment of the limitations that can ensue from conventionally accepted sources of information that the concept of PGIS flourishes and subsists as an integral component of geographic research, ideology and practice.
III. What Constitutes Volunteered Geographic Information?
In attempts to deliver a “people’s perspective” of the world’s knowledge, Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) is consequently brought about. VGI is defined as any “collection of geographically relevant information provided voluntarily by individuals…[that is] enabled by emerging technologies centered around the Web…[and facilitates] large-scale geographic discovery not possible before” (Newsam). Volunteered Geographic Information can effectively range anywhere from personal stories to photographs and videos, to any other social media. It is due to the fact that these multifaceted sources of data are associated with some degree of estimated locality that they can be inferred geographically (Newsam). VGI redefines GIS in that it transforms into a science for the people, constructed by the people – again ensuring that a truly broad and complete depiction of knowledge is attained.
Analysis, Empowerment & A Warning
Participatory GIS and Volunteered Geographic Information can effectively redraw and redefine the fixed and accepted structure and boundaries of societies. Since VGI adopts the notions of a “people’s perspective,” perceived, cultural or ambiguous boundaries often times emerge. These socially constructed boundaries can reveal patterns and outline mental templates of individual groups or communities. These patterns then have the propensity to aid in various geographic analyses such as the dispersal of information or how to measure the effects of an increasingly globalized world. The emergence of patterns leads to the understanding of how knowledge corresponds with location and in identifying the patterns potentially highlighted with the use of VGI, comparisons in location and the knowledge found there can be conducted. An example of how this might surface as valuable and relates to indigenous knowledge exists with the examination of how perhaps incidence rates of disease X are lower in region Y (an area characterized by indigenous knowledge) as opposed to region Z (an area characterized by conventional knowledge) perhaps in part due to local knowledge regarding natural remedies. Here, knowledge is compartmentalized according to location and upon analysis, could have the potential to thwart disease.
As aformentioned, PGIS also provides an opportunity for the empowerment of oppressed individuals or groups. People who may be traditionally marginalized perhaps in part due to their rejection or dissension of western culture are reincorporated into the framework of knowledge with PGIS and VGI. Communities, individuals and their knowledge are intrinsically revered in the process of PGIS and are consequently empowered through the mere fact that they are provided with a voice and their information is integrated, absorbed and adopted into a database of knowledge.
A more specific — perhaps bias — example includes the ever-evolving reminders of the Earth's sensitivity. At some point, the intrinsic understanding of the interconnectedness that exists among all things was seemingly stifled as “at any cost” energy production was implemented, water sources disappeared and domineering attitudes toward animals developed. It is worth considering that perhaps if the knowledge of indigenous cultures that emphasized the importance to live within simple means, preserve for future generations and to respect and share resources with all life forms was more formally included or open-mindedly accepted, certain environmental issues of the present could have been minimized or avoided altogether. Specifically, in the case of the increasingly disappearing traditions of the Hawaiians, a definite sensitivity, understanding and respect of the Earth and circle of life is evident in their system of Aha Moku. Much of the backbone of the Hawaiian culture involves the depiction of Gods and Goddesses as forces of nature. It is in this understanding that there lies much to be learned. The environmental pressures the Hawaiian islands face in modern times and the way in which the Hawaiian's culture was not only excluded in the realm of knowledge, but ignored and even outlawed, serves as an example for how dangerous it can be to deem unfamiliar knowledge sources as primitive or unworthy.
V. Criticism & Attempts at Counteraction
As with most any methodology or scientific approach, potential problems arise and opposition ensues. With PGIS these criticism surface specifically in reference to the legitimacy of its contributors. Issues can continue in the absence of attribution information and the challenges that exist in converting thick, descriptive data into definite – often categorical – information or attributes appropriate for a quantitative data-based system – such as ArcGIS or ArcMap.
Legitimizing Alternative Suppliers of Knowledge
Fundamental qualifications or degrees of expertise are often required in the production and collection of geographic information. In the case of PGIS, VGI – and consequently indigenous knowledge – data is supplied devoid of reference or citation in some instances. Michael Goodchild, a long-term researcher in the examination of VGI and questions relating to its validity, summarizes the principal reasons for accepting VGI as credible by discussing who it is that is volunteering their geographic knowledge. Typically, individuals who have some sort of connection to the geographic location in focus, those that wish to promote a certain idea or mindset or those who are interested in “self-promotion” are the ones with clear motivation for contribution in PGIS (Goodchild). It is because of this, that authenticity of the information procured in PGIS and via VGI is often times suspect. However, Goodchild continues on in his discussion by stating “VGI efforts are driven by the kinds of altruism inherent in any kind of voluntary community effort” (Goodchild). It is with this notion and belief in a universal integrity that a general sense of trust and confidence is deemed relatively essential in the utilization of VGI. Additionally, in the case of ethnographically rendered information, reference and citation can be provided and validated by the explanation as to who provided the information and how they fit into the position of an expert geographically.
Trial & Error with Structuring the Unstructured (Interpretive Attributes)
In efforts to combine the rich, often ethnographic information rendered from VGI with GIS technologies, the notion of ‘interpretive attributes’ is formed. In a personal experiment with alternative information sources – specifically what photographs of the South African landscape can reveal about the social composition of the region – examination of how photographs can offer an increased understanding by supplementing existing information was carried out. Additionally, the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and the capacity for a complex problem to be expressed within a single image was adopted and investigated. The fact that photos have the ability to make the retention of data a faster and easier process was also highlighted in the experiment. Certain details captured within each photograph used in the project were defined via what would translate into a feature class or attribute in the attribute table component of a program such as ArcMap. Further analysis of what each attribute essentially means about the South African setting was then conducted based on local knowledge regarding operational, climatic and other cultural components of the region via a survey. Through trial and error with translating information in narrative form into unambiguous and structured data, it became clear that the fusion of qualitative data and a quantitative system is anything but clear-cut and effortless. Additionally, the capacity for photographs to be more relatable or tied to emotion drew attention to how alternative data sources and forms (photographs or personal narratives in contrast to restricted data forms) can have an increased propensity to bring about real social change by means of their potential for depth and complexity.
An Example for Why Regard Indigenous Knowledge: Community Baboon Sanctuary
Ethnographically rendered geographic information was collected in the Central American country of Belize in another attempt to showcase how indigenous knowledge and perspective is essential to attain. The information collected in this project revealed the realities of the public sentiment toward various community environmental programs with goals to benefit both native species – Black Howler Monkeys (locally referred to as baboons) – and the surrounding member communities. After generalizing and categorizing (into successful and unsuccessful) community resident’s answers to questionnaires regarding the perceived ‘success rate’ of the various environmental sanctuaries, the programs were mapped. Additionally, analyses regarding the correlation of location and perceived success rate of sanctuaries was carried out. Not only did certain patterns emerge regarding the direct correlation of the declination of success with the distance of individual communities from the ‘hub’ of the sanctuary, but the fact that individuals who did not feel the benefits promised by the sanctuaries were provided with a platform to voice their concerns was also achieved. If PGIS had not been employed in this instance and community sanctuaries were mapped without regard to their true success rates, a misleading portrayal of reality would have ensued.
It goes without much debate that their lies an immense future in Geographic Information Systems. The technology is still in an infancy stage and will undeniably continue to progress while new ways of employment will consequently emerge. It is essential that alternative data collection methods and sources continue to be explored for their potential in growing the world’s knowledge base and promoting respect for all bearers of knowledge. The process of amalgamation of GIS and indigenous knowledge is messy and imperfect; however, it is essential that experimentation continue in the field of geography and that the idea of Participatory GIS and Volunteered Geographic Information persist in their attempts to prove themselves as legitimate means of data acquisition and as one way to help the world at large.
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