Participatory mapping

What is it?
Participatory mapping is a qualitative research method where maps are used by facilitators as a tool to engage research participants to discuss and reflect on issues that have a spatial dimension. Facilitators use questions that would promote participants to interact with maps and stimulate place-based discussions. For examples, participants could be asked to draw certain features on a map, share history or experience associated with a place, or reflect on the significance of certain spatial relationships. Participants contribute their local knowledge and narratives through discussions and co-production of details on maps. Both the visual and narrative information is captured to address research questions, or to influence decisions and actions.

Participatory mapping can be implemented in dedicated meeting(s) with participants, or over an extended period of time where participants can contribute their inputs to the maps and dialogues separately. In the latter case, platforms such as interactive maps hosted on internet and public exhibitions can be used to engage participants, and facilitation may take the form of simple instructions.

What is needed?
Actors and logistics
1) Facilitators. Facilitators should make sure that participants understand the discussion/mapping questions and process. Thus, whether there are enough facilitators and whether there is a need for translations should be considered. The ratio between facilitator and participant would depend on the complexity of the process and participants’ experience with the mapping medium (e.g. Would it require GIS skill?).
2) Participants. These can to be recruited randomly or purposefully depending on the research design. They do not need to have mapping experience, but they should be familiar with the places that are being discussed in the participatory mapping exercise. With this said, participatory mapping can be conducted with a wide range of participants in terms of their age and educational background. This method can also be implemented with a large number of participants given sufficient facilitation support and a process for participants to engage with the maps.
3) A place for participatory mapping. Using a place that is easy to find and familiar to participants is useful. Depending on how participants will interact with the maps, the requirement for meeting space will vary. For example, if participants have to draw on paper maps in small groups, then there should be enough surface area such as tables or walls to put up the maps for each group and to allow participants to draw on the maps. In some cases, facilitators may choose to project one large map, but there needs to be a mean for participants to point to spots and/or draw on the map. Sometimes, participants may choose to stand during a participatory mapping exercise. This enables them to move around a map easily. However, there should be chairs for participants to sit when they will get tired or during a plenary discussion. In research projects where the participatory maps are hosted on internet or in a public space such as an exhibition hall, these platforms would be an additional resource requirement.

1) Maps and drawing instruments. The maps used in participatory mapping can be either two- or three-dimensional, and range from simple hand-drawn paper maps to those involving sophisticated Geospatial Information System (GIS) technology or modeling. These maps may be in hardcopy-format, projected, or shared via internet. In hardcopy-format, participants can use colored pens, pencils, sticky notes or other drawing materials. When projected, participants can use laser pointers to indicate locations on maps. When shared via internet, researchers need to design a user-friendly interface to allow participants enter location information and to participate in discussion.
2) Cameras, GIS software. The co-produced maps are research data that can be recorded in photographs or digitized into GIS data.
3) A voice-recording device. This would depend on whether the discussions need to be recorded.
4) Notebooks. Researchers may want to take notes in addition to voice recording during discussions, which are also research data in participatory mapping.

Is an expert needed?
Yes (describe below) Yes. The answer would be no if the participatory mapping will use hand-drawn maps and will not involve GIS software to perform spatial analysis of the co-produced maps. If researchers want to use GIS software to prepare maps, engage with participants, or analyze the resulting spatial data, then expertise in GIS software will be needed. If the participatory mapping will be hosted on an internet-based platform, then expertise in programing and website development will also be necessary.

How to
Implementation steps
1) Determine whether participatory mapping is an appropriate method for your research. The research questions influence the research design, which includes the selection of research method to address the research questions. Participatory mapping is a very versatile qualitative method that can help researchers understand participants’ perception of the connections between people and place over space and time. Mapping along with reflective discussions can also lead to participants gaining new understanding of an issue such as the influence of spatial dimension and historicity associated with a place. Participatory mapping does require additional resources including materials, actors, logistics and time (see the What-is-needed? section for further details), and one has to take these requirements into consideration when deciding whether it is an appropriate method.

2) Apply to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is a committee that reviews and approves applications for research projects involving human subjects. The primary purpose of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of the human subjects. If your research institution has an IRB, then you would have to submit an application for conducting a research with human subjects. You can complete a training course for conducting a human subject research online at Note that if your institution has an IRB, you cannot start participant recruitment until you have received an approval from the IRB.

3) Design the participatory mapping process and discussion. Some participatory mapping sessions can be very structured, while others can be more emergent and has very little pre-defined questions to prompt discussions. A more emergent process can highlight issues that you could not have anticipated. Your research design will influence the decision on the extent of structure.

Regardless of that decision, researchers need to determine the focus of the participatory mapping, which should align with the research topics. For example, if your research question is about local perception of river pollution, you may ask participants to locate on a map where they saw river pollution, or the source of that pollution.

Researchers also need to decide on the types of maps to be used. The What-is-needed? section listed some possible options under “Materials”. Along with the types of maps, researchers have to consider how participants would interact with the maps. Would they draw on the maps? Or would they point to and talk about places on the maps? The decisions on the types of map and the way that participants would interact with the maps influence each other. The focus of the session and the way that participants would interact with the maps will help researchers design prompting questions for facilitators.

4) Prepare maps to be used in the participatory mapping exercise. Depending on the decision regarding the types of maps that would be used, researchers could be either preparing very simple or sophisticated maps. Regardless of the case, these maps should show information that is relevant to the participants involved in the mapping exercise and facilitators should help orient them around the maps at the start of the session. As maps are being prepared, materials used to interact with the maps such as color pens and laser pointers can be procured.

5) Recruit participants and consenting process. The research questions should guide the decision on who are the targeted participant population. Researchers may randomly or purposefully recruit a subset of this participant population based on research design. To recruit these participants, researchers need to identify ways to gain access to the participants. At recruitment, researchers should explain the objectives of the research project and of participatory mapping, the nature of participation, and how the maps and narratives will be used.

If the research project is subjected to the IRB process, participants in mapping must be able to give their informed consent to take part in the research. It is very important for participants to understand that they are free to end their participation at any time. The informed consent may be done verbally to the whole group at the start of a participatory mapping session, or during recruitment. Whether individual participant needs to sign a written consent form depends on the IRB decision.

6) Set up the space for participatory mapping. If the mapping exercise will be done in a group meeting, then researchers need to identify and set up the spaces for such meeting. See item 3 in “Actors and logistics” in the What-is-needed? section for tips on the set-up of a meeting place.

7) Facilitate the participatory mapping. It is important to remember that the purpose of mapping is not just to produce a series of maps, but to use the maps as a tool to encourage discussions among the participants. The prompting from facilitators should therefore try to get individuals to talk about what they are mapping and why. It is helpful for the initial prompting questions to be simpler to allow participants to warm-up and to orient themselves on the maps. Furthermore, the role of a facilitator is to create a safe space for participants to share their thoughts and opinions openly. Therefore, facilitators should maintain their neutrality as much as possible and refrain from participating in the mapping discussions.

8) Record the map data and discussions. Both the maps and discussions during a mapping exercise are considered research data. Researchers may want to audio- or video-record the mapping exercise and discussion. If that is the case, permission from participants need to be obtained before recording. More commonly, researchers record participant observation notes during a mapping exercise. These notes would contain both the discussion content and observations of non-verbal communication and interaction between participants and between participants and the research topics. It is important that researchers capture both the maps and the discussions in a coupled manner so that the spatial information is captured with the associated narrative. Researchers should type up the observation notes immediately after the participatory mapping. If there is audio- or video-recording, the transcript should also be prepared as soon as possible while the event is still fresh in memory.

Data analysis
One can use common qualitative analysis techniques such as coding and content analysis to analyze the prepared observation notes from the participatory mapping. The research questions would influence the selection of qualitative data analysis. Researchers can also analyze the maps generated from the mapping exercise. Depending on the level of detail and precision of the spatial data in the co-produced maps, researchers can determine whether only qualitative analysis or more sophisticated spatial analysis is feasible.

Data management
Researchers have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of participants as a part of data management. This entails using procedures to disassociate participant identities from the observation notes and maps during data analysis. Researchers can use numeric or alphabetic codes in place of participants’ identification in notes and data analysis files. Upon conclusion of the research project, any documents that contain identify information about the participants need to be destroyed according to guidance by Institutional Review Board on research involving human subjects (See item 2 under Implementation steps).

Good practice tips

Success stories
The Rainforest Foundation UK's (RFUK) participatory mapping program in the Congo Basin has been promoting recognition of communities' rights to access, control, and use forests in legislative, political and strategic processes since 2000. Through participatory mapping, the program gave forest communities, civil society groups and relevant government agencies a mean to accurately map community land tenure and resource use to inform decision making and planning related to the forests and forest communities. The program was first piloted with Baka (often referred to as "Pygmy") communities documenting their presence and forest use in order to inform the development of national forest policy in Cameroon. Participatory mapping was later carried out in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo to support some 300 forest communities to produce maps of their lands and resources covering over 2,000,000 hectares to date. This program has played an important role in giving remote and disenfranchised forest-dependent communities a voice concerning natural resource management. You can see a video on this program at

Chicago Snow CrowdMap
This was an online participatory mapping experiment that was set up after a snow blizzard in 2011 to give a platform for Chicagoans to report problem areas such as those that need snow plowing. The online map can be found at

To learn more
Guides and online resources:
The International Fund for Agricultural Development has a practice guide for participatory mapping that can be downloaded at

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement at the University of the West of England has a how-to guide on participatory mapping at

The University Library at the University of Illinois has a webpage with references and examples of participatory mapping and PGIS at

Selected references:
Abbot, J., Chambers, R., Dunn, C., Harris, T., de Merode, E., Porter, G., Townsend, J., and Weiner, D. 1998. “Participatory GIS: opportunity or oxymoron? Participatory Learning and Action Notes No. 33.” International Institute for Environment and Development, London, U.K. pp. 27–34.

Beverly, J.L., Uto, K., Wilkes, J. and Bothwell, P., 2008. “Assessing spatial attributes of forest landscape values: an internet-based participatory mapping approach.” Canadian journal of forest research, 38(2), pp.289-303.

Chambers, R., 2006. “Participatory mapping and geographic information systems: whose map? Who is empowered and who disempowered? Who gains and who loses?.” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 25.

Fagerholm, N. and Käyhkö, N., 2009. “Participatory mapping and geographical patterns of the social landscape values of rural communities in Zanzibar, Tanzania.” Fennia-International Journal of Geography, 187(1), pp.43-60.

Klain, S.C. and Chan, K.M., 2012. Navigating coastal values: participatory mapping of ecosystem services for spatial planning. Ecological economics, 82, pp.104-113.

Mapedza, E., Wright, J. and Fawcett, R., 2003. “An investigation of land cover change in Mafungautsi Forest, Zimbabwe, using GIS and participatory mapping.” Applied Geography, 23(1), pp.1-21.


Created on 23 Oct 2016 20:13 by Taryn Kong
Updated on 28 Nov 2016 13:27 by Barron Orr

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License