First Monday

Many, many maps: Empowerment and online participatory mapping by David L. Tulloch

The convergence of public participatory mapping and cybertography is having far-reaching impacts through a variety of creative applications. This paper presents three different types of Internet mapping applications — Google Earth and Google Map API, Common Census, and a design exercise in Second Life — with a public participatory geographic information system (PPGIS) and cybercartography perspective. Each of these examples empowers users in a different way. The spatial applications and the supporting information that is being made available through Internet map applications represent a unique set of examples of the democratization possible through Internet applications.


PPGIS and cybercartography
Google Earth and Google Maps: Example 1
CommonCensus: Example 2
Landing Lights Park: Example 3
So what?



“Knowledge is power” — Sir Francis Bacon, 1597

Sir Francis Bacon understood, and articulated, the peculiar nature of information and knowledge. When applied to new technologies or mechanisms, knowledge becomes a major impetus for change. Bacon helped show how knowledge, applied as innovations, changed history. Today, the information conveyed and manipulated through online mapping, or cybercartography, is positioned to play a notable role in changing power relationships and empowering previously marginalized groups.

Geographers have long been interested in the power of geographic knowledge embodied in maps (Wood, 1992). Maps shape our perceptions. They define boundaries and politics, and communicate power. Online mapping applications have suddenly created an enormous set of opportunities for amateur cartographers to participate in a variety of processes, decisions and forums by making their own maps and sharing their data in a meaningful way. Collectively, these activities are called cybercartography (Taylor and Caquard, 2006). While some engage in cybercartography as an artistic expression (Wood and Pryor, 2006) others simply pursue it as a game ( But are online mapping applications really impacting places and landscapes?

Maps shape our perceptions. They define boundaries and politics, and communicate power.

Terms like cyberspace, surfing, site map, navigating and Netscape have long emphasized the implied metaphor of the Internet as a spatial or landscape experience. Cybercartography takes the metaphor to a nearly literal conclusion allowing the exploration of vast virtual landscapes — some imagined, some representations of the real. The creation of maps of lighthouses and great buildings, performed by Google Earth fans, becomes a personal expression of interest and practical product to share with others. A map that combines thousands of responses to create a collective mental map, like CommonCensus Map project (at, is something that was a practical impossibility until recently. But the most dramatic and empowering way to shape the map is to use it in a way that ultimately changes the shape of the physical landscape, which is what one group of Second Life users are hoping to accomplish.

Within the larger sphere of cybercartography these examples represent a subset that demonstrates the potential for empowerment of users and participants in ways unique to spatial applications. This paper investigates the empowerment of individuals associated with Internet spatial applications by walking through the virtual participatory landscapes of Google Earth and Google Maps, CommonCensus, and the metaverse of Second Life. What looks to some like games or online dating is no longer limited to a virtual experience. Online mapping is defining the relationships of real people and altering real places.



PPGIS and cybercartography

Like many technologies, online mapping applications have been around for years (see Dodge and Kitchin’s (2001) Atlas of Cyberspace). But only recently have the Internet interfaces become sufficiently user-friendly, customizable and ubiquitous to spur a new movement of amateur mappers and data collectors. Many of these new applications are developed by individuals with no background or interest in the academic traditions associated, at the very least by implication, with their efforts. Still, understanding the literature that positions and frames these activities is important for this discussion.

The larger relationship between GIS and Society has been an active topic for more than a decade (see Elmes, et al., 2004). But the use and study of public participatory geographic information systems (PPGIS) has come to represent a significant sub-field within geographic information science (Sieber, 2006). As an emerging literature, PPGIS has included Web delivery as one small portion of a much larger spectrum of activities (Leitner, et al., 2002). However, the forces of technology and society are quickly focusing an increasing amount of the PPGIS community’s attention on Internet delivery of spatial information and services (Steinmann, et al., 2004).

At the core of much of the PPGIS literature is an emphasis on the ways that geospatial technologies can alter power relationships. Some of the more intensively investigated cases include the use of GIS to translate local knowledge into more conventional spatial representations or to create collective representations of attitudes towards places within the community’s landscape (Table 1). While some PPGIS examples focus on the empowerment of the individual, it is frequently developed by groups with a clear eye to shifting power in their favor (Sieber, 2000; Tulloch, 2002). Research in PPGIS also considers two divergent sources of data, with some users collecting or creating their own spatial data while others rely heavily on publicly accessible government data. The last 15 years have led to a significant increase in the availability of public data, through clearinghouses and Web services, leading towards a stage of system development previously described as Democratization (Tulloch, 1999).

Table 1: A sort list of PPGIS examples that demonstrate the breadth of applications in this emerging field.
PPGIS example Reference
Researchers worked with a rural South African community to capture local knowledge of perceived landscape boundaries in conventional GIS format. Weiner and Harris, 2003
"GIS and the artist" used geospatial technology to empower an Hispanic neighborhood expressing their desires for new planning and design outcomes. Al-Kodmany, 2002
Used GIS for multiple criteria decision model in group decision making about potential locations for Duwamish River habitat restoration. Jankowski and Nyerges, 2001
Developed a Decision Mapping System to facilitate public participation and create a heightened level of transparency for public decisions at a former plutonium production facility. Drew, 2003
Two NGOs in an urban neighborhood in Chicago used GIS to create grassroots databases as an alternative to official government records as a means of addressing local issues like housing and crime. Elwood, 2006

The community of researchers studying PPGIS has been particularly concerned about the issues of ethics, privacy and marginalization. The geospatial technologies that appear so promising for enhancing public participation and amplifying quiet voices can also be used by actors with conflicting interests and significant resources (like aggressive developers or heavy-handed agencies). The risk of exposure to an already marginalized individual or community is only heightened. “Geo-referenced databases give complete strangers more information about me in two minutes than my friends and family will learn in thirty years.” (Pickles, 2004)

At this point in time, the literature on cybercartography is still emerging. The International Cartographic Association’s creation of a Maps and Internet Commission in 1999 helped signal the arrival of this field. But the events that may be most closely associated with the emergence of online mapping are the release of the freeware application, Google Earth, and the release of Google Maps’ API allowing mash-up mapping. These applications, fitting well within the current conception of Web 2.0, have created a new vocabulary and popularity for mapping.

The amateur element in cybercartography is not a trivial issue. The simple customizable applications have allowed many programmers with no spatial training or background to construct heavily used Web resources. The en masse emergence of amateur cartographers may seem like just another example of “crowdsourcing” (see Howe, 2006) but the risks and benefits are much more dramatic than those associated with other Internet-enabled enterprises like digital photography or Wikipedia entries. An awareness of the value of expertise and an associated ethical standard ( is seen by many professionals as a necessary protection for the public who trust spatial data and maps without cognizing key assumptions and caveats associated with their uses.

The intersection of these two emerging fields — PPGIS and cybercartography — provides a framework for appropriate consideration of three case studies.



Google Earth and Google Maps: Example 1

Participation in mapping is experiencing a significant boom through the release of both Google Earth and Google Map. Google Earth works as a stand-alone software application that actively downloads data and images while users explore the globe. Google Map functions as an active online system allowing programmers to create custom map interfaces utilizing Google’s application programming interface (API). Both of these technologies have seen remarkable uptake and innovative uses. The Google Map API allows mappers to creatively build custom linkages between datasets Google’s mapping engine and maps, like the Housing Maps site ( which maps recent posts on CraigsList overlaid on a base of either a street map or a satellite image (Markoff, 2005).

Google Earth and, to lesser a degree, Google Map API products have both become more popular than traditional GIS software packages because of both their price and their exceptionally user-friendly design. While a fair amount of credit is due to Keyhole Corporation, the original developer of the technology at the heart of Google Earth, Google’s expertise in satisfying millions of customers paid off in the polish and “soft touch” of this application. Another important reason for the success of this is the way that it builds in Google expertise in delivering services over the Internet. Both of these Google products serve relatively contemporary data and imagery in an extremely smooth fashion, which sets it apart from most sophisticated GIS and cartography software packages.

Public participation is advanced when these tools are used for advocacy or education with a purpose to change public processes or awareness. For example, a Web site based in the relatively affluent area of Montclair, New Jersey ( maps out “tear downs” which are older homes being razed for replacement. The implied intent of this is to actively raise awareness of the spatial pattern (particularly the density) of tear downs and to create more grassroots support in opposition to the practice.

A very different sort of “public” would be the tribal groups in the Amazon rainforest who are being empowered by Google Earth (R. Butler, 2006). With the assistance of a non-profit organization called the Amazon Conservation Team, indigenous groups have been using GPS units to locate resources of interest and then mapping them out on Google Earth. The Union of Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) is mapping plants of ethnobotanical significance as well as animals that they see and even mythical animals that their shaman see. The result is a culturally significant map that helps capture the stories and histories of locals while serving their larger land management and conservation efforts. Google Earth’s recent upgrade of its free imagery to a higher resolution has revolutionized this group’s efforts to monitor their far-flung tribal properties for illegal gold mining. This technology has effectively empowered UMIYAC and the individual tribal units in their struggle against better funded and more technologically equipped commercial interests.

Signaling the arrival of Google Earth as a tool of scientific importance, the prestigious journal Nature devoted the cover of its 16 February issue to “Mapping for the Masses”. In the same issue, the editorial made an open appeal to the scientific community to help prepare a new generation of spatial thinkers “to confront global challenges” (Nature, 2006). As these tools become widely available as free downloads and customizable Web interfaces they are generating a grass-roots interest in mapping and related spatial products (D. Butler, 2006). The results include a variety of participatory products with advocacy often rising to the surface.

Another social phenomenon that has emerged has been the development of the Google Earth Community as a forum for the exchange of information about places. Built as a fairly simple Internet bulletin board, this Community posts helpful notes, spatial coordinates and complete datasets ( Some of these datasets are automatically served as embedded elements within in every copy of Google Earth (Figure 1). Not unlike other volunteer efforts that have generated volumes of data about a subject, the Google Earth Community has created and distributed collections of Placemarks mapping locations of a variety of subjects like lighthouses, webcams, sports facilities and visual oddities. While a few of the postings may have a particular agenda, the vast majority simply contribute to a growing Internet database of mapped objects and places intended to serve as a neutral information source of global interest.


figure 1


Figure 1: A view from Google Earth showing Barcelona, Spain. Each of the blue “i”s is a point mapped and shared through the Google Earth Community. The white circles containing a diamond-like shape are Google Earth Community points mapped to show UNESCO World Heritage sites. The circles with crosshairs and yellow text are Google Earth Community links to panoramic photos.


Some Internet applications, like blogging, have not been as much about allowing individuals to do something new as about opening the results to a much larger audience. In contrast, the global coverage of data and imagery channeled through Google Earth has allowed a bevy of users to engage in new mapping activities previously unavailable to anyone beyond the cartographic elite. A widely reported news story (e.g., BBC, 2005) described a computer programmer, Luca Mori, in Italy who was studying the new Google Earth images of his community when he discovered a long lost Roman villa. Google Earth’s push of these enormous amounts of usable imagery and information into the public realm has already resulted in findings, like Mr. Mori’s, of great social benefit.

Another powerful example of how these applications had a direct impact on individuals came when Gulf Coast residents were, in the words of a reporter, “Googling what remains of their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.” (Coughlin, 2005) Google Maps, Google Earth and similar technologies used by the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.), GlobeXplorer and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration allowed displaced residents to quickly check newly acquired images quickly. In the days following the devastating storm, one alteration of Google Map allowed users to click anywhere in New Orleans and see an estimate of the depth of the floodwaters. For the impacted homeowners, the ability to make real decisions about their future and anticipate conditions on the ground upon their return, was an invaluable form of empowerment. Now, 18 months after the storm, these images and data can fuel grassroots efforts to democratize the processes that exacerbated the experience.

But the sharing of data among the community of users and the customizable products that have drawn in relative neophytes have created creative opportunities that are permanently changing cartography and human perception of geography. One result of Google Earth’s explosion of activity was a higher level of engagement in its first few months than previously achieved by the PPGIS research community in its first decade.



CommonCensus: Example 2

Driving up the East Coast of the U.S., travelers often sense that they’ve left the greater New York area and are nearing Boston when they start to see more Red Sox baseball caps than Yankees. These sports affiliations serve, in part, as an expression of identity with nearby cities by individuals who live in contested territories between these cities. As trivial as these sports identities may seem to some, they provide a venue through which residents can voice a desire to connect with distant metropolis and its social, cultural, economic and political systems.

The CommonCensus Map Project ( provides a venue giving voice to these identities and helping individuals claim a stake, albeit virtual, in the larger metropolitan landscapes with which they most closely identify. Anyone in the U.S. with Internet access can contribute to the group analysis at CommonCensus by entering their street address and Zip code as a locater and then identifying the metropolitan area (and baseball team, and football team, and university athletics program) with which they most closely identify (Figure 2). Their entries are then analyzed along with tens of thousands of others to map out the perceived metropolitan areas of the continental United States. The result is a nationwide map that assigns every point in the country to a metropolitan area with which it is most closely associated.


figure 2


Figure 2: A map from CommonCensus showing the perceived areas of influence of different American cities. A small city, like Sioux Falls, S.D., might be associated with a larger area than a major city like Chicago, because of the great distance between cities in the rural Midwest.


The project is the brainchild of Michael Baldwin (an American expatriate living in Brazil) who developed CommonCensus without any formal training or experience with geospatial technologies (Baldwin, 2006). Using spatial and gazetteer data downloaded from the U.S.G.S. Web site and Visual Basic programming for the image calculations, Baldwin built a social science investigation that has generated an enormous response from individuals contributing to its database. It is a measure of Baldwin’s motivation and commitment that the site has remained a non-commercial venture.

As a lesson in American geography (both social and physical), CommonCensus has produced quite interesting outputs. The large area associated with a smaller city, like Denver, contrasted with the small land area associated with the nation’s largest city, New York, may serve as an educational tool to help further illustrate the conundrum of describing America’s growing urban populations. Not unlike the red and blue political maps that highlight the electoral conflict between rural and urban populations, this map quickly illustrates the differences between various regions of the United States.

It is quite telling that an individual can single-handedly develop such an interface and collect these data from over 40,000 participants (while living thousands of miles away) without the imprimatur of a geography degree or the support of an NGO. Allowing this massive audience to actively participate in the collaborative mapping of boundaries for their landscapes is an act of empowerment. In some ways this map serves as a direct critique of the existing invisible political boundaries that so few of these respondents recognize as their own. As an Internet tool, CommonCensus is an innovative creation for direct expression of personal opinion and identity that would otherwise be hard to translate into a meaningful spatial representation.



Landing Lights Park: Example 3

This past February, a special issue of First Monday (at reporting on architecture from the State of Play III Conference talked about how online participants are investing time, money and energy into the design of virtual spaces online (Kalay and Marx, 2006). This case study looks, in contrast, at how people are working in the virtual environment to design a park on the ground in Queens, N.Y. (Flaherty, 2006).

Second Life is an online game that falls within a category of video games called persistent online worlds (Au, 2006) or Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Building on the older MUDs (Multiple User Dungeons), these are games in which large numbers of players simultaneously compete or interact within a common virtual space. However, with over 1,000,000 online participants (Siklos, 2006) in a world where relationships can be formed and within which property can be developed and sold, Second Life has become a window into a virtual world of collaboration and interpersonal interaction.

A member of the Queens Community Board, Tom Lowenhaupt, has initiated a design process for Landing Lights Park near New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Seeking community input into the design process, often a difficult achievement in communities where free time is limited, Lowenhaupt is opening the process up by making it fun and allowing 24/7 access through the Internet. The park design process takes place within a larger virtual area created by NYU’s Law School called Democracy Island where avatars use a 3-D Wiki tool (Figure 3) developed for the project by Ron Blechner of Out of Bounds Software. The tool allows avatars to select a variety of objects to place in a virtual model of the park that is built at 1/5 scale. These objects include trees, fountains, swingsets, walks and walls. Even as one visitor designs the park, another can watch and comment. A virtual amphitheater is already built where participants could meet to discuss their designs and ideas.


figure 3


Figure 3: A visitor to the virtual Landing Lights Park uses the customized 3-d Wiki tool to plant some trees and place a picnic table. The avatar is taller than the building because the park is a 1/5 scale representation of the space.


The high level of interactivity and the global network of participants is a compelling attraction to an audience that often doesn’t participate in public planning and design processes. Unlike traditional participatory design methods, like workshops or focus groups, participatory design in Second Life is much less constrained by geography while more limited generationally. Presumably, this generational barrier is even more the case than with other Internet applications, like Google Earth. Limiting participation by age for a public space that is intended for all ages not only skews input but risks creating longer lasting feelings of disenfranchisement among community members, regardless of the design outcomes. One solution is active facilitation of participation for those who might otherwise be excluded. However, another option might simply be getting local support for a youth-led design process; during a recent visit with community members, some older stakeholders in the park were energized by the idea that the park design would result in something unique. In the abstract they were supportive of having younger locals, and interest individuals from around the world, all contributing to this project.



So what?

Even as Time Magazine declares “You” the person of the year, there are many of you making your own maps and mapping applications online. And while there are clear cries of concern from professional geographers and landscape architects about amateurish products wreaking havoc on the landscapes around us, many individuals are producing exciting evidence of the potential energies that remain largely untapped among the general populace. As in the cases studies, the enthusiasm and creativity represented in activities as disparate as GPS art ( and a grassroots-generated open source street dataset ( demonstrate the sort of energy that the Internet can focus upon participatory spatial activities. The motivations of participants — especially those who volunteer hundreds or thousands of hours to processes that are not closely linked with productive outcomes — merit close attention. While some may use it as a fulfillment of social or avocational need, it also probably closely parallels Luthiger and Jungwirth’s (2007) recent description of the ways that fun is responsible for advances in open source programming.

Not unlike other cultural shifts, there are many who fail to respect the desire of untrained amateurs to insert themselves into larger professional processes, whether it is volunteer news reporting on a blog or semi-professional sales of digital photography.

“By the late 1990s, there was an explosion of self-initiated cultural production that recalled the DIY ethic of the Punk era in the mid 1970s. Enthralled and empowered by affordable technologies of media production and dissemination, a new young generation published magazines or Web sites that licentiously layered high culture with low: fashion designers put on catwalk shows that museums wanted to show, and artists embraced the commodification of their identities without a hint of irony or shame.” [1]

Still, spatial technologies bring with them a more complex set of problems for which most Internet users are unprepared. Whether it is a problem with spatial map projections and coordinate systems or a misunderstanding of appropriate scales, it would be easy for a technologically enabled but spatially illiterate individual to assemble a disturbingly inappropriate application for public use.

In Next: The Future Just Happened, Michael Lewis (2001) points out that popular Internet phenomena (not unlike Second Life) are not a hijacking of people’s time so much as a sign of something larger that individuals found lacking in their lives and that an Internet application facilitated plugging into. And, as his case studies highlight, the relatively young participants in many of these phenomena are motivated by desires that are hard for older professionals to discern without serious examination. The spatial element adds to the puzzle, since many of these users are also exploring geographies and spatial concepts that have not been formally presented to them in school (Downs and DeSouza, 2006). The critical inquiries in which these users are engaged lead to higher order thinking about the complex inputs and outputs involved in shaping social and physical landscapes. Whether it is the learning experiences and spatial thinking or the new products of these exploratory processes, these users are experience a new form of empowerment enabled through Internet mapping.

Some observers are openly concerned about the tremendous number of Internet surfers and video game players opting to spend more and more time in virtual environments at the cost of the physical landscape. A pair of researchers quantified the measurable move away from national parks and toward video games and Internet use (Pergams and Zaradic, 2006). They demonstrated that this trade-off is directly associated with a decline in biophilia and an increase in videophilia, an ominous trend for those interested in preserving unique landscapes and environments. Landing Lights Park provides an interesting contrast, as the computer savvy gamers can use their online experiences to create a more inviting outdoor experience. Although environmental educators and landscape architects alike should be afraid of a time when they have to rely heavily on videogames as their primary tool for enticing teens into outdoor experiences, these tools provide a new avenue to explore for a deeper level of engagement than experienced by many children today.

The combination of new Internet mapping tools and PPGIS is resulting in an array of creative, sophisticated, and time-intensive applications that are creating a newly empowered class of users. Even with the assistance of new tools and techniques, measurable improvements in outcomes can elusive. In some cases, however, empowerment is derived from the perception of the participatory experience rather than the outcome. While this might not always be satisfying to Internet application developers anticipating dramatic and instantaneous changes, for countless individuals experiencing mapping at a new level these experiences will be exceptional. And, as an increased number of local citizens use these tools to look at patterns of growth, crime, commercial development and open space, the data and applications will result in a new form of democratization. End of article


About the author

Dr. David L. Tulloch is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He also serves as Associate Director of the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis.



A special thanks is due to Tom Lowenhaupt and the local residents around Landing Lights Park for their time and hospitality. This paper was supported, in part, by the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and a Rutgers’ Research Council Grant.



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Editorial history

Paper received 11 January 2007; accepted 28 January 2007.

Contents Index

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Many, many maps: Empowerment and online participatory mapping by David L. Tulloch
First Monday, volume 12, number 2 (February 2007),