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Center for Spatial Information and Research

Development of a Participatory Geographic Information System (PGIS) for Mapping Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services


Natural areas such as forests provide many important ecosystem goods and services to society. The types of benefits that people obtain from ecosystems are known as ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2003). Ecosystem services are fundamental to human life but many of these services are in danger of being destroyed (Daily 1997). Over the past decade, there have been many attempts to value ecosystem services in hopes that it will contribute to better decision-making, but the ability to provide credible, quantitative estimates of ecosystem service values has been difficult (Nelson et al. 2009). Supporting ecosystem services, for example, are difficult to measure and quantify (Beaumont et al. 2007) and are often undervalued or not valued in many traditional economic valuation approaches. It is equally difficult to value many cultural services (e.g., spiritual values) since they tend to fall outside of the sphere of markets (Martin-Lopez et al. 2009). They too are often invisible within the framework of traditional economic analyses. One future pathway in the evolution of natural capital and ecosystem service measurement frameworks is to engage a broader audience in the identification and valuation of natural capital assets and ecosystem services. Landscape value mapping using public participation geographic information systems or PPGIS (Brown 2005; Landscape Values Institute 2010) is a technique that can be extended to identify ecosystem services.

The purpose of this research was to evaluate the use of an internet-based participatory geographic information system (PGIS) for identifying ecosystem services using the results of an exploratory study implemented in Grand County, Colorado, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Specific research questions included the following: 1) What is the distribution of ecosystem services identified by study participants and how do the results compare other methods of ecosystem services data collection, e.g., the structured survey approach used by Raymond et al. (2009)? 2) What are the characteristics of respondents in the study and are these characteristics related to the number and type of ecosystem services identified? 3) Are there significant relationships between widely available USGS land use and land cover (LULC) classifications and mapped ecosystem services such that certain LULC classifications may be said to represent a subset of ecosystem service classifications? 4) Does an internet-based PPGIS method that allows unlimited numbers of ecosystem service markers by study participants influence (i.e., potentially bias) the results? This research question is relevant given that internet-based PPGIS survey methods may attract fewer, but highly engaged respondents (Brown 2009), and 5) What are the strengths and weaknesses of using PPGIS for identifying ecosystem services based on respondents’ evaluation of the internet-based PPGIS system that can inform future research?

The prototype PPGIS website was completed using Google Maps application programmer interface (API)and went “live” in February to begin collecting data from Grand County, Colorado residents ( To evaluate the prototype website for mapping ecosystem services, mail invitations were sent to 500 randomly selected households in Grand County. Approximately 200 individuals have participated in the study and mapped about 3050 values/locations. PPGIS data collection continued through June 15, 2010. An evaluation of the web prototype’s usability for collecting was completed, as well as a description of the types of decisions the system could be used for in regional planning applications. This written report, accessible on-line, has been completed.

Key findings of the research include: 1) cultural ecosystem service opportunities appear easiest for individuals to identify and most challenging for some supporting and regulatory ecosystem services, 2) the individuals most likely to identify services are highly educated, knowledgeable about nature and science, and have a strong connection to the outdoors, 3) some LULC classifications are logically and spatially associated with ecosystem services, and 4) despite limitations, the PPGIS method demonstrates potential for identifying ecosystem services to augment expert judgment and to inform public or environmental policy decisions regarding land use tradeoffs.

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