Public participation geographical information systems

By Nora Fagerholm, María García-Martín, Mario Torralba, Claudia Bieling and Tobias Plieninger

1. Nora Fagerholm; 2. María García-Martín; 3. Mario Torralba; 4. Claudia Bieling; 5. Tobias Plieninger (biographies)

What is encompassed by public participation geographical information systems? What resources are required? What are the strengths and weaknesses of involving stakeholders?

Participatory mapping combines cartography with participatory approaches to put the knowledge, experiences, and aspirations of people on a map. Under this umbrella term, public participation geographical information systems refers to the use of geographical information systems (GIS) and modern communication technologies to engage the general public and stakeholders in participatory planning and decision-making.

In practice, the terms public participation GIS and participatory GIS are often used interchangeably to:

  1. identify place-based values, perceptions, or attitudes, such as landscape values, ecosystem services, environmental quality factors, perceived problems or unpleasant experiences;
  2. analyse spatial behaviour of people, most notably everyday practices and activities, such as mobility patterns, routes travelled, or places visited;
  3. communicate preferences or visions about future land use;
  4. gather place-based observations through so-called geographic citizen science, such as trail networks or wildlife observations.


The first step of a public participation GIS study is to identify the purpose and intended outcomes of collecting spatially explicit data, ideally done in collaboration with stakeholders. Data collection is most commonly based on a web-based mapping survey. Respondents fill in a survey either individually or assisted by a facilitator.

Stakeholders can be selected through different approaches:

  • random sampling can promote better representativeness of a population, although response rates tend to be rather low (below 15%).
  • in crowd¬sourced or volunteer sampling it is typically challenging to reach a balanced respondent profile.
  • survey panels or targeted sampling can be applied, for instance to reach pupils at schools.

The mapped spatial data can be points, lines, or polygons, with point features being simplest and most frequently mapped. Additional open or structured follow-up questions may facilitate understanding or may contextualise the mapped attributes. Many public participation GIS surveys additionally collect nonspatial data, such as respondents’ socio-economic-demographic characteristics, worldviews, motivations, or well-being.

Survey design critically affects data quality. There is a need to balance the quantity of mapped data with related descriptions of the data. The quality of data depends also on additional factors such as accuracy, precision, type of spatial data collected, and data usability. Public participation GIS analysis aggregates individual-level data to the scale of the survey population or subgroups of it.

Spatial analysis can be grouped in three phases:

  1. the Explore phase, which involves analysis methods that are exploratory and descriptive in character. Assessment of spatial data quality (eg., representativeness of the sample and validity of mapped data) is an important part of this phase.
  2. the Explain phase, in which the aim is to understand the relationships between the public participation GIS data and multiple other geospatial data sources serving as potential explanatory variables (such as land cover, road network data, plant or animal population data, or spatial plans).
  3. the Predict/Model phase, in which the aim is to generalise mapped attributes to other places and contexts and to understand future realities using the relationships found in the Explain phase.

Public participation GIS survey design also has potential for mixed-methods analysis. For example, collected data may include place descriptions that are analysed qualitatively. A public participation GIS survey is similar to a traditional questionnaire approach, developed and implemented often by researchers or planners to elicit information from respondents.

However, building a public participation GIS process based on knowledge co-creation and deliberative valuation (eg., through workshops where research questions are defined and results discussed) is crucial to ensure that individual values articulated in public participation GIS surveys become shared in collective environmental decision-making processes and to discuss issues of conflict, power, and equity. Going towards a co-creation public participation GIS approach also promotes capacity building and social learning among the participants.

Skills and resources needed

Successful public participation GIS application requires basic skills in social sciences and geoinformatics. Completing a scientifically valid public participation GIS study takes a minimum of one year.

The most effective public participation GIS platforms are license-based, for example, Maptionnaire, Ushahidi, Mapping for change and Survey123, but there are also open-source tools such as OpenDataKit and KoBoToolbox. Open-source GIS and statistics software can be used for data analysis.

Codes of ethics for public participation and the treatment of geospatial data must be considered for responsible public participation GIS practice and differ between countries. Making collected public participation GIS data publicly available, following data protection regulations, allows analysis and review by a wider public.

Strengths and weaknesses

Particular strengths and weaknesses of public participation GIS are that:

  • In social-ecological research, it promotes the assessment of perception-based and often also intangible, intrinsic, or symbolic values of nature, ecosystems, or landscapes.
  • It has high potential for multidisciplinary analysis by integration with biophysical spatial data or qualitative place descriptions.
  • A web-based approach can reach a wide-range of people and facilitates participation in land-use planning, but some parts of society can be excluded due to varying availability of technological skills and devices. Therefore, public participation GIS works best in combination with other methods of participation.
  • Self-administered online surveys are time-efficient and unrestricted by a specific time and place, but the survey response rate can remain low, which makes it difficult to control data quality. Facilitated surveys are time-consuming as each person needs to be met individually, but it is possible to control representativeness and data quality. Resources are needed for inviting respondents and training facilitators.
  • For data collection the most sophisticated platforms are license-based. Analytical process can be directed from explorative to more demanding spatial analysis.

Invitation to comment

What has your experience been with public participation GIS? What tools have you found to be useful? Are there other lessons that organisers and facilitators should be aware of?

To find out more:

Adapted from Fagerholm, N., García-Martín, M., Torralba, M., Bieling, C., and Plieninger, T. (2022). Public participation geographical information systems (PPGIS). Participatory research methods for sustainability – toolkit #1, GAIA, 31/1: 46 – 48. (Online – open access):
This article contains references and an example. Much of the wording in this i2Insights contribution is taken verbatim from the original article.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal GAIA:


Nora Fagerholm PhD is associate professor at the Department of Geography and Geology, University of Turku, Finland. She applies and develops participatory mapping approaches to understand human-landscape interactions.

María García-Martín PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Land Change Science Research Unit of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL in Birmensdorf. She is interested in the broad field of human-landscapes interactions with a focus on societal transitions towards landscape sustainability and conducts transdisciplinary, participatory place-based research mainly in European landscapes.

Mario Torralba PhD is a postdoctoral researcher in the research group of social-ecological interactions in agroecosystems at the University of Kassel and the University of Göttingen in Germany. His main areas of interest are participatory research methods, human-nature interactions and sustainable landscape management.

Claudia Bieling PhD is full professor at the Institute of Social Sciences in Agriculture at University of Hohenheim in Germany. Her work is rooted in transdisciplinary sustainability research and focuses on the interface of ecological and social dimensions in land-use and food systems.

Tobias Plieninger PhD is a professor in social-ecological interactions at the University of Göttingen and the University of Kassel in Germany. He is a sustainability scientist with a commitment to inter- and trans- disciplinary research at the social-ecological interface. In particular, he studies rural landscape change, ecosystem services, and sustainability transformations.

4 thoughts on “Public participation geographical information systems”

  1. What we can do with a GIS is quite different from what may be meaningful to draw conclusions from.
    The purpose of the PP (public participation) is critical to the validity of any spatial analysis one wants to perform in the ‘explain’ and ‘predict’ phase of this approach. There are many questions to which two people in the same house won’t even agree on the answer. Attempts at generalising viewpoints into a map based on who happened to participate and gave their viewpoints can lead to oversimplification and distortions of social phenomena.
    Might be useful to involve anthropologists in design, interpretation and extrapolation of PP GIS information.

    • Hi Liza! Thanks for pointing this out. It is extremely important to pay attention to the ethical aspects when working with spatially-explicit data created by and with people. Involving a multidisciplinary team, including also anthropologists is a good suggestion. Luckily, there is also increasing attention paid to the ethics of geospatial data. See for example American Geographers Society’s EthicalGEO initiative Also, the principles of ethics of public participation are important, see for example

  2. Thanks for sharing this insight! Here in Colombia we have been tackling participatory/transdisciplinary research with social cartographies in a light version. We did not have this knowledge regarding these useful tools and open-sourced apps!. We use the layered image analysis method in which we can study different dimensions in an eco-system or a community. Particularly ArcGIS resource cente has been useful: ArcGIS Resource Center. (2022). Aspectos clave de SIG. Retrieved 24 April 2022, from


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