The GeoCitizen-approach: community-based spatial planning--an Ecuadorian case study.

Author:Atzmanstorfer, Karl

Volunteered Geographic Information, Web 2.0, participation and empowerment

In the last decade, technological achievements like GPS, smartphones, virtual globes, and a variety of other Web 2.0 tools have facilitated the dissemination of spatial information and the collection of crowd-sourced (spatial) data (Sui, Elwood, and Goodchild 2013). Beyond the spatial domain, social media such as Facebook or Twitter are increasingly available for a wide range of users, even in emerging societies of developing countries (Evans-Cowley 2010). These rapidly evolving technologies have brought new perspectives for redefining participatory spatial planning and public administration. The combination of both--crowd-sourced spatial data and discussion frameworks based on the concepts of social media--creates so far unknown possibilities for communities and citizens to participate in planning processes aiming at empowering them to better manage their living environments.

An increasing number of consumers of spatial data are not only using, but also producing spatial data (Fischer 2012). Such "prosumers" of spatial data can increasingly resort to freely available cartographic data like base-maps provided by non-profit (collaborative mapping) initiatives such as OpenStreetMap (Goodchild 2010). This creation, sharing, and usage of spatial data by laypersons is termed volunteered geographic information (VGI) and is a current issue of in-debt discussions in scientific literature

(Goodchild 2007; Elwood 2008; Goodchild 2008; Blaschke and Strobl 2010; Rosser and Morley 2010). User-generated spatial data is a major component of a recent area of research in GIScience that arose as a result of the advent of the Web 2.0: "Neogeography". Turner (2006) defines "Neogeography" as a set of techniques and tools that fall outside the realm of traditional GIS, such as mapping Association of Independent Professionals of Tumbaco (Agrupacion de Profesionales Independientes de Tumbaco [APIs]) (e.g. Google Maps), geotagging, or new data formats (e.g. KML, GPX) used for personal and rather colloquial activities by a nonexpert group of users (Turner 2007). Its popularity can be credited to the ability to communicate and share data through simple, freely available tools that can be learnt quickly and effectively without immersion in professional activities (Hudson-Smith et al. 2009).

The term "Geo(spatial) web" refers to the use of the internet to deliver geographic information and maps (Haklay, Singleton, and Parker 2008) or--in other words --to the global collection of applications, services, and data that supports the use of geographic information on the web (Lopez, Bejar, and Zarazaga Soria 2012). As key applications of the "Geo(spatial) web", geospatial web platforms allow the processing of crowd-sourced spatial data and facilitate laypersons to collect, analyze, and share spatial data helping them to identify problems in their habitat in a transparent and traceable manner, for example (Haklay 2010; Bednarz and Kemp 2011). Besides mapping tools, geospatial web platforms may integrate (video) blogs, RSS-feeds, social network tools (e.g. tweets), discussion forums, widgets, and other applications that allow users to create their own mash-ups, combing online data from multiple sources (Ashley et al. 2009).

In the planning domain, the concept of Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS) emerged in the mid-1990s, referring to the incorporation of nonexpert stakeholders in spatial planning processes (Ghose 2007; Ramasubramanian 2010). McCall and Dunn (2012) define PPGIS as "collaborative and participatory approaches to planning, using GIS" (81). PPGIS link community participation and geographical information in a diversity of social and environmental contexts, involving citizens in decision-making processes (Steinmann, Krek, and Blaschke 2004). For a long time, collaborative mapping initiatives dominated real-world PPGIS applications (Sieber 2006). However, the last decade brought the development of a considerable number of geospatial web platforms that aim at enabling citizen participation in the management of their living environment. These platforms mainly call local governments' attention to problems regarding the provision of public services, issues related to security, and (public) transportation issues or the environment (e.g. FixMyStreet (, SeeClickFix ( or ParcScan ( For a long time, these applications have been limited to industrialized nations in North America and Europe. However, recently also in the emerging countries of Latin America, new collaborative platforms for citizen engagement have been launched: CiudadanosActivos in Cali, Colombia ( or Deliktum in Quito, Ecuador (http://www., to name some examples.

As mentioned above, recently available Web 2.0 techonolgies and their diffusion within society opened up new vistas for participatory planning initiatives. Especially mobile devices have become an important tool for the collection and communication of such data. Aker and Mbiti (2010) examine the growth of mobile phone technology over the past decade and consider its potential impacts upon quality of life in low-income countries. In this respect, Hennig and Vogler (2011) coined the term "social geo-communication" referring to the participation of the public in planning processes supported by Web 2.0 platforms. These platforms provide the ground for "spatial citizens" that are able to "interpret and critically reflect spatial representations, communicate [...] and express location-specific opinions with the aid of maps" (Gryl and Jekel 2012, 4). The essential skill of "spatial citizens" is what scholars such as Blaschke and Strobl (2010), Bednarz and Kemp (2011), and Goodchild (2010) refer to as "spatial literacy". This is the ability of an individual to capture and communicate knowledge in the form of a map, understand and recognize the world as viewed from above, recognize and interpret patterns, know that geography is more than just a list of places on the Earth's surface, see the value of geography as a basis for organizing and discovering information, and comprehend such basic concepts as scale and spatial resolution (Goodchild 2007).

The idea of "spatial literacy" and "spatial citizens" are an important approach in order to integrate geospatial web platforms into the concept of empowerment. Carver et al. (2001) define empowerment "as the process by which stakeholders identify and shape their lives and the society in which they live through access to knowledge; political processes; and financial, social, and natural resources" (62). By doing so, empowerment of citizens or communities that so far have been excluded from participating in the design and management of their habitat, is an intrinsic aim of any participation initiative. Corbett and Keller (2005) state, that the overarching goal of every PPGIS activity is empowerment, as PPGIS "can be empowering to disadvantaged groups by enabling them to use the language and tools of decision makers and so influence events that affect their lives and local geography" (91). According to Gryl and Jekel (2012), the use of geospatial-web tools is a major factor for democratic negotiation and public participation in the spatial domain referring to the concept of "actualizing citizens" (as opposed to "dutiful citizens") that act through loose networks using social media and the geospatial-web for communication and interaction. They use digital narratives, which change their relationships to civic knowledge and its components of authority, credibility, production-consumption, and sharing of information.

New technological trends such as geospatial web platforms as well as the use of VGI and their embedding into delicate societal issues of empowerment and public participation trigger research questions in regard to the credibility, quality, and privacy of crowd-sourced data (Haklay 2010). There is a legitimate concern amongst professional GIS-practitioners regarding certainty, accuracy, and quality of spatial data collected by laypersons that might not always meet the quality criteria of data and maps produced by professional cartographers in, for example, public mapping agencies (Goodchild 2008; Crampton 2010; Fischer 2012). Flanagin and Metzger (2008) resort to the term "believability" (according to Hovland, Janis, and Kelley (1953)) when talking about credibility of crowd-sourced spatial information that is composed of two primary dimensions: trustworthiness and expertise. This raises two major questions that have to be considered dealing with spatial data provided by laypersons: Do these data precisely describe reality or are they biased by the person who has created them (trustworthiness)? And does this layperson have enough expertise in the data acquisition procedure in order to ensure data accuracy?

Furthermore, the publication of VGI on geospatial web platforms might not always meet specific conceptions of privacy that vary throughout different cultures (Torrens 2010). Recently, web platforms such as RottenNeighbor (where users have been encouraged to expose "bad" neighbors like sex offenders, see:, or MyBikeLane (where citizens can report traffic violations like illegally parked cars on bike lanes; see: have been controversially discussed in public and even raised serious legal concerns.

Moreover, technological and structural limitations for accessing Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-tools must be considered when evaluating the potentials and limitations of these new technological achievements. The selective access to ICT perpetuates exclusive social structures and hence even more exclude marginalized communities from participation (Ghose 2007; Elwood 2008; Haklay 2012)...

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