Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have traditionally been used by government agencies engaged in land use planning. As public participation in environmental decision-making has increased in recent times, so has use of Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS).

This research addresses the current debate regarding PPGIS and its effects on public participants in environmental decision-making processes by comparing the “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to providing participants with access to GIS. A set of criteria for evaluating these two approaches were developed and applied to two case studies: (1) Was the GIS information provided easy to use and/or interpret?; (2) Did the GIS assist the participant in their role or help them in any way?; (3) Did the GIS have an impact on decisions being made or opinions of participants?; (4) Were participants comfortable using GIS?; (5) Did the GIS meet the expectations of the participants?; (6) What were the most useful functions of the GIS?; and (7) Will participants be able to use GIS in future?

The two case studies were based in the Illawarra region on the south-east coast of Australia. The Kiama Local Environment Plan (LEP) Review was a case study using the “top-down” approach, where a Community Panel of sixteen citizens of the Kiama municipality were provided with facilitated access to Kiama Council’s GIS data to propose a series of recommendations for inclusion in the new LEP. The Landcare Illawarra Community GIS Project was a case study in the “bottom-up” approach where members of Landcare groups in the Illawarra region were provided with GIS software, data and training to assist them to plan, conduct and evaluate their existing projects.

The research found that participants in each case study found the GIS easy to use. Participants in the Landcare case study felt empowered by the GIS because they were able to input their own data, while empowerment of participants in the Kiama LEP Review was dependent on how the Community Panel was facilitated. GIS impacted on the planning decisions made by participants in both case studies. Participants in the Landcare case study who had hands on experience with the GIS, were comfortable with using the technology, gained familiarity with the software during a training course and quickly applied it to their own ends. The most useful functions for Kiama participants were framed in terms of how it assisted them to access the information they required, while Landcare participants noted many of the technical functions such as the ability to input data from a GPS, to calculate areas and to query data as the most useful functions.

WebGIS sites were developed for each case study, but the lack of adequate feedback from webGIS users meant that the use of GIS by website participants could not be evaluated as part of this research. Also, while the Landcare case study participants have ongoing access to GIS, it is difficult to determine whether Landcare members will continue to use it given the current lack of technical support.

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Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.