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Towards GIS-enabled Virtual Public Meeting Space for Public Participation


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The by-laws of many municipalities and local governments require certain level of public participation in their plan-ning, decision-making processes. One of the common prac-tices in Canada or elsewhere around the world is to hold public meetings, during which the proposed developments are explained and discussed, and public opinions are col-lected. The problems associated with existing practices are threefold: insufficient access to the information required for public input, lack of effective means of participation other than attending public meetings, and difficulties in explain-ing spatial concepts durexplain-ing the debate. Usexplain-ing the municipal environmental assessment (EA) process as the application context, this paper presents our effort on developing an integrated online GIS-enabled virtual public meeting space. The system provides a new way of engaging the public and addressing their concerns by facilitating information access, understanding of planning study, and proactive participa-tion in public meetings and in overall municipal class EAprocess.


The by-laws of many municipalities and local governments require certain level of public participation in their decision-making processes for municipal planning and development activities. One of the common practices in Canada or else-where around the world is to hold public meetings or public information centers (PIC), among other techniques, during which the proposed developments are explained and dis-cussed, and public opinions are collected. Based on a survey (Lawndes et al., 2001), public meetings are still one of the mostly identified forms of public participation.

Public participation relies on effective notification, participation, and feedback. An examination of existing public participation practices, especially related to public meetings, reveal several major problems: (a) limited notifica-tion channels and awareness mechanisms, (b) insufficient access to the information required for public input, and (c) lack of more effective, innovative platform for communica-tions and exchange of ideas and information. As stated in Meredith (2000), better access to information, better connec-tion to decision-making process, and better tools for getting input into decision-making process are important to efficient public participation. Effective public participation also requires: input from the public to the proponent; output of

Towards GIS-enabled Virtual Public Meeting

Space for Public Participation

Songnian Li, Xincheng Guo, Xiaohong Ma, and Zheng Chang

technical information about the issues from the proponent to the public; and exchange of information, perceptions and values between the proponent and the public and among the various public groups (Connor, 1996).

Recent advances of technology such as the Internet and geographic information systems (GIS) have changed many aspects of the traditional way of public participation (Allen, 2003; Ban, 2003; Ventura, 2003), and promise to provide new information tools to improve participation process. While a rich collection of publications in this area may be found from proceedings of annual public participation GIS conferences and other journals, more relevant examples include the electronic town meetings (ETM) using modern computing technology such as laptops, wireless voting pads, and groupware systems (AmericaSpeaks, 2004), web-based GISapplications used to enhance public participation (Evans et al., 1999), and Web Mapper or geo-referenced discussion forums that allow collection of public input using both HTML forms and maps (comments geo-referenced) (Li and Ma, 2006; Meredith, 2000; Rinner, 2006; Tang and Coleman, 2005). However, few systems are capable of interactive manipulation of information (Evans et al., 1999), “what-if” analysis, and participant’s input, together with access to information sufficient to make informed decisions.

This paper presents an integrated, web-based solution that facilitates online public participation in municipal planning processes, which is the first attempt of this kind. The main focus of the paper is on discussing the overall system concept and the related technical design and imple-mentation issues. The next section starts with a review of relevant issues and background, followed by an overview of the concept, conceptual design and research methodology of a GIS-enabled Virtual Public Meeting Space (GEOVPMS) in the Approach Section, which has been used as the basis to build the proposed solution. Prototype developments of several GEOVPMScomponents are then presented to facilitate the discussion of some identified issues and how to construct the complete GEOVPMSsystem prototype. Finally, we provide some observations.

Relevant Developments and Issues

A growing number of web-based public participation GIS tools and planning support systems have been developed to support public participation and decision-making in various planning processes. Many of these tools have been combined

Songnian Li, Xiaohong Ma, and Zheng Chang are with the Department of Civil Engineering, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario M5B 2K3, Canada (snli@ryerson.ca). Xincheng Guo is with the Department of Geomatics Science and Engineering, Changan University, Xi’an 710054, China.

Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing Vol. 73, No. 6, June 2007, pp. 641–649.

0099-1112/07/7306–0641/$3.00/0 © 2007 American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing


or integrated, to some extent, with some collaboration or decision-making tools. In most cases, these systems are based on existing commercial and proprietary software tools, and some are still in research prototype stage.

Planning support systems (PSS) in nature are designed for planners, which primarily focus on coupling computer analytical tools and simulation models with visual displays for land-use and transportation development options and environmental consequences of the choices (Brail et al., 2001). As by-laws of many municipalities and local govern-ments require public participation in their decision-making processes for municipal planning and development activi-ties, it is expected the wide use of these PSSby the general public will be seen in the next decade.

Web-based public participation GIS(PPGIS) tools, among others, have now been recognized as an efficient integral of sound planning processes. However, any planning support system cannot consist of GISalone (Klosterman, 2001). It therefore requires PPGIS be integrated with other information technologies into existing, if not re-engineered, municipal development processes. On the other hand, the high cost associated with proprietary software and its supporting hardware as well as system deployment and operation prevent many municipal departments and small municipali-ties from implementing a GIS-integrated public participation solution. Recent advances in open source solution have increasingly become popular in governments of all sizes and at all levels due to its: (a) significant reduction of technol-ogy costs; (b) better reliability comparing with proprietary software; and (c) easiness and cost-effectiveness in deploy-ment and operation (Novell, 2006). Although some of these benefits are still in argument, the wide range use of the open source in corporations and government agencies has already shown its perspective as a government technology.

Some of the technical issues confronted in documented PPGISinitiatives relate to, but not limited to, a shift from “single-user” based system to a multi-user environment. The shift implies that interfaces need to be designed to support both personalized views and shared views of data and spatial/decision functions, and data integration and cus-tomization need to be done to support non-expert explo-ration such as citizens. Especially for the online PPGIS, the participation process is subject to the network performance and many potential inter-connected systems. Efforts have been made to integrate proprietary GISand decision-making systems (e.g., Voss et al., 2004), to redefine multiple user interfaces in PPGIS context and to promote data and software interoperability by Open GISconsortium (OGC) (Sondheim et al., 1999). However, little systematic research attention has yet been paid to the important area of adopting open data, software and workflow standards for developing effective multi-user PPGISenvironments to be used by various types of users including the public.

Organizational and societal issues have recently become important subjects of GISresearch (Obermeyer, 1998). Some of the key issues related to PPGISinclude equality in access-ing information and technology, copyright and ownership of the shared data (especially image data), privacy protec-tion, and development of PPGIStechnology in a social/orga-nizational process. A considerable effort of customizing tools and redefining decision-making workflows can be required in order to provide easy-to-be-used tools and data, controlled by streamlined decision-making workflows, to citi-zens and other interested groups who may have multiple identities, i.e., different roles as expert or non-expert (Haklay, 2003). The research work has taken into consideration both organizational/societal and technical issues.

How can the geospatial datasets be integrated with other municipal planning data (e.g., data for environmental

assessment) to address citizens’ concern and the public consultation objectives? To what extent should the above data be integrated based on open data models (e.g., Open Geodata Model) to ensure that “contextual” information is accessible to citizens and other interested groups during decision-making process? How should the GISsystem/tools be designed and integrated with other key technologies in order to maximize effectiveness of communicating with and getting feedback from interested parties, perhaps with multiple identities? To what extent must the existing single-user based spatial analysis and visualization tools be enhanced, if not redesigned, to accommodate user requirements in this group context? Can these characteristics, system requirements and spatial workflow processes be generalized and/or re-engi-neered, with information fed back to government program managers to improve online public consultation and the next generation of E-Governance services or E-democracy? These are all important research questions that indicate the potential value, or the potential insignificance, of the reported research. Addressing all the above questions requires intensive research, which may not be possible to accomplish with one project and of which the related issues cannot be fully covered within one article. The focus of this paper is more or less on technology development and its potential implications in the selected aspects. More detailed discussions will be published in other papers as the research moves on and more outcomes become available.

Our Approach:



GEOVPMSstands for a GIS-enabled virtual public meeting space. Evolved from an early online public notice board prototype system (e.g., Li et al., 2004), the design of GEOVPMS has continuously based on the scenarios initially described in Li et al. (2004), and revised as follows:

1. Each municipal development project undergoing a planning process possesses a single access point in GEOVPMS, leading to a participation virtual space. From here, the public and other interested parties can access notifications of the public meetings, meeting outputs, public input, and project related documents. More importantly, they can access group collaboration and GISfunctions to explore alternatives and more clearly debate on issues and exchange ideas. 2. As a side application of the previous scenario,

multi-participants can access the systems at the same time to collaboratively explore the spatial context of the planning problems using the built-in collaborative GIScomponent. Here the participants will have what-you-see-is-what-I-see (WYSIWIS) views of spatial query, analysis, annotation, and mark-up results during their conversations using audio or Internet chat. At this stage, we are not certain how likely this will happen and be useful in reality.

3. A public meeting is held for citizens and other interested parties to input on an ongoing or a newly planned develop-ment (e.g., road expansion project), in a multimedia room equipped with audio/video conferencing facilities such as a large interactive display system. Simultaneously, the display and meeting conversations are shared using GEOVPMSby those citizens, who are not able to physically attend, from their homes and offices using a web browser. A group of specialists may respond to questions from citizens and interact with the shared display of the meeting using their desktop PCs which possess powerful GIScapabilities.


Figure 1 illustrates a conceptual framework of GEOVPMS. Based on this concept, GEOVPMSsupports not only any-time, any-where participation in municipal development projects that are under planning and calling for public input, but


also real-time participation over the Internet during the public meetings held in the place other than where the interested parties are located. This is especially important for those people who cannot physically attend meetings. GEOVPMSconsists of two major parts: a live media meeting room and a virtual meeting space which is connected to the former. The virtual meeting space plays two roles: as a facility to broadcast live meetings and as a portal for the public and other interested parties to access related project information, explore planning scenario(s), and participate in ongoing debates through built-in analytical, simulation, collaboration, and decision-making tools.

As discussed previously, sufficient access to the infor-mation and project data necessary for understanding plan-ning scenarios is one of the keys to a successful public participation system. Such access should be measured not only by how much information the system can provide and how easily the public can actually access and interpret this information, but also how much information and data the system can access and transfer from other, mostly external, sources. GEOVPMSdesign takes this into its consideration and includes connections to both central (internal) and external databases. As such, the compliance to open GIS specifica-tions and other data standards plays an important role in the proposed system.

The detailed architectural design of GEOVPMSincludes a number of subsystems to support an overall, iterative public participation workflow: from notification through participation to providing feedback. Each of these subsys-tems may fulfill several functional requirements using

different technology integrals. For example, the notification subsystem, redesigned from previously developed public notice board concept (Li et al., 2004), may support both passive notification (e.g., subscribed mailing list and online notice board) and “push” notification (e.g., email alert and RRS). Subsystems in accordance with participation may include online discussion forum and voting, audio/video conferencing, real-time chatting, and so on. Other subsys-tems, such as workflow management, GISand information portal, may serve various activities during the overall plan-ning process. For example, GIScan aid notification process (e.g., map-based public notices) and participation process (e.g., GIS-based forum and alternative exploration).

As a practical online virtual public meeting space, GEOVPMSneeds to accommodate real-world situations. One of the defined requirements is to manage multiple municipal development planning projects within the same environment so that each municipal planning department or municipality can have a single portal for the public to participate in all projects open for the public consultation (see Figure 2). The inclusion of such a capacity is fundamental and requires cultivated design of not only the supporting database struc-tures, but also the interaction between various GEOVPMS components and databases, as well as participation work-flow processes.

GEOVPMSConceptual Design

GEOVPMSis essentially a web-based collaborative workspace with one or more integrated graphical user interfaces within or on top of a web browser as the front-end and a set of collaboration and participation functions (including GIS functions), one or more shared databases, a collection of files and file directories and a workflow management system as the back-end. If necessary, the workspace should be able to invoke external processing applications or components through the workflow systems based on workflow process definitions to automate the public participation process.

As discussed in the next section, the research has followed a user-centric approach which focuses on user’s expectation and experiences. One of the important compo-nents in conceptual design of GEOVPMSwas to design appro-priate interfaces based on use case study of identified user requirements and functional specifications. In responding to the two primary modes of participation described in Figure 1, the following function screens have been sketched to guide the discussion of the conceptual design and the prototype development.

Figure 3 provides a view of main interface of GEOVPMS, which depicts how the major collaboration and participation capabilities and processes are integrated. The interface is divided into four parts: project list panel, access and participation panel, result display panel, and navigation and

Figure 1. Conceptual framework of GEOVPMS.

Figure 2. Management of multiple municipal developments.


collaboration and interaction on map displays or even at the spatial object level between the presenter and the partici-pants. The small panel on the top-right corner by default displays the list of participants. However, if the participants wish to watch the scene of the real meeting room, they can switch it to the streaming video from a camera mounted in the public meeting room. Although this feature is subject to the actual network performance, it does give the participants much better sense of immerse.

The last panel in Figure 5, at the bottom-right corner, is basically a real-time chat (RTC) function, which has become very popular on the Internet over the past 10 years. However, the RTCincluded here acts most time as a one-way communication channel for the participants to pose questions to the presenters, the mediator, and even other participants. The questions are normally answered verbally through the audio part of the meeting system (teleconferenc-ing based on either ground phone lines or the Internet). The presence of such a tool certainly helps address one of the social issues previously mentioned about the equity of participation and provides those “shy” people a means to status bar. The project list panel provides names of all

municipal development projects currently under public consultation. On the list, signals are added to indicate if there is a public meeting approaching. Selection of a project on the list triggers the refresh of access and participation panel, which displays access links to the available informa-tion and list of collaborainforma-tion and participainforma-tion funcinforma-tions related to the selected project. Access links could include pointers to public meeting information, project documents, output from previous meetings, and relevant by-laws and regulations. Collaboration and participation function list provides mechanisms to invoke interactive functions such asGIS-based discussion, online voting and collaborative exploration of spatial context.

The resulting display panel acts as interim displaying panel, providing either the final output from selected access link or function, or links to further information or functions. Figure 4 illustrates a sketch of the display after “public notice” access link is selected. The public meeting notice page contains not only information about the meeting but also utility tools that allow participants to request a map showing the location of the public meeting and to get the driving directions from where they are to the meeting. When the tools are used, new windows will be popped up show-ing either location maps or drivshow-ing directions with maps. Other function results may also trigger further interfaces, for example, the exploration of spatial context and GIS-based discussion forum.

The navigation and status bar mainly tracks the user’s position in the system by showing the path the user has gone through the interface components. It is also used to signal status of some events, e.g., newly posted messages to the discussion forum and ongoing public meetings. In the case a new message is posted, the status bar will establish a link allowing users to jump directly to that message if he/she wishes. If the project selected by the participant has an ongoing meeting, a signal will be displayed in the status bar. The user will then have option to go the real-time public meeting participation interface (see Figure 5) to remotely attend the meeting.

In Figure 5, the window is divided into three panels. The main panel on the left is used to view the ongoing presentations made by project proponents, government officials, or other involved persons. Once the presenter uses GISfor explaining spatial context and plans, the panel can switch to a collaborative GISview, which allows real-time

Figure 3. GEOVPMSmain interface design.

Figure 4. Sketch of public meeting notice page.

Figure 5. Interface design for real-time public meeting participation.


express themselves and prevent vocally-dominated meeting sessions.

From the above discussion of the conceptual design, one can quickly imagine the complexity of the actual system design as well as the design of the databases supporting these capabilities. In addition to the technical complexity, the proper understanding and modeling of participation workflows are also important to a successful design and implementation of such a system. As Alter (2003) stated any technology-savvy capabilities built into the decision support systems must be incorporated into relevant work systems. Since GEOVPMSis kind of public-involved decision support system, the same understanding applies. By modeling participation workflows, we will be able to understand better how the people involve in what workflow activities and need to use what methods and tools. Especially for the EAprocesses, the timely and predictable process, that helps engage the public and address their concerns while meeting the proponent’s desire, will be ensured through the work-flow modeling and controlling. Given the length of this paper, however, these issues will be dealt with in other papers to be published elsewhere.


The participants, be the public or any other interested stakeholders, are at the center of any system supporting public participation in decision making processes. Careful study on user requirements from both business (planning process view) and potential users of the system is the key to ensure a successful design and development of such a system. The research reported here has adopted a user-centered approach, which splits the overall study into requirement study stage and design and implementation stage (see Figure 6).

The requirement study aims at clearer identification and better understanding of related planning models/rules, participation workflow models, user groups and roles, and other special characteristics in public participation. The first stage of the requirement study focused on the review and examination of existing public consultation practices, processes, and policies and regulations literature. The initial

results (identified requirements) were used as the basis to build preliminary prototype system so that detailed require-ments study may be conducted. The further study will be based on:

Dialogs with selected municipal and, if necessary, provincial and federal government organizations responsible for auditing, regulating or conducting public consultation related to urban/municipal planning and environmental assessment.

Identify and describe common data, functional and collabo-ration requirements as well as workflow processes that provide an operational context of these requirements, based on these conversations and a detailed review of collected government literature.

Develop a critical comparison of data model/format, architec-ture and interoperability supported by various PPGISand collaborative GISsolutions and existing open specifications in relation to these requirements.

Identify and develop an initial meaningful metrics to quantify effectiveness and efficiency of current practices in terms of citizens’ access to information, communication channels, level of public participation, and the overall decision-making process.

The system design and implementation has adopted an experimental prototyping approach (Li, 2006), using munici-pal class environmental assessment as case studies. This approach allows us to quickly construct prototypes of GEOVPMScomponents based on the initial specifications of requirements. The developed prototypes are then used to further investigate and refine the requirements. In the course of development, the designs of these reusable prototypes have also formed the basis for the final system design, and are used for more rigorous prototyping effort.

Environmental Assessment Acts at all levels of government in Canada, including many around the world, emphasize the importance of public participation in environment assessment (EA) processes. At municipal level, public participation in municipal class environmental assessment (MCEA) is currently realized through an iterative process of public meetings and reviews, of which the public and the interested agencies are notified via public notices. The process provides opportuni-ties for public input, gathered through public meetings, telephone inquiries, letters, email and faxes. It therefore makes significant sense using MCEAas case studies.



Early effort has been made on developing the prototypes of individual integral components of GEOVPMS, including online public notice system, GIS-based discussion forum and 2D/3D real-time collaborative GIS. Some of these developments that have a GIScomponent are briefly described in this section, with discussions on the related issues.

GEONOTICE: Public Notice System

Online GIS-enabled public notice systems, called GEONOTICE, play two important roles: (a) notifying the public of upcom-ing public meetupcom-ings and allowupcom-ing the interested citizens to explore project information and become prepared for the public meeting; and (b) providing a platform for continuous soliciting of the public input and presentation of the final results. Comparing with time-limited public meeting ses-sions, this online notice system enables more citizens to participate in decision making process at a flexible period of time. The system was initially prototyped using proprietary technology (see Li et al., 2004), and its components have now undergone the process of redesigning and migration into the new GEOVPMSenvironment.

The re-design aims at enhancing the level of public participation through proactive measures that keep the


public informed and aware of any participation opportuni-ties. In terms of using email push versus voluntary access to the public notice or subscription of mailing list, the system is open for the participants to define their preference of being informed. Other features such as “email mapping,” i.e., including maps generated on-the-fly in notification emails, will also be considered in our next steps. The redesigned notification system will provide the following enhanced GIS-related functions:

Basic web GISfor exploring the spatial context of the problem.

Creation of location-based notification list of citizens, for example those who will be affected by the project based on their geographic location.

Dynamic representations for possible consequences (as part of GISfor exploring spatial context of the problem), e.g., combination of interactive modeling and animation mapping techniques.

Location map and find-your-way to public meetings.

In order to support these enhanced features, online GIS services are required, i.e., one or more web-based GISservice components must be in place on the server side. Since the data available for such access may be from different sources, the open GISspecifications have been considered in imple-menting such services, which is also true for GISservices required by other GEOVPMSspatial functions, as described later. Another consideration in providing required GIS services is the potential cost. For example, the location map and driving directions require a database which has the most updated information on road/street networks. To reduce the cost of obtaining and maintaining such databases, APIs from Google, MapQuest®and Yahoo®have been

evaluated to take advantage of their services.

GIS-based Discussion Forum

The concept of georeferenced discussion forum was initiated or pioneered by Li (2002, pp. 275) as “concerns spatially-marked up on map displays,” Rinner (1999) as “argumenta-tion map,” and more recently by Tang and Coleman (2005) as “geo-enabled online discussion forum.” In his recent paper, Rinner (2006) further refined his argumentation map model that depicts the relationships between the argumentation elements embedded in messages and geo-graphic reference objects on the maps. Built on these early efforts, a new prototype GIS-based online discussion forum was designed and developed using open source solution.

To better organize the public input, together with the necessary map data, all comments are “threaded” and are stored and managed in the system database. This allows easy access to other’s input and following-up comments on that input, with references to textual, mappable and other media-type data related to the problems in discussion. The organi-zation of threaded comments is similar to any threaded discussion forum found on the Internet. Our focus was put on different ways of georeferencing the public input, better handy tools for the public to prepare spatial context (e.g., map views and geographic objects), modeling of message structures and message flows, and replay of the same spatial context when georeferenced messages are viewed by others.

The system architecture of this part of the prototype is illustrated in Figure 7. The application server takes requests from users (the public or other interested parties), processes the requests, and provides responses back to users. As such, it consists of many server-side application logics such as communicating with the MapServer to create GISfunctional interfaces and visual displays, establishing on-the-fly links between discussion forum and GIS(e.g., linking posted message to a particular map feature), and performing GIS

query functions. Once it is tested and evaluated, it will be integrated with the other subsystems of GEOVPMSunder the framework previously discussed.

Figure 8 shows a demo-interface of the GIS-based discus-sion forum based on HTMLframe layout. The threaded forum messages are displayed in the left panel and the right panel is used for GISexploration. There have two ways the public can post their comments: by starting a new topic or by replying other people’s opinions. When the comments are posted, the related spatial objects, spatial extension and annotation (collectively called spatial context here) are stored at the same time. When other users view the comment, the spatial context is restored to its original setting in order to provide a better understanding between the two public users.

Figure 7. Architecture of geo-referenced discussion forum prototype.


The GIScomponent provides such functions as zoom in/out, pan, identify, overview map, simple attribute query, feature-linked annotation, and user-defined annotation. It also allows control of map scales, layer visibility, and legend. The feature-linked annotation function allows annota-tions attached to any selected feature (point, line, or poly-gon) which can be restored when the user login the system, while the user-defined annotation means annotations on any user-defined spot or area. The further work will be focusing on redesign the interface to make it more close to a look-and-feel user interface, especially for naïve users.

One of the problems associated with discussion forum, as noted by Hansen et al. (2005) in introduction article on a special issue on public participation, is the discussion forum has the potential for adding false or even malicious remarks. There are a few ways to avoid the problem, for example, by some kind of moderating facility or having a register/login facility. We also expect the use of workflow agents to act as expert or mediation facilitators so to help ease the problem and foster some kind of guided discussion. However, this will depend on cultivated workflow rules, e.g., filtering rules to minimize false or malicious messages.

2D/3DReal-time Collaborative GIS

Environmental assessment and other municipal planning activities normally involve complex spatial concepts that are not easy to understand by the general public without much background knowledge and experience in dealing with spatial information. Very often the spatial concepts are explained using hardcopy maps (e.g., a number of posters showing the maps of a “what-if” scenario). GIShas been proved to be an efficient way to explain the related spatial concepts during the participation and decision-making process. However, stand-alone GIStools are not suitable for a group environment such as public meeting attended by remote participants.

The collaborative GIScomponent described below allows shared view of map display and control of map features not only during a meeting session but also among the participants to engage in a one-on-one discussion at their preferred time. Built on computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW)

concepts, a collaborative GISsystem may possess a set of basic tools that permit: (a) shared view, control and object selection of geographical information; (b) annotation and mark-up of geographic (map) features with multimedia data in the form of text, graphics, photos, and audio/video clips; (c) interactive exploration of geographical data for spatial problems; and (d) awareness of other collaborators and their outcomes.

The basic collaborative viewing, controlling and object selection tools support simple browsing, retrieving, and querying of spatial data represent the basic requirements of a collaborative GISenvironment. These tools capture typical single-user based functions such as panning, zoom-ing, identifyzoom-ing, searching/querying GISfeatures, and adding/ removing layers.

More advanced analysis and interactive modeling func-tions allow participants to propose alternative scenarios and quickly share the potential consequence of the proposed alternatives (generated automatically by the system) with other participants. An example of interactive modeling is to identify the location of a road segment for road expansion develop-ment. When one participant draws or traces a line (perhaps representing the central line of the road), the affected proper-ties together with their attribute information (e.g., assessment values and their statistics) are obtained and displayed on all participants’ screen right away. Figure 9 illustrates an earlier interface (undergoing a redesign and development now) when one participant define an area for potential development, and the affected road segments are selected and highlighted on every participant’s display simultaneously.

Collaborative GISenvironments mimic the face-to-face meetings to certain extent, where social conventions, such as eye contacts and gestures, are an important element for successful group efforts. Not fully simulated, a collaborative GISalso requires such functions as multimedia annotation, graphical mark-up, and red-lining. Annotation capabilities include capacity of adding text, sound, photo, and video to spatial features. It is argued that annotation mechanism may not be suitable for a simultaneous collaboration setting because it stops meeting flows and diverts participants’ concentration (Shiffer, 1999). However, it at least presents useful tools for different time collaborations where annota-tions are reviewed at different time.

More recently, an initial prototype has been constructed based on its 2Dcounterpart to allow users to share 3D GIS models, which we believe will be a useful, interactive tool for supporting public meetings (see Figure 10 for a

Figure 9. Collaborative exploration of spatial scenarios window (Gu, 2004).


snapshot). This collaborative 3Dcapability allows the participants to interact on 3Dmodels by routing, moving, and zooming. Further functions are to be added to allow identification, query and annotation of 3Dobjects.

Some important issue needs to be carefully considered include the floor controland later comingafter the above collaborative GIStools to be integrated in GEOVPMS environ-ment. For the public meetings, it is most likely the presen-ters or the mediator has the floor and has the right to give the control to others who needs to interact with the shared GISview. In this case, a “granting floor” mechanism is adopted. However, when the tools are used for supporting real-time free discussion among two or more participants, nobody is supposed to have the absolute control of the floor. In this case, a “detection floor” mechanism is adopted. The later coming ensures the participants join the session later has the most updated views as others.

Discussions and Conclusions

This paper discusses the application context, design, and some implementation issues of a preliminary development effort of an online GIS-enabled virtual public meeting space system. While we believe the system will help improve the public participation in municipal class EAprocess, there are still many issues that need to be further studied before the system can be implemented to support the real world projects. For example, how the citizen’s feedback is handled by the authorities is critical in public participation, which has not been dealt with by this research so far. And also in order to make the system applicable to other planning areas, some typical planning scenarios need to be carefully

modeled and analyzed.

GIS, or PPGIS, has proved to be an effective means to increase public participation. However, it has to be inte-grated with other information and communication technol-ogy, especially with existing or re-engineered decision-making processes to be more effective. The level of contents and functionality also needs to be compatible with various levels of citizen involvement, in particular the technical level of knowledge required to better utilize the tools of GEOVPMS. To avoid “one size fits all” problem, customization capability to fit the system into different types of processes, different levels of contents and services needs to be consid-ered in further refinement of the system. As more integra-tion is involved, the design of user-friendly interfaces for the none-expert public users will become a real challenge.

GEOVPMSis not intended to replace traditional ways of obtaining public input on policy and planning debate; it is rather complementary to those approaches. This dual existence attributes to a number of factors including the limited access to the Internet in some areas and some social sectors and possible public resistance in adopting new technology-based means of participation. It is also arguable about whether or not the developed solution will help improve the lack of enthusiasm in participating in the public debate due to the concern that their input may not be seriously considered. As such, the implementation, testing and usability assessment of GEOVPMSwith real world projects will be a critical part of the research once the prototype development is completed.

Although advantages and benefits were argued in the paper to support the proposed open source solution, people do argue about the downside of the open source. For example, their stability, reliability (in contrary to what was said before) and maintenance may be of concern if they are not actively worked on and tested. This should be well considered in selecting difference open source technologies.

While continuously working on finalizing the prototype based on the GEOVPMSand the overall system design, the ongoing and/or next-step research effort will be put on:

Evaluate and test whether or not selected existing GIS, groupware, and decision-making tools can be successfully translated into this new architecture, and if not develop new tools required to meet requirements.

Connecting potential government/industry partners and the general public to develop and test web-based prototypes which demonstrate key and proposed participatory GISfunctions and redesigned online public participation workflows.

Employ the prototype to investigate how citizens’ access to information, communication channels, level of public participation, and the overall decision-making process may be affected or influenced by adopting web-base collaborative

PPGIS, in comparison with traditional approaches.


This research has been supported by a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada Discov-ery Grant awarded to Dr. Songnian Li. The authors thank the reviewers for their constructive comments, which not only improved the quality of the paper but also help in further research effort of the project.


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