Home Articles Public Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PP GIS) in the Gulf Region

Public Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PP GIS) in the Gulf Region

Fred Ernst
Development Commission of Makkah
Madinah and the Holy Sites
P.O.Box 55255
Jeddah 21534
Saudi Arabia
[email protected]

Knowledge is power. This old proverb is more meaningful than ever as we are striving towards building knowledge cities. The world’s burgeoning cities are a critical fact of the 21st Century – and represent one of the greatest challenges to the future. By the year 2050 cities with populations over three million will more than double from 70 today to over 150. Those of them that will succeed in becoming part of the knowledge city community will have great advantages over those that will fail.

According to Leif Edvinsson knowledge city can defined as “a city that purposefully designed to encourage the nurturing of knowledge”. Characteristics of a knowledge city have been proposed in a position paper titled “Culture, The Motor Of The Knowledge City – Strategic Plan of the Cultural Sector of Barcelona” (Barcelona City Council, 2003) and are listed below:

  • A city that has instruments to make knowledge accessible to citizens.
  • A network of public libraries that is compatible with the European standards.
  • Access to the new communication technologies for all citizens.
  • All cultural facilities and services with a central educational strategy.
  • A city that has a newspaper- and book-reading level that is similar to the average European level.
  • A city that has a network of schools connected with artistic instruction throughout its territory.
  • A city that is respectful of the diversity of cultural practices of its citizens.
  • A city that places the streets at the service of culture.
  • A city that simplifies, through the provision of spaces and resources, the cultural activity of the community collectivities and associations.
  • A city with civic centers that are open to diversity and that foster face-to-face relations.
  • A city that makes available to citizens from other territories all the tools required for them to express themselves.

In order to fulfill the first criteria powerful information systems have to be put in place that can handle the spatial context of urban information. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are best suited to store, analyze and display data that have spatial relationships. In the past, whole Municipal Information Systems have been build upon GIS technology whereas nowadays, GIS tends more and more to be integrated into mainstream IT systems.

Public Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PP GIS) is a field of special applications that focuses on the use of GIS by the general public and aims at involving citizens in decision-making processes. PP GIS is an abbreviation which indicates that the public needs to be supported when addressing community based problems, since a variety of perspectives are common in different planning processes. PP GIS seeks to expand the use of GIS to the general public and non-governmental organizations that are not usually represented in traditional top down GIS implementations (Talen, 2000).

In most cases, applications supporting PP GIS use the web as a platform for communication and dissemination of information (Kingston, Carver, Evans, Turton, 1999). Technically and conceptually, these systems allow for novel approaches, for example to organize an online forum where citizens have the possibility to express their opinions, the usage of new image generation systems or augmented reality systems so that the users can walk through a “planned city” (Steinmann, Krek, Blaschke, 2004).

All these applications share the same approach of using GIS as a means to facilitate community participation in a diversity of social and environmental contexts in common. However, applications differ widely in terms of the level of interactivity and the way in which the users communicate with the system as well as in terms of functionality and content. In this paper several examples of online PP GIS applications are compared and evaluated according to their usability, interactivity and spatial visualization. Analysis of some important samples in the Gulf Region are presented and it is discussed how they can stimulate more active participation of the general public in decision-making at the urban and regional level.

Internet Access in the Gulf Region
Usually, PP GIS applications make only sense if Internet access with reasonable speed is provided. According to Madar Research Group, 2006, growth rate of Internet use in Arab countries has substantially risen over 2004 levels, to average at around 55 percent, with few countries where Internet penetration is lowest witnessing three-digit growth.

Nevertheless a huge gap remains between Arab countries in terms of Internet penetration. While Internet use has become so widespread in United Emerites of Arabia, where users are dropping dial-up access in favor of broadband connections, Internet use in Saudi Arabia is still reminiscent of the early years of the advent of public Internet having a penetration rate of only 10.6% (Internet World Stats, 2007).

Even with such low penetration rates according to Al-Saggaf (2004) “There is a radical transformation taking place in KSA. The Saudis are poised on the edge of a significant new social landscape.” This new “frontier” includes not only the creation of new forms of private communication but also online discussion areas where PP GIS applications could fit in. And keeping in mind the high growth rates of Internet access a much higher Internet penetration rate can be anticipated for the near future.

Evaluation of Selected PP GIS applications

Criteria for Evaluation
The evaluation of the selected PP GIS applications will be based on three criteria:

  • Interactivity,
  • Spatial visualization, and
  • Usability.

Interactivity means that some action of the user generates a response either from another person at the other end of the connection or from a application residing on the server side. Generally, PP GIS applications include operations like zoom, pan, copy and paste themes between views, and spatial queries like distance measurements, location and number of occurrences of an entity, attributes of an entity, shortest path, etc. More sophisticated interfaces should be designed in a way that support is given for personal interests and preferences, the exploration of planned alternatives and assessment of these alternatives. Finally, in order to be real “participatory” the interface should allow for expression of a personal opinion about planning alternatives and voting for the favorite one.

Spatial visualization is a powerful method for the representation of spatial data on man made and natural features. These data sets can be further combined with digital elevation models (DEM), aerial photography, satellite images and linked to pictures, video, sound and other documents. The ultimate goal should be the setting up of a virtual reality system for planning purposes, in which the citizen can get a real feeling of the existing and the planned environments. Usually, this includes the presentation of all or selected features in 3D mode and a “walk through” or “fly through”.

Usability: PP GIS applications should be easily usable and understandable by a broad public audience. Although such a general statement applies for any software it is of utmost importance in the case of PP GIS. The target group of PP GIS applications is the general public, which naturally is a very heterogeneous group of users and therefore not easily definable. In addition, it has to be kept in mind that especially in the case of the Gulf Region the potential users have a diverse range of world views, cultural backgrounds and knowledge. These aspects require that PP GIS applications are easy to use (Haklay, 2003).

Selected PP GIS Applications
Four applications from the Gulf Region have been selected: “Explore Dubai” (including related applications), “Kuwait Electronic Guide”, “Explore Qatar” and an application developed for the Ministry of Higher Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although these samples should represent the major developments in the field of PP GIS in the Gulf Region it is not claimed that all ongoing activities have been described.

The GIS Center of the Municipality of Dubai developed an interactive online Internet mapping application that targets on the general public, special user groups and the business sector. “Explore Dubai” ) provides the user with a wealth of digital geographic information through a series of pre-defined maps and customized queries.

Main features of “Explore Dubai” are:

  • Accurate, detailed and up-to-date geographic, address based information accessible via computers and mobile devices.
  • Integration of multiple data sources in real-time.
  • Access to high-resolution aerial photography with easy to use tools that allow users to measure areas and distances.
  • Integrating of hyperlinks free of charge.

The next figure shows how hyperlinks can be embedded into “Explore Dubai”.

Figure 1: Internet Mapping application “Explore Dubai”

Another step towards PP GIS could be the launch of the first phase of the Engineering Projects Information Management System (EPIMS) by Dubai Municipality’s IT department. The system enables all the staff and clients to communicate through an integrated electronic channel, resulting in significant time savings and error-free completion of transactions. It also facilitates easy access to information, leading to better decision-making.

The new project allows various departments in the municipality such as Contracts & Purchasing, General Projects, and Finance, to submit their applications electronically. These applications range from accreditation materials, graphics, plans, programs and reports about the implementation of the engineering projects, in addition to financial requirements. EPIMS facilitates more effective internal communication between all departments of Dubai Municipality and to some extent with external users like contractors and consultants.

Like many other Arab countries the State of Kuwait has put much effort in developing e-Government initiatives. The Ministry of Interior, Public Authority of Civil Information and Kuwait Municipality are playing a key role in such activities. Although three authorities already applied e-Government on different levels, the Information Systems department at Kuwait Municipality is most advanced in the usage of GIS and accompanied databases. A Internet mapping application has been developed called “Kuwait Electronic Guide” (https://gis.baladia.gov.kw/) that enables printing of maps and answering queries on a basis of parcels. In addition, tourist information about the State of Kuwait, can be searched using this application. As a special feature of this application routing using shortest path algorithms can be conducted by the user (see figure below).

Figure 2: Internet Mapping application “Kuwait Electronic Guide”

The Center of GIS (CGIS) – State of Qatar is systematically implementing GIS for all agencies, government organizations and the general public of Qatar. Established in 1990, CGIS has been among the most active GIS organizations in the region. Already in 1999, Al Ghanim mentioned the concept of “societal GIS in Qatar”.

CGIS has developed the Internet mapping applications “Explore Qatar” ) that can be used o locate addresses, landmarks, nearest schools or clinics or highlight physical features on the live map (see figure below).

Figure 3: Planned Internet Mapping application “Explore Qatar”

Saudi Arabia
The Ministry of Higher Education of KSA has developed a special application to address the availability of facilities of higher education in KSA ) showing its spatial context and enabling in-depth analysis of selected attribute data. This is the only application of the ones described in this paper that enables queries with multiple criteria.

Figure 4: Internet Mapping application of Ministry of Higher Education of KSA

An overview of the evaluation of the presented samples in the chapters above in terms of interactivity, spatial visualization and usability is given in the table below. Although in the case of Dubai two different applications have been analyzed they have been considered one because they are all under the umbrella of the Municipality of Dubai and rely partly on the same data sources.

Table 1: Evaluation of presented samples

A thourough interpretation of the table shown above reveals how far the given criteria and sub criteria have been met:

  • Interactivity:
    • All applications offer basic functions for spatial and attribute query.
    • Some more sophisticated functions have also been included in all applications. For example, the EPIMS of Dubai enables a selected target group (construction sector) to view the status of construction projects.
    • Participation of the general public in the form of exploration of planning alternatives and voting is not yet foreseen in any of the applications.
  • Spatial visualization:
    • The amount of themes the user can select to be displayed varies considerably between the analyzed application. Where in some cases only about 5 different themes can be used a lot of other useful data (landmarks, service points) can be viewed in other cases.
    • Imagery is available in some of the applications originating from different satellite systems and aerial photography.
    • Linkage to other documents is missing in all the applications that were online.
  • Usability:
    • Although for the criteria interactivity and spatial visualization a whole subset of sub criteria during the evaluation process could be used this proved to be difficult for the criteria usability. A GIS professional would never share the same opinion with someone who even does not very well know how to navigate in the Internet. Therefor, besides some very general sub criteria like language options only an overall evaluation according to “the easier the better” has been carried out. For example, using terms like “SPOT” and “LANDSAT” without indicating that these are satellite data can only understood by a professional GIS user.

A total of five (including two for Dubai) applications of PP GIS in the Gulf Region have been described and evaluated by using the criteria of usability, spatial visualization and interactivity. Concerning the first and second criteria most of the applications embed tools to let them work efficiently for the purposes they were designed for. However, if it comes to the criteria of interactivity the picture changes: Whereas in all applications basic functions were included none of them (like most of all web-based GIS) incorporated tools for displaying planned projects or even to give opinions about them. Therefor, the question arises whether these applications can really be considered as “Participatory” GIS?

Definitively, this question can not be answered by yes or no. PP GIS is not just an online voting machine, it should also harbor components like online service delivery and online discussion. In order to enable the general public to participate in any planning process means to present information about its natural and man-made environment have to be put in place. “The right to know” has to be fulfilled first before any participation can start. And it is no secret that participation is only about to start in this region. PP GIS is not something static rather it has to be put into the context of the technological and societal developments taking place. Keeping this in mind, newest developments like EPIMS of Dubai that allows a selected user group to view planned projects indicate that the publication of information has obtained a higher priority than it had in the past.

Realizing how fast technological and societal development is progressing in this region the way to more advanced PP GIS might actually take not so long. Currently, in all the states of the Gulf Region the governments are seeking for ways to let the general public participate more actively in planning processes.

PP GIS offers all what these societies are looking for:

  • Possible participation of all different groups in any planning process.
  • Participation can be kept anonymous. This would of course require that the PP GIS is designed in a way that does not keep track of participating Internet users and trust has to be created by the owners of the systems.
  • Participation can be done without exposing gender. Under the assumption the participation of both sexes is expected, women can participate without being exposed.
  • PP GIS is a polling not a voting tool. That means the results of any participation process would not be binding for the respective government.

One fact could give some harm to this nice scenario: The “digital divide” is a reality in all the states of the region. If the access to Internet cannot be provided for a much higher proportion of the population PP GIS will become an anachronism: Instead of enabling all parts of the general public to express their wishes and needs it will be only another mean of the privileged to pursue their own interests.


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