Seeking Good Governance in Participatory-GIS

A review of indigenous spatial knowledge, participatory processes, and governance dimensions in local-level GIS for development.

Michael K. McCall
Social Science Division

Over the past 10 or 15 years, ‘Local-Level’ and ‘Participatory-GIS’ have been applied to mapping traditional lands and resources, demarcating ancestral domain and resource areas, usually as a step towards legal recognition of customary land rights, e.g. for First Nations. They have also been used for analysing, and potentially ameliorating, land resource conflicts, for mapping local development potentials, and in sometimes for awareness-raising and eventually, to build people’s empowerment.

The geo-information tools used in these applications include participatory spatial data collection using RRA /PRA methods; ‘mental maps’, ‘ephemeral maps’, and participatory sketch maps and time-space diagrams; 3-dimensional models; maps; aerial photos and RS images; and GIS analyses and representations.

There is an implicit, sometimes explicit, assumption that GIS at this local level is both efficient and effective, in that it is believed to simultaneously meet the content needs, answer the questions asked of the geo-information, and address and satisfy the local stakeholders’ underlying interests. P-GIS (Participatory-GIS) is expected to be participatory and make use of local people’s information or indigenous knowledge (IK), of which indigenous spatial knowledge (ISK) is a special category. As such there is an often-made assumption that this GIS is a tool for better governance.

This paper raises questions to investigate the validity of these assumptions.
· The guiding question is: Can the goals of good governance be met in such application of GIS? – with their criteria of accountability, legitimacy, respect for rights, equity, and competence to assess this?

To answer this the following questions may be asked:
· What degrees of ‘participation’ are found in participatory mapping and P-GIS?
· What motivations lie behind the promotion of P-GIS?
· Is Indigenous Spatial Knowledge (ISK) applied to better governance?
· Who has access to ISK? Do access and use respect customary cultural rights / entitlements? Ultimately who is the owner?
· Does ownership of the spatial information output (and input data) accord advantages to the owner (beyond the boundaries of good governance)?
· Ultimately, what difference does the introduction of GI technology make to the distribution of power?

The paper begins by briefly describing local-level GIS applications in Section 1. [1] Section 2 discusses the criteria for governance and Section 3 looks at the difficulties faced by participatory GIS in practice. The paper addresses in section 4, the character of the data necessary for participatory GIS applications, that is to say ITK and particularly indigenous spatial knowledge (ISK), and how this differs from ‘scientific’ knowledge. Section 5 considers questions of ownership and accessibility of this knowledge and what this ownership implies, particularly in the context of good government. Section 6 looks briefly at whether GIS can ‘represent’ ISK. Section 7 presents further practical problems; and Section 8 provides some conclusions on participatory GIS. P-GIS approaches have very positive benefits, but need to be very carefully considered regarding their contribution to good governance. Although it has potential for empowerment, the way in which it is actually used will always reflect the power situation of the status quo. Scientists should be fully aware of the dangers, particularly as regards whose information is used and how.