Web-ppgis usability and Public Engagement: a case Study in Canmore, Alberta

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Web-PPGIS Usability and Public Engagement: A Case Study in Canmore, Alberta

Yunliang Meng*

Department of Geography, The University of Western Ontario, 1151 Richmond Street, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5C2

Email: ymeng6@uwo.ca

Jacek Malczewski

Department of Geography, The University of Western Ontario, 1151 Richmond Street, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5C2

Email: jmalczew@uwo.ca

Abstract: This paper quantitatively evaluates the usability of a Web-based Public Participatory GIS (Web-PPGIS) and the degree of public engagement in the context of a real-world spatial planning application. The public participatory decision-making process utilizes ArgooMap to support local residents in an online procedure for determining the “best” location of a new parkade in Canmore, Alberta. UsaProxy is employed to automatically collect the datasets on the system usability and the degree of public engagement. This research shows that the degree of public engagement depends significantly on the system usability measured in terms of the system efficiency, effectiveness and the participants’ satisfaction with using the system. These findings provide an important implication for designing Web-PPGIS.

Key words: Web-PPGIS, Multicriteria site selection analysis, Usability evaluation, Public engagement


* Corresponding author


Over the last decade or so, public engagement has increasingly been an important theme in urban planning process (see Talen 1999, Kingston et.al. 2000, Keßler 2004, Kingston 2007). This assertion is based on the premise that public engagement in the process can lead to a more sustainable, legitimate, democratic and effective plan. Public meeting is one of the most popular methods of public participation. The method requires that the meetings are hold in a certain place during a fixed period of time. This limits the number of people who can be involved in a decision-making/planning process. Therefore, there is a need for developing tools that can enable and support new ways to involve the citizens in the decision-making process (Krek 2005). In the past, various tools (a three dimentional cardboard scale model, poster, kiosk, etc.) have been used to facilitate public participation (e.g.: Rambaldi and Callosa 2000, Berner 2001). Since the later 1990s, the high-powered computer, the low cost desktop GIS, and decision support software have been used for supporting community collaboration and public participation in urban and community planning processes (e.g., Craig and Elwood 1998, Klosterman 1999, Talen 1999). This has been developed into a broad area of research, which is generally referred to as Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS). However, traditional GIS has been criticized as an elite technology (Pickles 1995) which is mainly operated by a small group of scholars, GIS technocrats, and planners due to high operation costs, complex design, and great learning barriers. A little progress has been made to encourage the general public to join in community-based GIS projects (Chua and Wong 2002).

In recent years, the appearance of the Internet and improved WWW technologies provide opportunities for PPGIS researchers. It has speeded up the incorporation of PPGIS into the WWW technologies (e.g.: Kingston et.al. 2000, Keßler 2004, Simão et.al. 2009). This type of systems is often referred to as Web-based PPGIS (Web-PPGIS). Web-PPGIS overcomes many problems brought by the traditional GIS and conventional public participation methods (see Kingston et.al. 2000, Chua and Wong 2002, Keßler 2004). For examples, people can join the public participation process at any time and any place that has a computer and internet service. The complexity of GIS and spatial analysis is hidden from the user. A Web-PPGIS enables people to express their views by posting comments in a relatively anonymous and non-confrontational manner. It also supports two- to multi- way flow of information.

Most Web-PPGIS research and projects have focused on making Web-PPGIS available and accessible to the general public to stimulate more informed participation and decision-making (Sieber 2006, Kingston 2007). At the same time, the rapid technical progress in the area of developing Web-PPGIS has raised some questions regarding the evaluation of Web-PPGIS technology. One concern is related to the usability of Web-PPGIS. When an increasing number of lay people get access to a Web-PPGIS, it is important to raise the issue of how usable the system is for a wide range of potential users. Web-PPGIS practitioners need not only to upload a Web-PPGIS to a website, but also design it in an effective, efficient, and satisfying way for users to perform specific tasks (ISO 1998). If the system usability is unsatisfactory, it could cause issues such as wasting users’ time, making them worry and frustration, and eventually discouraging their engagement in the public participatory process. This leads to the concept of degree of public engagement which, in this study, is referred to as the degree of public participants’ interactions with the website holding a Web-PPGIS and other participants in the online public participatory decision-making process against a set of clearly defined goals.

An important objective of Web-PPGIS projects is to use the technology to engage grass-roots public members in the decision-making process. Hence, we suggest that empirical studies are needed to: (1) evaluate the usability of a Web-PPGIS and degree of public engagement quantitatively; and (2) explore the Web-PPGIS usability as the determinant of the degree of public engagement. These two research objectives will be investigated by using a Web-PPGIS: ArgooMap (Rinner 2001, Keßler 2004) for tackling a multicriteria site selection problem, which involves public participants to determine the “best” location for a new parkade in the downtown of Canmore, Alberta.

The paper is organized as follows. The next Section provides a brief review of the system usability evaluation and public engagement, including the levels and degree of public engagement. Then, the paper demonstrates how to collect the system usability and the degree of public engagement metrics for different users in a real-world public participatory planning situation. The following Section gives the results and analysis on the relationships between the system usability and the degree of public engagement. Finally, discussion and conclusions are presented.


Usability evaluation refers to the process of systematically collecting data on how people use the system for a particular task in a particular environment (Preece et.al. 2002). There are two main types of methods to evaluate usability (Banati et.al. 2006). First, the inspection methods (e.g.: the heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough, and walk through inspection) mainly involve system developers or experts to do the test following a set of schemes. Second, the user testing methods involve a set of procedures for collecting data when users interact with the system to perform pre-specified tasks. Then, the system usability can be quantified in terms of users’ performance and satisfaction during the interaction with the system (Butler 1996). No general rule exists for how usability measures should be chosen or aggregated (ISO 1998). However, it is suggested that at least one measure for each of: effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction has to be provided (ISO 1998). In addition, how to choose the measures and decide the details of each measure depends on “the objectives of parties involved in the measurement” (ISO 1998:10).

There is some usability research done in the context of Web-PPGIS. Haklay and Tobón (2003) discuss the association between human-computer interaction (HCI) and usability evaluation. Haklay and Tobón (2003) argue that software characteristics such as ease of use and user friendliness are more elusive than one may expect, so only appropriate testing can verify whether the system design is successful in meeting users’ needs. Sidlar and Rinner (2007) provide a case study focusing on different aspects of the usability of a Web-PPGIS: argumentation map (Rinner 2001, Keßler 2004). Although a considerable progress has been made in advancing research about the system usability (e.g. Haklay and Tobón 2003, Sidlar and Rinner 2007, Haklay and Zafiri 2008, Ingensand and Golay 2009), there are no studies on measuring various aspects of usability systematically and quantitatively.

The phrase “public engagement” in the urban planning context refers to a process of bringing citizens, community non-profit organizations, businesses, and government together to solve planning problems that affect everybody’s life (Rabinovitch 2004). It is often used haphazardly in PPGIS research and confused with the notion of public participation. Public engagement suggests a degree of personal choice, commitment, and willingness (Rabinovitch 2004). It also implies an interweaving of responsibility, action and a degree of control. PPGIS practitioners tend to use the ladders of public participation as the conceptual framework to guide public participation (e.g.: Arnstein 1969, Weidemann and Femers 1993, IAP2 2004). In PPGIS literatures, the term public engagement is often used interchangeably with the notion of public participation when it refers to high levels of public participation activities (see Table 1).

Table 1. Ladders of Public Participation (Source: Schlossberg and Shuford 2003, IAP2 2004)

Arnstein (1969)

Weidemann and Femers (1993)

IAP2 (2004)

Citizen Power

■ Citizen control

■ Delegated power

■ Partnership


■ Placation

■ Consultation

■ Informing


■ Therapy

■ Manipulation

■ Public participation in final decision

■ Public participation

in assessing risks and

recommending solutions

■ Public participation in defining interests and actors and determining agenda

■ Public right to object

■ Informing the public

■ Public right to know


■ Implement what the public decides


■ To identified preferred solution with the public


■ To work directly with the public


■ To obtain public feedback


■ To keep people informed

Increasing Public Participation

or Citizen Control

PPGIS practitioners often assume that public participants would be empowered if they engaged in high levels of public participation activities. The assumption is based on the premise that the higher level of public participation, the more control for the decision outcomes. Therefore, a key focus of Web-PPGIS research has been on enhancing the level of public engagement by providing access to the relevant tools, data and information to enable more informed engagement and decision-making. However, the assumption is questionable.

After adopting the new technologies to facilitate public participation, the feedback from local community members is sometimes quite frustrating. Lee (2000) demonstrates that about 34% of all users visit the website holding GIS on a monthly or occasional basis. Hopkins et.al. (2004) find that some participants often just give up in the mid of the participation process because of great learning barriers and complicated interfaces. Sidlar and Rinner (2007), and Ingensand and Golay (2009) report that the project ends up by having a few number of participants. Although the general public has the opportunity to contribute and exert its influence on the project, it seems that many people are reluctant to get engaged. This is an issue long ignored by Web-PPGIS professionals. These are the evidence suggesting that providing an improved access to the systems and relevant data is no longer sufficient to enhance the degree of public engagement in the participatory decision-making process.

May (2007) introduces a model called “triangle of engagement” that can be used to explain the relationships among the level of public engagement, the degree of public engagement, and the prevalence (the number of participants engaged) (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Triangle of Engagement (Source: May 2007)

In the model, the level of public engagement increases from the base to the apex. Each level of public engagement is corresponding to a different degree of public engagement costing the participant various time and energy (May 2007). The higher up the triangle, the higher the degree of public engagement and the less the prevalence. However, May’s (2007) model descriptively discloses the relationships among the prevalence, level and degree of public engagement rather than quantitatively. It does not demonstrate how to measure the degree of public engagement quantitatively. It comes short of explaining, why some participants could commit higher degree of engagement than others while they have joined the same level of public participation.


Study Area

Canmore, Alberta is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (Kananaskis Country), approximately 20 km east of Banff and 100 km west of Calgary (see http://www.canmore.ca). The town is an administration and business center for residents and employees of the Banff National Park, Kananaskis Country, and the Bow Valley. It has a population of about 16,000. Canmore is a transitional town experiencing changes due to tourism expansion. As a result of growing population pressures and changes in the nature and intensity of economic activities, issues of land use planning have become increasingly important (Town of Canmore 2007).

Evaluating Sites for Building a Parkade in Canmore, Alberta

Two groups of people (local residents and tourists) contribute to the demand for parking service in the downtown of Canmore. The tourists can be further categorized into the day-visit tourists and stay tourists depending on whether they stay overnight in the town. The day-visit tourists usually stay in Canmore for just few hours. They get off the Highway No. 1 by Benchlands Trail Overpass, drive to Canmore downtown for a meal, gas or other short time activities, and then head to other places without staying overnight. The stay tourists are those who spend at least one night in Canmore. The number of hotel room units is used to quantify the demand from the stay tourists. In Canmore, the private vehicles are the dominant transportation mode for local residents. However, the local government does not collect vehicle ownership statistics. Therefore, the 2006 Canmore population data are used as an approximate measure for the demand for parking from the local residents. The Local Delivery Units (LDU) (the smallest postal delivery zones, see Figure 2) are employed for describing the spatial distribution of population and stay tourists. The centroids of each LDU and location of Benchlands Trail Overpass are used as demand points. There are 410 LDUs in Canmore.

The Planning Department of Canmore has selected four candidate sites for a new parkade in the downtown of Canmore (see Figure 2). However, the department welcomes any suggestions or recommendations from local residents regarding potential locations for constructing the parkade. Nevertheless, only the four candidate sites will be evaluated and ranked quantitatively.

Figure 2. Study Area

The four sites are evaluated using a set of criteria including: (1) weighted average distance to local residents, (2) weighted maximum distance to local residents, (3) weighted average distance to stay tourists, and (4) weighted maximum distance to stay tourists, (5) distance to Benchlands Trail Overpass, (6) distance to Main Street, (7) the number of people living within 100m of a candidate site, (8) the size of a candidate site, and (9) cost of land acquisition are employed for evaluating the suitability of a candidate site. Except the size of a candidate site, all evaluation criteria are to be minimized.
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