Interacting in the Commons

“Information visualization aims at visually translating large volumes of data into digestible insights, creating an explicit bridge between data and knowledge.  Due to its intrinsic aspirations for sense-making, information visualization is an obvious tool for network science, able to disentangle a range of complex systems and make them more comprehensible.  Not only do both disciplines share a yearning for understanding, but they have also experienced a meteoric rise in the last decade, bringing together people from various fields and capturing the interest of individuals across the globe” (Lima, Manuel. Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, pg. 18). 

Despite massive innovations over the past 40 years in geoinformatics, there are still some unmapped cracks in the sidewalk for further research.  This research seeks to explore to what extent information technology, such as mapping, has empowered citizens to take part in more participatory action, cutting across their own networks (will refer to work done on participatory GIS and public participation GIS).  This thesis is underpinned by the view that individuals are not isolated beings, but rather, are embedded in a dense social network, one that is laden with discordant values and customs.

Theories of collective action and public goods theory (Samuelson, Hardin, Olson, Ostrom) display the need for coordination among a myriad of interests.   My research will rely on these theories to provide a framework for thinking about how individuals within groups make decisions.  Despite literature which tells us that individuals will cooperate better within small groups because they will share like interests (Krackhardt, Passy, Burt); it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.

Given this complexity, how do people use technology such as geographic information systems to make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.  I hypothesize that mapping public benefits to geographic space will incentivize participatory action on behalf of the citizen; in part, because it provides a mental map to the citizen.

The research will use both quantitative and qualitative methods.  A current area of contention is over the use of land with regard to natural gas extraction.  Friction exists over the method of extraction, hydraulic fracturing, and its potential negative effects on the health of the community, both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually.  On the converse, some community members argue that the industry will bring on an influx of revenue to the community; there is also an appeal to some environmentalists based on the notion that natural gas is cleaner than coal.  I will look at three communities currently battling these issues, and explore how the visualization of values — one’s own in relation to others’ — might mitigate dissidence.

A deeper question that this research poses is does a sense of wonder inspire more civically minded citizens?

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