Data Visualization 1997: Previewing the Future

Community Access to GIS: Avoiding Intimidation and Trivialization

Chavan, Abhijeet
Visiting Research Associate
Imaging Systems Laboratory
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
101 Temple Buell Hall
611 E. Lorado Taft Drive
Champaign, IL 61820

Orland, Brian
Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Koenigs, Deanna
Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The explosion of World Wide Web (WWW) as a popular and widely available technology for connecting distributed digital resources has provided the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry with a new delivery mechanism. GIS information delivered via the WWW has the potential of reaching beyond traditional audiences to reach experts and non-experts alike. This development is particularly significant for organizations and government agencies that deliver public information to citizens. This paper discusses some issues involved with providing community access to such information. Three case studies are presented. The different approaches used by these case studies to organize and deliver public information are examined. This paper suggests mechanisms to improve community access to public information.


The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry has seen tremendous growth in the past few years. GIS applications are being implemented in scientific research, business, and government. Vast amounts of digital data are being generated as a result of the growing use of GIS. However, products created using GIS and digital data have traditionally been delivered in non-digital formats like paper maps, charts, and reports. Predominantly, GIS end-products -- especially those delivered in a digital format like CD-ROMs -- have been geared towards GIS experts.

The explosion of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) as a popular and widely available technology for connecting distributed digital resources has provided GIS with a new delivery mechanism. The use of the WWW for the delivery of GIS data is seen as a significant development in GIS-related technology (Danielson, 1997). A GIS integrates widely separated resources into networks of data and models. GIS information delivered via the WWW and suitable interfaces makes the technology available for experts and non-experts alike. Using an internet connection and WWW browser software it is possible to deliver GIS end-products in rich media formats like interactive maps and animations to a larger audience.

This development is particularly significant for organizations and government agencies that deliver public information to citizens. Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of the expert to identify user information needs, interpret data, and present a product that satisfies those needs. The results have been presented as end-products -- typically as maps, charts, or reports -- designed to communicate with a particular kind of audience. Opening up direct access to GIS data online means that the web site that serves as the delivery system must take on the responsibility of interpreting and responding to the user's information needs.

Mechanisms for improving community access

Morris and Ogan (1996) have proposed that the following factors are among those that influence the success of communications media:

Critical mass is the size of the audience that accesses the information. Interactivity is the responsiveness of the online medium (Morris and Ogan, 1996). User gratification is the value of the delivered information to the user.

In the context of the GIS delivery on the WWW, these communication goals must be adjusted to the opportunities and limitations of the technological setting. The successful delivery of GIS via the WWW depends on the wide and easy availability of the media (critical mass). Also critical are the level of involvement of the user in accessing this information (interactivity), and the ability of the delivery system to satisfy the information needs of the user (user gratification). The following mechanisms can be used to improve the effectiveness of GIS-based public information delivered via the WWW:


Achievement of critical mass is largely affected by the availability and visibility of the online media. The following mechanisms can increase availability:


Interactivity is achieved through active involvement of the user in navigating the data.

User Gratification

User gratification is achieved when users satisfy their own information needs or questions.

Case Studies

Several commercial and government organizations have launched web sites delivering GIS-based public information to citizens and communities. Different web sites choose different approaches to organize and deliver this information. Three web sites delivering public information were selected as case studies. A description of the web site is followed by a discussion of the approach used to deliver GIS-based public information.


Mapquest, available at is a general purpose online atlas developed by Geosystems Global Corporation ( It provides trip planner for detailed driving directions and a tool for users planning to relocate to a different city. Mapquest also provides access to business directories and city guides.

The web site presents the user with a task-oriented view of the data. Instead of presenting the user with a list of the databases that are linked to the site, the main page of the web site features tasks that are relevant to the user (Figure 1). Users can display a map of a location by specifying a street address. an address to receive a map of that location. "Tripquest" provides detailed driving directions between two points along with relevant interactive maps of the two points. "Movequest" links GIS data with other databases and directories to provide a tool for users planning to relocate. Again, the information is presented in terms of tasks like "find homes, rent apartments, find businesses" that are relevant to the user. These three tools encourage user involvement by offering opportunities for the user to select and customize the data that is displayed.

Figure 1: Main Page of Mapquest

Figure 1: Main page of Mapquest

The maps are delivered using both regular and advanced WWW technologies but users can choose the technology that is most appropriate for their internet connection and software. The interactive maps can be customized and shared with other users via an online bulletin board. The language and the graphics used at the site provide a clear interface to the GIS data.


The East St. Louis Geographic Information Retrieval System (EGRETS), available at, is developed by the East St. Louis Action Research Project, ( as a community resource for GIS information about the city of East St. Louis, Illinois. The audience is intended to include academic researchers looking for information about East St. Louis as well as residents of the city looking for information about their community and neighborhood. GIS data covering different disciplines is available at EGRETS for downloading. An online map library holds over 250 maps of East St. Louis. Users can request for customized maps.

The structure of the EGRETS web site is designed around the level-of-familiarity of the user with GIS data (Figure 2). Users unfamiliar with GIS data can start with the "Explore" section that introduces users to GIS concepts and data. This is achieved by organizing the available data into broad but easily understood categories of land, city, and people. "Land" introduces users to data like soils and flooding. "City" covers data related to city infrastructure. "People" introduces the users to demographic data available from the U.S. Census Bureau ( The "Explore" section encourages user involvement by presenting examples that demonstrate the relevance of the data to user.

Figure 2: Main page of EGRETS

Figure 2: Main page of EGRETS

The online atlas can be searched using simple search queries like "how many people live in East St. Louis" or by keywords or geographical area. The maps are designed for printing and come with background information about the data used to create the map. The "Store" section contains GIS data files that can be downloaded. EGRETS avoids intimidating the user by language and graphics that present a friendly appearance.


Envirofacts, available at is developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( This site provides the public with access to geographic data about air pollution levels, water-discharge permit compliance, location of sites, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste-handlers, etc. (Garvey, 1997). Users can choose data from different databases to create maps of any location.

Envirofacts provides the user with a data-oriented view of the data. Choices available to the user reflect the way the data is structured rather than the information needs or questions of the user (Figure 3). The sections "Kids", "Students and Teachers", and "Concerned Citizens" ( provide an introduction to the vast collection of data. However Envirofacts is not directly linked with these sections.

Figure 3: Main page of Envirofacts

Figure 3: Main page of Envirofacts

The "Maps on Demand" tool is an effective way to create maps that visually display the data for a particular location or county. This is a powerful tool that makes this vast collection of public information useful by allowing the user to extract information and put it in a geographic context that makes it relevant. Maps are delivered as digital images along with a text report that summarizes the data delivered in the map. User involvement is enhanced by the options available to the user for selecting data and different delivery formats.


The task-oriented view used by Mapquest presents the user with fewer and clearer choices. The data-oriented view used by Envirofacts, while making perfect sense to the expert looking for data, presents the non-technical user which choices that are intimidating.

The kind of information delivered by Mapquest is probably familiar to most users. Hence Mapquest does not provide an introduction to the data. The information delivered by EGRETS and Envirofacts is more complex and technical. Both EGRETS and Envirofacts provide sections that introduce new concepts and educate the user about the relevance of the data being delivered. The link between the data and the educational sections is not apparent in Envirofacts. EGRETS uses a level-of-familiarity approach to direct non-technical users to the educational sections introducing GIS concepts.


To provide community access to GIS via the WWW web sites should:


Danielson, Todd., 1997. Top News Stories Reflect Industry Trends. GIS World. Vol. 10, No. 8. 38.

Garvey, Pat, 1997. Mapping the Environment on the Web. Government Technology, August 1997, (2 Sep. 1997)

Morris, Merrill, and Christine Ogan, 1996. The Internet as a Mass Medium. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 1, No. 4. (2 Sep. 1997)


Abhijeet Chavan is a Visiting Research Associate at the Imaging Systems Laboratory, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His responsibilities include GIS and WWW development for the Imaging Systems Laboratory and the East St. Louis Action Research Project. His research interests include the implementation of GIS technology via the WWW.