Wisconsin Geospatial News

Children and citizens voice their concerns through GIS

For more information

Visit the PPM website, or contact Sam Dennis or Suzanne Gaulocher .

Many organizations use GIS tools to inform citizens about the environment, pollution and help them understand planning decisions in a one-way outreach model. However, researchers Sam Dennis and Suzanne Gulocher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are taking a unique approach by geographically positioning or geolocating qualitative data collected by citizens to help shape and inform political decisions. Issues ranging from health to planning are addressed through a process they call Participatory Photo Mapping (PPM).

PPM at its most basic level involves people taking pictures and linking them to a map. Influenced by PhotoVoice, PPM gives decision makers a strong tool by coupling qualitative data with quantitative data. It also creates an avenue for people to use their personal experiences to influence decisions in their community.

The fundamental aspects of PPM involve several steps. First, participants are trained in the use of digital cameras and GPS units (initially digital cameras containing GPS technology were used, but costs quickly became prohibitive). Participants then take pictures during their daily activities. Often these photos are used in neighborhood focus groups to identify common issues, but all are eventually geolocated and used to inform local decision-makers.

During one project, 4th and 5th graders documented their travel to the proposed site of the Cyprus Spray Park in Madison, WI. The children photographed the trip from their homes or schools, focusing on the difficult and dangerous portions of their journey. These images were then geolocated and mapped, which in turn was used by the City of Madison Planning Department to influence design and implementation of the facility.

Community members in another project, again children, gave personalized stories and pictures of where they played in the community, places which they felt were dangerous, and where they saw or heard guns. These data were then given to health officials or combined with police data to deepen the understanding of issues in that community. This particular project is continuing with the same children giving community tours to area health officials to help them further understand issues these children face.

Two questions about this process might be: will “professionals” use this data, and can an underprivileged 4th grader really use a GPS unit? While the data collected is much less quantitative than many GIS professionals are accustomed to, Professor Dennis says there is much interest in this type of data. From police and health clinic officials, to community activists and planners, the interest in PPM is much greater than first thought. In regard to the ability of children to use the technology, Professor Dennis says the children he has worked with quickly learn to use the GPS units. He gives the specific example of children understanding the position of satellites from viewing a particular screen of his GPS unit.

PPM is both an innovative and important undertaking. Data often loses its human component during analysis and conversion, but by pulling people back into it, decision-makers gain an important tool and the public gains additional influence in their community.