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ParticipatoryGIS: a web-based collaborative GIS and multicriteria decision analysis.


Citizens are increasingly demanding greater public participation in shaping public policy decisions that affect their lives. A variety of participatory procedures exist that aim at involving the public and integrating the local knowledge and preferences with the scientific inputs of the experts (e.g., planners) within the decision process (Dunn 2007, Rinner et al. 2008, Jankowski 2009). However, the capabilities of traditional methods of public participation and collaboration (e.g., public meetings) are limited because of their synchronous and place-based nature. The conventional models of public participation often have been criticized for their deficiencies in representing certain interest groups and local residents; this is because some individuals and groups cannot be present at a specific time and location, and may be reluctant to voice their preferences among other community members (Dragicevic and Balram 2004, Jankowski 2009). To facilitate effective public participation, the spatial planning and decision-making procedures should be collaborative and distributed over an extended period of time (Carver and Peekham 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Dragicevic and Balram 2004).

The rapid improvement and innovation in the geographical information software and related computing hardware have made GIS the main tool for spatial planning and decision making. Nonetheless, the progress in using GIS to improve public collaboration in spatial decision making has been rather limited (Sieber 2006, Dunn 2007). While the planners and decision makers have full access to relevant spatial data/information, as well as to spatial planning tools such as GIS and related technologies, there are relatively few spatial planning and decision-making tools available to the general public (Pickles 1995, Carver 1999, Carver and Peekham 1999, Dragicevic 2004). GIS typically has been a centralized, exclusionary, expensive, and technocratic tool requiring expert users to maintain effective and efficient operations (Dragicevic 2004, Miller 2006). The system has been criticized as being an elitist technology that widens the gap between expert users and the general public when employed for planning and decision-making applications (Pickles 1995). The main challenges of GIS-based spatial decision-making applications reside in bridging this gap by providing a tool for enhancing public participation and addressing the issues of access and equity.

Implementing GIS within the World Wide Web environment and integrating its capabilities with multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA) methods can provide a mechanism for bridging the gap between the general public and experts. Web-based GIS (WebGIS) can offer solutions that are accessible to nonexperts; moreover, online tools, such as discussion forums, can provide an alternative to the traditional place-based planning (for example, public meetings/hearings and open houses) for they do not require in-person attendance. Ultimately, by operating on the Internet, the access to GIS is not restricted by time or location (Carver 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Dragicevic 2004, Dragicevic and Balram 2004).

In addition, the integration of GIS and MCDA facilitates the participation decision-making process by allowing participants to explore different aspects of a decision problem and articulate their preferences (Carver 1999, Malczewski 2006a). MCDA provides a mechanism for expressing the participants' preferences and objectives for generating a compromise solution. Furthermore, MCDA can offer a structured environment for investigating the intensity and sources of conflicts among different participants. It also can improve communication and understanding among multiple decision makers, which, in turn, pave the way for converging preferences and building a consensus in such a way that a minimum conflict solution can be generated (Feick and Hall 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Malczewski 2006a, b). Within this framework, the ultimate goal of the GIS-based multicriteria decision analysis (GIS-MCDA) procedures is to tackle two distinct aspects of spatial collaborative decision making and planning. The procedures attempt to address (1) the deliberative structure of spatial planning (by building a consensus among various decision makers and interest groups through organizing and facilitating communication) and (2) the analytical structure of spatial decision making (by generating a compromise solution that best represents the preferences of all participants) (Malczewski 1996; Feick and Hall 1999, 2004; Malczewski 2006b; Jankowski and Nyerges 2001; Simao et al. 2009).

Over the past 15 years or so, a considerable research effort has been made to integrate GIS capabilities and MCDA methods in the context of the Internet (Menegolo and Peckham 1996, Barghava and Tettlbach 1997, Carver 1999, Wan et al. 1999, Andrienko and Andrienko 2001, Zhu and Dale 2001, Zhu et al. 2001, Rinner and Malczewski 2002, Sikder and Gangopadhyay 2002, Dragicevic and Balram 2004, Evans et al. 2004, Voss et al. 2004, Hall and Leahy 2006, Karnatak et al. 2007, Rao et al. 2007, Jankowski et al. 2008, Simao et al. 2009). Rinner and Malczewski (2002) suggest that most of the first-generation WebGIS-MCDA applications focused on the technical aspects of GIS and MCDA integration to address the analytical structure of spatial problems. Many of those systems do not assist users in choosing between decision alternatives but instead provide decision support by facilitating information access and visualization. In addition, most available systems have been custom-built for specific applications or data. Therefore, no generic prototype can accept user-defined data and information online.

Most of the second-generation WebGIS-MCDA applications addressed the shortcomings of the analytical structure by providing more comprehensive and sophisticated analytical modules (Rinner and Malczewski 2002). However, technological and methodological deficiency still can be noted in those systems in contrast with the nature of collaborative spatial planning and decision making. The majority of recently developed WebGIS-MCDA systems--like their first-generation counterparts--are not responsive to the deliberative dimension of spatial decision making. Specifically, they lack the mechanism and implementation necessary to support discussion (Rinner and Malczewski 2002, Evans et al. 2004, Karnatak et al. 2007, Rao et al. 2007).

Moreover, many of the recent applications are based on commercial WebGIS packages such as ArcIMS (Dragicevic and Balram 2004, Karnatak et al. 2007, Rao et al. 2007, Simao et al. 2009). Miller (2006) has questioned the degree to which a GIS can play a role in a participatory system if it is built based on expensive commercial software unavailable to most of the communities and interest groups. Although most of the nonprofit organizations in North America have had access to free or subsidized commercial GIS software such as the ESRI products, the vast majority of communities around the world (specifically in developing countries) cannot afford to obtain GIS software and/ or they lack the required expertise to use them. Therefore, it is important to develop a collaborative WebGIS application based on an open source or free-to-use software (with no monetary cost for acquisition or licensing) using publicly available free geospatial data. In such a case, the constraint on developers and users of such systems will not be their financial capabilities but rather the limitations imposed by their willingness to participate, explore, and learn from these systems (Hall and Leahy 2006).

The launch of Google Maps service in 2005 brought countless opportunities for communities around the world to obtain free access to easy-to-use and browser-based Web mapping functionalities as well as high-quality geospatial data. The applications being built on top of the Google Maps (Google Maps mashups), which employ easy-to-use and customizable Application Programming Interface (API) in conjunction with a Web-based database management system, provide a free WebGIS capable of storing, representing, and analyzing geospatial data. Furthermore, these Google Maps mashups offer WebGIS that is widely available and accessible to the general public and non-GIS experts who can accordingly interact with and present their customized information in a user-friendly and familiar environment. Although other Open Source Web-based GIS systems such as the University of Minnesota MapServer ( are free, because of the complex process of their customization, they require GIS experts with the knowledge of digital mapping, encoding, and transfer protocol (Miller 2006, Rinner et al. 2008). This makes Google Maps an excellent candidate to construct the groundwork of any collaborative WebGIS development.

The main objective of this paper is to present a Google Maps--based WebGIS framework and its implementation for collaborative multicriteria spatial decision making. The proposed framework integrates the deliberative and analytic dimensions of spatial decision making and planning. The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: The next section provides detailed background information. It first examines the synergetic capabilities of the integration of GIS and MCDA to tackle spatial planning problems; it then discusses the potentials of the Internet as a medium to facilitate asynchronous and distributed collaborative spatial decision making; and, finally, the section provides a review of ArgooMap prototype's properties as a tool for spatially referenced communications that corresponds to the deliberative element of spatial planning and decision making. These elements are brought together in the section called "Conceptual Framework for a Collaborative WebGIS-MCDA," which describes our conceptual framework for collaborative spatial multicriteria decision making. The section on implementing this framework explains system architecture and user interface design. The final section presents concluding remarks.


GIS-based Multicriteria Decision Analysis

GIS-based multicriteria decision analysis (GIS-MCDA) can be defined as a process that transforms and combines geographical data (map criteria) and value judgments (decision-makers' preferences) to obtain relevant information for decision making (Eastmen et al. 1995, Malczewski 1999). The main rationale behind integrating GIS and MCDA is that these two distinct areas of research can complement each other. While GIS is commonly recognized as a powerful and integrated tool with unique capabilities for storing, manipulating, analyzing, and visualizing spatial data for decision making, MCDA provides a rich collection of procedures and algorithms for structuring decision problems, designing, evaluating, and prioritizing alternative decisions. It is in the context of the synergetic capabilities of GIS and MCDA that one can see the benefits for advancing theoretical and applied research on the integration of GIS and MCDA (Malczewski 1999, 2006a).

The effort to integrate GIS and MCDA can be associated with the current proliferation stage of GIS development (Malczewski 2006a). During this phase, the systems have been evolving from a "close" or expert-oriented to an "open" user-oriented technology. This has stimulated a movement in the GIS community towards using this technology to increase the democratization of the decision-making process via public participation and collaboration. Malczewski (2006a) suggested that it is in the context of the debate on the interrelationship between "GIS and society" (Pickles 1995) that one can see the potential for constructing GIS-MCDA systems to enhance and facilitate collaborative decision making.

In a collaborative multicriteria decision-making setting, the GIS-MCDA procedures take the form of aggregating individual judgments into a group preference in such a way that the best compromise alternative can be identified (Malczewski 2006a, b). Accordingly, a collaborative decision analysis involves a two-stage procedure: (1) the MCDA decision rules (i.e., the decision rules for combining the criterion maps according to the individual decision maker's preferences) and (2) the collective choice rules (the decision rules for aggregating individual preferences into a group preference).

GIS-MCDA can potentially enhance collaborative decision-making processes by providing a flexible problem-solving framework in which participants can explore, understand, and redefine a decision problem (Feick and Hall 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Kyem 2004, Malczewski 2006a, b). MCDA approaches can integrate multiple views of decision problems. They improve communication and facilitate the process of building a consensus and reaching compromise solutions. GIS-MCDA can support the collaborative process by providing a tool for structuring decision problems and facilitating communication among decision makers (Malczewski 2006a, b).

Web-based GIS-MCDA

The World Wide Web or, more practically, the Internet (as a deployment and communication medium) has introduced new trends in the mapping and the democratization of spatial data and maps. Using the medium of the Internet, GIS systems can be developed to address the notions of democratization with respect to spatial data and decision-making processes, open accessibility, and an effective distribution of spatial information. In this setting, the public access to the planning process is enhanced and the technology contributes to greater participation in democratic procedures (Carver 1999, Carver and Peekham 1999, Dragicevic 2004, Dragicevic and Balram 2004, Miller 2006).

A WebGIS approach can generate a distributed and collaborative environment with continual time setting for mapping and decision making. Integrating MCDA methods into WebGIS (WebGIS-MCDA) can provide an interactive Web-based tool for users to explore digital maps and express their opinions about spatial decision problems. In addition, individuals uncomfortable with expressing their views in public can voice their opinions and preferences in a detached environment; consequently, a wider and more representative audience can be reached. Such accessibility means that WebGIS-MCDA systems have the potential to stimulate a "bottom-up" approach to spatial decision making by providing public access to the data and models. The WebGIS-MCDA framework allows participants to input their value judgments based on "different location--different time" dimensions of the spatial-temporal dimensionality of collaborative decision making (Jankowski et al. 1997). Consequently, the equity and access problems of the traditional decision-making process can be addressed. The equity issue is handled by a Web-wide distributed system design and the access problem can be addressed by imbedding a collaborative mechanism within the structure of WebGIS (Carver 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Dragicevic 2004, Dragicevic and Balram 2004, Malczewski 2006b).

ArgooMap: A Google Map-based Tool for Spatially Referenced Communication

The Argumentation Map (Argumap) concept was proposed by Rinner (1999, 2001) to support geographically referenced discussions in GIS by providing visual access to public georeferenced debates in the planning domain. Argumaps are based on the combination of an online discussion forum and a Web-based GIS. They were developed as a method for structuring debates with spatial elements in asynchronous online discussions (Rinner 2001, Sidlar and Rinner 2007).

Kessler (2004) implemented an Argumentation Map prototype as a proof of concept using open-source software to fulfill the requirements for the Argumap concept and to minimize the development cost. This prototype of an Argumentation Map as a WebGIS was implemented using a Geo Tools Lite mapping tool kit, a custom-built Java Applet for a discussion forum, the MySQL database for storing users' geographically referenced discussions, and the University of Minnesota MapServer providing background map layers (Kessler 2004, Sidlar and Rinner 2007).

The Argumap prototype has been used for tackling a number of spatial planning problems (Sidlar and Rinner 2007, Simao et al. 2009). However, there are some technological difficulties with using the Argumap prototype. The main shortcoming of the prototype is its implementation as a Java Applet that requires Java Virtual Machine to be first downloaded and set up on users' machines, which, in turn, diminishes the efficiency of the system. In addition, the complex procedure of customizing MapServer and Geo Tools Lite to create a WebGIS makes the development process difficult. These problems led Rinner et al. (2008) to develop ArgooMap--an implementation of the Argumentation Map concept using the Google Maps API. The main objective of the migration from Java Applet platform to Google Maps--based argumentation was to improve the usability of the prototype while cutting the development cost by using free-of-charge geospatial data and functionalities provided by Google Maps service. The ease of use is crucial for the success of such systems where the target group is the general public who are not familiar with GIS functionalities (Rinner et al. 2008).




Conceptual Framework for a Collaborative WebGIS-MCDA

GIS-MCDA methods provide a platform for handling different views and debates that revolve around the identification of elements of a complex decision problem, the organization of elements into a hierarchical structure, the exploration of relationships among components of the problem, and the stimulation of communication among participants (Feick and Hall 1999, Jankowski and Nyerges 2001, Malczewski 2006a, b). However, GIS-MCDA approaches traditionally have focused on the integration of GIS systems (desktop or Web-based) and MCDA algorithms that address the analytical aspect of such systems. On the other hand, although Argumentation Maps can visualize the alternative locations and the georeferenced discussions concerning different aspects of a spatial decision-making problem, they lack the evaluative capabilities for finding the compromise alternative. To this end, we suggest that the implementation of an Argumentation Maps concept within a WebGIS-MCDA would result in a spatial decision-making prototype capable of simultaneously addressing deliberative and analytical dimensions of spatial decision making in an asynchronous and distributed environment.

Figure 1 illustrates the proposed conceptual framework for a collaborative WebGIS-MCDA, called ParticipatoryGIS (see It consists of two main elements of deliberation and analysis, both implemented within the Google Maps environment, which provides required geospatial data and GIS functionalities. The analytical part of the framework corresponds to the collaborative MCDA decision rule by employing an MCDA algorithm for individual decision making and a collective choice rule to generate the group solution (see the section "GIS-based Multicriteria Decision Analysis"). In ParticipatoryGIS, we utilized quantifier-guided ordered weighted averaging (OWA) (Yager 1997) and the fuzzy majority approach (Passi and Yager 2006) for the MCDA decision rule and collective choice rule, respectively. Finally, the conceptual framework includes the aggregation of ArgooMap representing the deliberative element of the framework with the collaborative MCDA decision rule, which yields a Web-based prototype capable of tackling both dimensions of spatial decision making and planning.


System Architecture

ParticipatoryGIS uses the server-side architecture approach to Web-based GIS (Rinner and Jankowski 2002). It employs HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on the client side and a combination of PHP scripting language and a MySQL database on the ParticipatoryGIS server. In addition, the Google Maps server provides the map and Google Maps API upon which the system has been built, and the users mostly rely on their functionalities (see Figure 2).

All the geographical data (e.g., coordinates) as well as the alphanumeric information used by both deliberative and analytical elements of the system are stored in a MySQL database on the ParticipatoryGIS server. The data and information required for the analytical component consist of (1) user registration information (this information is required for the deliberative part pertaining to user identification); (2) decision alternatives' locations (coordinates and addresses); (3) evaluation criteria values for each alternative; (4) criteria weights according to each user's preferences; (5) the final score and rank of each alternative according to each individual judgment; and (6) the score and rank of each alternative based on the majority of the participants representing the group preference. From the deliberative part, markers, discussion contributions, and the relationship between them also are stored in the database.

The system architecture for most of the client-server communications utilizes JavaScript as the client-side programming script and XML as the preferred format for data transfer. This combination, also known as AJAX, enables the Web implementations to have continuous and seamless interaction with the server without waiting for the whole Web page to be reloaded. AJAX technology enables the integration of analytical and deliberative parts (elements of the conceptual framework) in a single Web page with a set of tools and functionalities resembling a desktop GIS. The next section discusses the implementation of the user interface of ParticipatoryGIS.

User Interface Description

Figure 3 shows the workflow of ParticipatoryGIS. The workflow consists of three main sections: (1) registration and log in, (2) the main map, and (3) the questionnaire. The registration and log-in section consists of four pages: (1) log in, (2) user registration, (3) terms and conditions, and (4) an "About ParticipatoryGIS" section. Users accessing the Web site for the first time can register on the "User Registration" page. By completing the registration, users then are redirected to the "Tutorial" page. Upon registration, users have to read and agree to the terms of ParticipatoryGIS use, which are available on the "Terms and Conditions" page. Returning users can log into the system using the "Log In" index page on which they are redirected to the "Main Decision Map." The "About ParticipatoryGIS" page introduces the design and development team. Figure 3 shows a basic flowchart illustrating site navigation.

The main map section of the system has been constructed using two Web pages: "Tutorial" and "Main Decision Map." Tutorial describes the goal and objectives of the spatial decision problem at hand and provides a detailed explanation of the properties and geospatial characteristics of the decision alternatives. The definitions evaluation criteria and their units of measurement are given in the Tutorial page as well. In addition, it provides a step-by-step walk-through on how to use the Web site for selecting the preferred location, and how to participate in debates and communications with other users through the implemented ArgooMap. Within the Main Decision Map component, four map layers can be turned on and off using AJAX technology. The map layers are as follows: the decision alternatives map, the individual decision map and group decision map as part of the analytical element of the framework, and, finally, the ArgooMap layer representing the deliberative part of the conceptual framework (see the "Conceptual Framework" section).





The decision alternatives map shows the locations of the decision alternatives. By clicking on each alternative, a window will open that displays the corresponding properties and evaluation criteria values. This enables the users to browse and compare the characteristics of the alternatives (see Figure 4). The users then can input their preferences regarding the relative importance of each criterion using a set of linguistic terms. The set of six linguistic terms used in ParticipatoryGIS includes: none, very low, low, medium, high, and very high (Chen and Hwang 1992). In addition, users should choose a linguistic label to define how many of the evaluation criteria should be satisfied by an acceptable location. Then the linguistic label guides the OWA aggregation procedure, which generates the final score for each alternative. By submitting the user's preferences, the individual decision map visualizes the rank of each alternative based on its OWA score (see Figure 5).

Within the Main Decision Map element, users can activate the group decision map. The group decision map displays the rank order for each alternative based on the majority preferences of the users (see Figure 6), while the alternatives' scores in the group decision map layer are generated by the fuzzy majority procedure (Passi and Yager 2006). In addition, the users can activate or deactivate Argoomap as an overlay in conjunction with the analytical maps (shown in Figure 7). The ArgooMap layer enables the participant to initiate a new georeferenced discussion or to reply to the already existing threads contributed by the other users. When the ArgooMap is on, a user can select a reference location on the map to begin a new contribution to the discussion regarding the decision problem. The users also can have more than one reference point to start a discussion. When the Argoomap is on, the system reads all the discussion threads from the database and manifests them visually on the map using orange pins. By clicking on each pin, the users can read all the threads referenced to that location and also can begin a new discussion thread or reply to an already existing one. In addition, ParticipatoryGIS enables the participants to start a new thread or reply to one for discussion and debate on all the predefined alternative locations.

By saving the preferences, users then are redirected to the questionnaire form. The questionnaire facilitates the evaluation of the different aspects of the participants' characteristics and provides data that can be used later for the usability evaluation of the system. The collected data and information within the questionnaire form include the participant's age, gender, and education; prior experience with GIS, Internet, and participatory projects; and, finally, the degree of satisfaction with using ParticipatoryGIS.


The purpose of this paper was to describe the design of a novel conceptual framework for Web-based collaborative spatial decision making and its implementation in ParticipatoryGIS as a proof of concept. The framework integrates two prominent components of spatial decision making and planning--deliberation and analysis--in a cohesive fashion. The deliberative element of the prototype facilitates and encourages communication and debate among the decision makers and stakeholders, while the analytical structure provides procedures for identifying a compromise decision alternative. We proposed to build the prototype using Google Maps service to gain access to the free-of-charge geospatial data and user-friendly environment. For the implementation of the framework, we used free scripting language, database, and map service that enhances the sustainability of the collaborative spatial decision-making projects. The main rationale behind collaborative MCDA is that the approach provides a mechanism for developing a constructive, creative, and transparent dialogue among stakeholders involved in the decision process rather than merely supporting them in the identification of the best alternative. In this context, we suggest that the concept of ParticipatoryGIS makes a considerable contribution to the area of collaborative MCDA by combining the deliberative and analytical dimension of decision-making processes.

Although, ParticipatoryGIS has been designed and implemented for the spatial multicriteria problems with predefined alternatives, the same prototype can be used through ArgooMap for scenarios in which the alternatives are generated through public participation. The architecture of the prototype has been selected and implemented in a way that makes it a straightforward procedure to customize the system for different spatial decision problems. Our future research will be directed towards developing and implementing the architecture of a Web-based spatial multicriteria evaluation process that acts as a service rather than as a system. This architecture enables communities to define their own spatial decision problem and make it available online for public participation and input. Accordingly, rather than being a problem-specific system, the architecture will offer all the capabilities of ParticipatoryGIS for user-defined decision problems.


This research was supported by the GEOIDE Network (Project: HSS-DSS-17) of the Networks of Centers of Excellence. The authors would like to thank Gary Boxton, senior manager of the Planning and Engineering Department at the Town of Canmore for his support in all stages of the case study. We wish to thank anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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Soheil Boroushaki is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. His research interests involve Web-based geospatial analysis and decision making.

Corresponding Address:

Department of Geography

University of Western Ontario

London, Ontario, N6A 5C2, Canada

Fax: (519) 661-3750

Jacek Malczewski is a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. He holds degrees in geography from Jagiellonian University, Cracov, Poland (M.Sc.) and the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw (Ph.D.). His research interests include spatial analysis and GISci.

Department of Geography

University of Western Ontario

London, Ontario, N6A 5C2, Canada

Fax: (519) 661-3750
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Title Annotation:geographic information systems
Author:Boroushaki, Soheil; Malczewski, Jacek
Publication:URISA Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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