Participatory GIS projects are increasingly popular in urban governance. This paper explores the complexities of a community involved pilot project that was implemented in the town of Verona, Wisconsin and critically examines their GIS (Geographic Information Systems) practices and the support structures that played an important role in facilitating GIS use. The paper first traces the evolution of the project, and the role of the various actors in shaping it and then shows that relations between key institutions and actors played a crucial role in shaping the pilot project. While inherently supportive, these actors occupied a dominant power position, setting a top down tone to the project from its onset. As such, the project simultaneously enhanced and constricted the process of participation and spatial knowledge production of the community residents.
In recent years, urban planning activities following a collaborative model have been increasingly undertaken with a strong rhetoric of citizen participation (Ghose, 2007; McCann, 2001). This has brought in greater GIS usage among citizens, as GIS is a common tool used in planning. The growing utilization of GIS raises important questions regarding equitable access and empowerment potential of GIS (Harris & Weiner, 1998; Barndt, 1998; Ghose, 2005; Elwood, 2009; Lin & Ghose, 2010). Scholars critiqued the issue of inequitable GIS access, caused by the virtue of its cost and complexity of use, creating a digital divide in which elite users have access to GIS, while resource-poor citizens do not (Pickles, 1995). Scholars have emphasized that GIS knowledge production cannot be divorced from the social context of its creation because political, economic and social motivations transform GIS production. GIS use does not occur in void but rather is shaped by the culture, politics and history of the society (Aitken & Michel, 1995; Kyem, 2004; Sieber, 2006; Ghose, 2007; Lin & Ghose, 2010). Work within this body of literature have demonstrated that GIS use is a highly complex process driven by local political ideologies and contexts, access to GIS resources, attitudes towards sharing of those resources, internal organizational characteristics and organizational networks with critical actors and institutions (Harris & Weiner, 1998; Elwood & Ghose, 2004; Ghose, 2007; Elwood, 2008; Lin & Ghose, 2010). Significant efforts have been made to incorporate local knowledge and value-based data into GIS (cf. Cope & Elwood, 2009), including community organizations’ active reworking of the meaning of mapping through traditional GIS tools (Elwood, 2009), creative engagement of visualization and multimedia representations (Harris & Weiner, 1998), and efforts of rewriting GIS software to embody multiple forms of spatial data (Sieber, 2004; Jung, 2009).
The role of GIS provider actors continues to be quite crucial in GIS knowledge production efforts as technical complexity remains a serious challenge to citizens. Consequently, scholars have noted that presence of a dense network of agencies fostering public data provision, providing assistance in obtaining and using GIS and directly providing GIS services can facilitate GIS use for resource poor organizations (Barndt, 2002; Roche & Humeau, 1999; Martin, 2000; Sieber, 2000; Kyem, 2002; Ghose, 2005; 2007; Elwood, 2006; Lin & Ghose, 2008) including small local government agencies working with limited resources. Universities and local government institutes are particularly noted GIS provider actors in GIS knowledge production efforts (Ghose & Huxhold, 2001; Kodmany, 2002; Elwood & Ghose, 2004; Elwood, 2006; Sieber, 2007; Lin and Ghose, 2008, Knigge & Cope, 2009), but other such actors can also exert a strong influence.