Navigation in the Information Age:
Potential Use of GIS for Sustainability and Self-Determination in Hawai`i
Cogswell and Schiøtz, 1996



7.0   GIS and Public Access in Hawai`i

7.1   Information and Technology Access

Following are exerpts from interviews with Will Freeman,Gary Gill, and Shannon McElvaney of the Nature Conservancy, people for whomaccess to digital information about the land, and access to the GIS technologyto view it are of primary importance with respect to the social consequencesand potentials of GIS in Hawai`i. As one might expect, we learned thatinformation and technology access is foundational in supporting or limitingpublic awareness and potential for discussion and critique of importantecological, hydrological, and other information. We also found once again thatdata and information, far from being neutral, is intimately connected withpolitics and power.

7.1.1   Public Water Quality GIS Initiative

One of our primary informants was Will Freeman, a private citizenwho has been involved in GIS environmental activism for several years.Throughout our interviews in Hawai`i, Will was often mentioned as a key figurein the local grassroots GIS community. When we reached him we learned that hewas actually living within only a few miles of us, and that one of his mainprojects was working toward the creation of a public water quality GIS for thewindward (eastern) side of Oahu. We were excited to meet with Will one Sundayafternoon under a large tree in his yard, which shaded us from the hot (earlyMarch) Hawaiian sun.

In a very easy going manner, Will began to describe his experiencesworking with GIS in Hawai`i. Almost immediately the issue of public access wasbrought up in the context of the State, because as we have already discussed,it is State personnel who have assembled the bulk of the geospatial data inexistence on Hawai`i. Freeman's GIS initiative is to create a small venture tomonitor the state of current water quality on the Islands and make thisinformation accessible to environmental groups and the public at a low cost.As indicated in the previous section, Freeman's positions seriously questionthe policies of the State, and can be most clearly summarized by excerptingfrom his proposal, which was written in 1995.

This proposal is aimed at developing a system for efficient public access ofthe information necessary for the community to do environmental research andcommunity planning while addressing agency concerns for data accuracy andintegrity.... Public access to GIS data and water quality (especially GIS) isnot a given. The County and State are both skeptical about releasing much oftheir data at all. Ken Schmidt (County Department of General Planning (DGP))says that the DGP will charge $40 per tile per GIS database layer (when theyget around to offering it!). This proposal has been around for years and theystill haven't offered it to the public at all yet. I don't know the exact sizeof each tile, but it is quite small. This could be quite expensive to get theentire island of Oahu. The point here is that they will be selling thisinformation as a commercial operation. These data have already been collectedand compiled for their own planning use at taxpayer expense. There is noreason that we should have to pay for it twice! (Freeman and Niederer 1995: 1,10)

Freeman stated the goal of his proposal is "to ensure community access ata reasonable cost." And since data acquisition amounts for 80% of the cost ofGIS, the State's prohibitive data sharing policies proves to be an arena forshowing its power through control of its data. He criticized the State bysuggesting that beyond essentially denying the public access to the GISinformation it has paid the State to collect, he feels that access is made easyfor certain developers; perhaps even `under the table' access.

When asked about the possibility of creating a community-based GIS in thenear future Freeman's voice lowered as he stated,

It has become a nightmare getting anything off the ground. GIShas grown so fast and furious over the last 5 years they (the government) seethis as a great way to make money because GIS is expensive and it is costingthe State and County a fair amount of money to do it. But they did this sothey could do their work more efficiently and better by having this technologyto begin with so they already justified in terms of charging all of us for it.They want us to further pay for it. So I am at a loss with the whole thingright now because it is so hard to battle the people who want to make money offit. (Freeman, personal communication)

We found that Freeman has worked in many instances for free, writtenproposals, given testimonies to the State, and is trying to support betterenvironmental planning, only to meet a consistent resistance from the majordata supplier on the Islands, the State government. Freeman put it bluntlywhen he stated: "The participatory process in Hawai`i is a joke, basically,because the political process is totally corrupt" (Ibid: personalcommunication).

The disempowering experience Freeman has encountered is what ProfessorGoss talks about when he says that "the (larger) community is being divided bythe GIS technology, the haves and have nots, and the technology reinforcesthat" (Goss, personal communication). Freeman himself has the skills andtechnological equipment to make a living doing GIS projects and consulting, butthe community projects he is trying to support are marked by continuedresistance.

While not speaking directly about Freeman's initiative, University ofHawai`i professor Jon Goss suggests that should such an initiative succeed,there may be the potential to confer certain new powers on community groups andthe marginalized, as

(GIS) enables community groups to challenge the government, because they canproduce their own view of the world, which is like producing a map or a pieceof paper. Then the planning agency will take that seriously - because you nowplay the planners' game. Those who don't play the planners' game aremarginalized. (Goss, personal communication)

Freeman's ultimate goal in relation to GIS is to create an environment ofproactivity, as opposed to reactivity. "Environmental work is too often justfighting brush fires, instead of addressing the fundamental infrastructure ofthe problem" (Freeman, personal communication). He hoped that GIS created inthe right way, could go a long way toward enabling private citizens and groupsto not only track the results of government policy, but also to move toward thefacilitation of sustainable environmental/community planning.

7.1.2   'Insider Information'

Before we knew of Gary Gill's role in GIS activism, we had met him at apublic meeting organized by a local environmental organization called Ka IwiAction Alliance, a group trying to stop a large development effort at Queen'sBeach in eastern Oahu. At this meeting Gill was leading the effort to create apublic park at the site, rather than let it go to hotels, golf courses, andluxury homes. At this meeting we found out that he had been elected to thecity council over a period of eight years, in the footsteps of his father, whowas also a politician of Hawai`i.

Prior to our meeting with Mr. Gill we had been advised about Gill's workto distribute the State GIS information to government agencies and the publicat a reasonable fee. So when we came to speak with him, we were quiteinterested to hear more about his plans. In our meeting, Gill warmly receivedus and gave us an introduction to the work of his office. Eventually weproceeded to one of the office's computers where he showed us some sampled datalayes in the State GIS system. As we were browsing through different layers ofinformation he came back to our question "How can the public access the State'sinformation?" With a faint smile he began to tell us of his project to createa complete compact disc (CD) of all the State and GIS information layers, forfree distribution to the people of Hawai`i.

(I am trying) to find an easy way to connect the State's data layers from theState's UNIX system to PC. We tried and we know how to do it. We havetechnical problems putting it on CD because I am trying to do it for free. I'musing existing State resources and I'm dependent on the kindness of people inother agencies to help make this work. To take the State data layers you haveto copy, export, or make a shape file of it and then put it on to a PC on theStates network and then copy it of from that, on to a tape and take that tapeon to another guy in the State who has a CD-ROM burner through his PC and thenhe gives it back to me. I plug it in here, and after it has been through allconversions, it ain't working!!! It's often a little glitch that is in theway. We're very close to making it work.

We make it technological feasible and inform the public of itsavailability in this office, and then the public says "we want this" and thatforces the State to respond.

I get a lot of support. If everything had gone well it would have beendone last year in the summer. Last week I thought I had it !!!! (Gill,personal communication)

We were moved to learn about this action which was intended by Gill tocreate a significant public interest and demand for the State's information.When asked about what the State thinks about his work, he just laughed and said"They will just have to respond to the demands of the citizens!"

Gill suggests that the result of breaking the State monopoly on data maybe to create a more participatory process of decision making, planning andpolicy formation. With a freer flow of information it becomes possible to askquestions, present new ideas, and to criticize proposals: to become more thanjust disaffected voters subject to policies that they have not helped create,and which may not be in their best interests.

As a former politician and now public official Gary Gill took pride inthese initiatives supporting a more participatory process on the Hawaiianislands. He made it clear to us that "GIS is the next major tool the publicwill have to really decentralize the planning process and decentralize thereview process so the public themselves will become experts. It happens all thetime, in many cases such as the Ka Iwi, etc." In other words empowermenthappens when communities have access to information about their place. Whenaccess to information shifts, the power relations involved change.

Craig (1996), of the University of Minnesota, would probably support thespirit behind Gary Gill's initiative and proposes that the inherent power inthe access to information derived from GIS must be the backbone of urbanAmerica's rejuvenation. He writes:

There is hope for urban America, but only if we are willing to give more powerto the people with the biggest stake in its success: neighborhood andcommunity groups. Information can provide that power and information can bederived from data and GIS technology. The problem is that community groupsdon't have access to any of these resources. (Ibid: *)

In a discussion of their GIS community activism in the Appalachianmountains region of the US, Brooks and Hatley (1996) quote an important criticof modern society:

The importance of grassroots activity like ours was underscored in a recentClemson University lecture by Leo Marx (MIT emeritus professor; author ofMachine in the Garden). He reiterated the postmodern domination andabstraction of nature and space by the modern mega-organization, and said "WiseGIS use by the grassroots is truly the only way in which GIS and space will notbe dictated and dominated totally by these forces." (Ibid: *)

As we print this thesis (6/96), Mr. Gill has finally succeeded in puttingnearly all the State's data layers on one CD. This will be helpful for hisoffice's work in tracking Environmental Impact Statements and relatedinformation, he says, and he will now work with people in the State governmentsystem to press for its release to the public. In a second interview with Mr.Gill just a few days after the completion of the CD Gill had the following tosay.

Our goal here has been to try and utilize the existing information in a waythat will provide easy access, as a first step, to State planners and agencieswho are in the business of environmental planning, whether it is an appropriateway to build a roadway or reviewing environmental documents. We want to bringthis information to the people who really need it, who are very busy and wheretheier departments don't have the money to put into a workstation or the timeto take weeks of training.

So, we have here, successfully, after having worked a year on it, managedto find a way to convert the State's GIS data layers into a format that can beread by a stand-alone PC (486 or pentium processor, 16 MB RAM) with a CD drive hooked up to a Hewlett Packard laser jet. We have basically complete read-only access to the entire GIS data base of the State of Hawai`i.We don't have some City covereages, which are quite extensive. The largest one is the Tax Map Key, so we don't have actual property lines. We can get those, they may take up an entire CD on their own and it will take a lot of datamangement to convert them over to CD.

So the total rig here in terms of cost and access is $2000 for a Pentium,$1000 for a laser printer, $600 for a program and the CD is free. (Gill,personal communication)

Mr. Gill has succeeded in showing that access to the State data doesn'thave to be a costly endeavor, especially if the hardware and software isalready available. Gill says that now it is up to Criag Tasaka, Office ofState Planning, to respond to the public's demand. Gill argues that while theState does not currently have an information access policy, such a policy isrequired and long overdue.

7.1.3   The Nature Conservancy: Conservation and Covert Information

Just as the government has made a substantial effort in collectinginformation about the land, utility and transportation infrastructure,demographics, and other information, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) has made amajor effort to collect data on Hawai`i's native endangered plants and birds aspart of their goal to protect ecologically significant habitat. TNC has becomethe central biological database on rare species in Hawai`i, where it has beenin operation since 1980. We had a lengthy interview with their GIScoordinator, Shannon McElvaney, in their renovated, charming old Chinatownbuilding in the middle of the old part of Honolulu. McElvaney discussed themassive amount of work that had gone into digitizing all of TNC's data, as wellas the many complications that exist in such transfers. He then showed ustheir powerful hardware, and examples of present contracts with their primarycontractor, the US military. We then began talking about some of the intricateissues that arise when information is collected, combined and displayedvisually.

Interestingly, while very much aligned with the idea of public access toinformation generally, McElvaney is very much opposed to it with respect to theTNC data. He explains why:

This is private land (he points to a map), and those are endangered species onprivate land. When somebody sees that, like the owners themselves, they getvery nervous. Most private landowners don't want to see an endangered speciesdot with a boundary showing on their land. So this information is allinternal, we don't show this to the public because it would upset our partnersand we wouldn't be able to get our work done. So, our data is reallysensitive. A dot on a map may represent a third of a mile or a mile and a halfradius, it might not even be on their land in reality, but because the dot isput on their land they get very nervous. If the dot is close to the boundaryor on the other side of the boundary, it doesn't mean it's not on the otherside of the boundary. Birds typically and insects cross everybody's boundariesall the time. ... So ... we have to be really, really careful.

We are still trying to work out a policy of how to present this data in ageneralized form that will allow people not to be so nervous, but it's still abig question.

I want to respond to the growing interest from the outside world. I wantpeople to make their own maps - but it would have to be very generalized if ithad to be made available on the Web. We can't tell people where the endangeredspecies are; here are collectors and people who will destroy them if they werefound. I would like it be an open GIS where the public can use the data andleave their VISA card number to pay for accessing the data. We have invertedthe pyramid, rather than responding to each request, we would have it the otherway around. That's how I think all GIS will go in the future as the Internetbecomes bigger, with more available data. (McElvaney, personal communication)

The main issue landowners have with TNC data is that when an endangeredspecies is identified on private land, all kinds of federal regulations andrestrictions on the use of the land apply. McElvaney introduced us to thebeginning of an extremely complex set of issues that arise in the context ofinformation exchange or lack thereof. McElvaney himself was perplexed by theparadoxical need for information secrecy in the name of conservation andsustainability.

One of the active participants in the NCGIA debate on GIS and Society,Obermeyer explains the conflict that arises when specific information aboutendangered species and private land ownership are brought together. Theconflict arises not because of the information but rather due to the valuesheld by the people who interpret the information (Obermeyer, 1996: *). Thereason private landowners are afraid of having an endangered species identifiedon their property is not because they are afraid of the particular species, (aninsect, tree, flower or lizard...) but because they are afraid they might losetheir water rights or development plans: in other words, it is an economicconsideration. In contrast, the TNC seems to place a somewhat higher value onthe life of particular endangered species than economic and private individualconsiderations, though they are savvy enough to know now that their ownsustainability will be determined by their successful balancing of theseconsiderations. Obemeyer's work addresses the complex implications of GIS:

My project, entitled "Spatial Conflict in the Information Age," explores theclaim made by some advocates of GIS that the systems can help to minimizeconflicts over land use by providing more and better (more accurate)information about the subject of the conflict. I argue that this claimoverlooks an important source of conflict: the underlying value differencesrepresented by conflicting parties. Furthermore, I hypothesize that GIS willtend initially to increase, rather than decrease, conflict, since geographicinformation and analyses made possible by GIS can be used selectively byconflicting parties to support their positions. However, I view this conflictas a positive feature in a democracy, because it represents open dialogueconcerning differences of opinion that must be fully explored as a preconditionfor acceptable public policy resolution...

The logic behind my suggestion that GIS will tend to increase conflictlies in research that identifies two sources of conflict: disagreement on facts(cognitive conflict) and disagreement regarding values (interest conflict).While GIS can influence facts in a particular conflict, by adding facts orpresenting facts in a variety of ways, there is no reason to expect that thetechnology alone can or will do anything to mesh competing values. Valueconflict, therefore will remain, regardless of the amount of informationgathered to resolve it. At the same time, the greater quantity of informationthat GIS will make possible will very likely increase the number of "facts"that can then become the basis for further conflict. (Ibid: *)

How does McElvaney describe TNC's essential work? "TNC's Heritage Programdoes primarily three things. First they find out what is there, then theyestablish the boundaries, and then they determine how they can monitor thatarea. Sometimes we try to buy the area we want to protect, and other timesmake efforts to make partnerships."

McElvaney told us that "When I was younger I thought humans were differentfrom the landscape," but as I have matured I see we are a part of thelandscape; you can't separate the two. "How do we involve the community?" hepondered out loud toward the end of the interview. "One of the key questionsfor communities would be to help determine how to balance compatibledevelopment and sustainability," said McElvaney. "You can't separate the two"he said, as we were wrapping up our interview on the outside porch in the shadeaway from the intense Pacific sun. "That's why we need to involve thecommunity in developing policies for the protection of plants and animals..."(McElvaney, personal communication).

As we will see in the next section, access is just the beginning of themany relevant issues to explore with regard to the use of GIS forsustainability and empowerment.


7.2.   Knowledge Production

The second theme we bring forward is that of knowledge ordata production. The ability to create digitized information which reflectslocal knowledge, social histories and actual community needs represents acomplex and ill-defined process in which information flows from the communitiesand grassroots "up" or "out," compared to a top-down centralized data gatheringprocess executed by a more distant government. The ability to successfullyrepresent local knowledge gives groups at the grassroots level an ability tocommunicate their own story, their own knowledge, rather than the stories andknowledge systems of governments or business interests. Peter Poole (1995)emphasizes that the importance of the knowledge gathering process and localcontrol of the information is more important than the power of the technologyitself. He writes,

some groups have expressed concern that the mapping process enables outsidersto control information previously controlled by communities. The process bywhich traditional knowledge is gathered and applied remains the criticalelement that determines success, regardless of the degree of sophistication ofthe mapping technology. (Poole, 1995: ix)

In the following section we bring in voices from other communities thanthose we have been directly involved with to gain some perspective on theissues involved in information and GIS. We had to go to sources focusing onareas other than Hawai`i to get reflections on GIS initiatives whichconsciously pursued the use and integration of local knowledge. Since theNation of Hawai`i's GIS initiative is still in a preliminary research phase itis our position that information production and local knowledge incorporationmust be a central preoccupation, because the Nation's goal is to create a GISsystem which empowers all the people of Hawai`i to participate in thereemergence of a fully sustainable, sovereign nation.

We begin by exploring a significant larger context of thisdiscussion of knowledge, data, and information: the advent of the "informationage." There is such widespread discussion of this subject as to make it acliché of our time - but has there really been an "informationrevolution?" Perhaps it could be argued that there has been a digitalrevolution, in that much information is now digitally encoded and therebymanipulatable and transferable in new ways not possible with data in otherformats. However some suggest that with regard to public policy the avalancheof geospatial information accessible today can command more respect than itdeserves.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) is a self-described environmental watchdoggroup headquartered in the UK which has used GIS extensively to monitorgovernment policy, and has written optimistically about the potential of GIS tohelp society coordinate and manage information toward sustainability. The"information revolution" for FOE has less to do with the amount of informationcurrently available, as with the potential allowed by GIS to systematicallycompile, integrate, and interpret information deemed essential for sustainablemanagement.

Friends of the Earth suggests that "the information revolution is a myth,"and will continue to be because,

There is no scope for any long term investment into understanding how our lifesupport system is changing. There is an enormous investment in new roads, butwhere is the information about the effects of that development on ourenvironment, the long term health of a fossil-fuel economy or the socialimplications? Where it does exist is usually inaccessible, expensive or sopatchy as to be of little use. (Atkinson, 1993: *)

As was suggested in the last section, access to GIS data andtechnology is the first step in empowering small users, local, governments,nonprofit community agencies, and non-mainstream groups in their ability toengage in the decision-making process. But as these groups get involved in thepublic decision-making process it also becomes apparent that the State agencieswho have collected most data, have chosen certain data to collect beforeothers. Michael Barndt (1996) from the University of Milwaukee has studiedissues in data use by community groups.

An important outcome of the experience of the Neighborhood Data Center programhas been the opportunity to critique the potential and the limitation ofexisting public data systems as resources for neighborhood organizations.Rarely do existing data sets provide insights neighborhood leadership do notalready understand. (Barndt, 1996: *)

If the neighborhood groups are not part of deciding whatdata to collect and how to present it they may not have the possibility toeither use the data or be otherwise empowered by its use. The reason for thelocal indifference to State data may be connected to State indifference tolocal data.

The State is the collector of most GIS data. The State determines whatquestions can be asked and in what form. Generally the variety of knowledgeand wisdom possessed by diverse individuals and social groups and gathered incourse of their experiences is not considered worth collecting by large Stateagencies. (Scott and Cutter, 1996: *)

Another primary point that must be made here is that when consideringmaps, data layers, and geographic knowledge, it is essential to understand thecontemporary transformation of the map production process. Recalling ourdiscussion of Polynesian mapless long-distance navigation in which theterritory became the map; and even the voyages of Captain Cook, in which he andhis crew personally traveled thousands of miles to meticulously create maps ofpotential trading areas and routes; in each case there is a certain knowledgebased on extensive experience which goes into ultimately creating the map.When maps became industrialized and mass produced, the mapmaker who directlyrelated to a place to be mapped was converted to a technician in the assemblyline process of map construction. Similar transformations have rocked manyprofessions as life in this century has become more affected by mass-productionand technological shifts. Such an experience is recalled in the followingaccount of a forest ranger:

...(my grandfather) was a district ranger in the Forest Service, and "Go Bang"was his horse. He would ride through his district and to hear him tell it heknew every tree branch and blade of grass. Then the pickup truck arrived, andfrom then on the life was removed from the forest with only a windshieldvignette of the pieces. He knew when forestry died. He felt all those damnaerial photos kept the foresters' head in the clouds. (Berry, 1993:202)

Berry is suggesting that his grandfather carries a local knowledgethat the aerial perspective will never capture. The forest ranger on horsebackversus `aerial rangers' is one analogy of the transformation of what passes forknowledge in the twentieth century. A more dramatic example is to compare thedifference in indigenous Polynesian versus European ocean-going navigation ofthe same era; the fourteenth century (See again section 2.1.2).

Today the shortcomings of a more and more depersonalized map productionprocess are becoming clearer. Emerging theoretical and practical mapmakinginitiatives are beginning to explore how to gather and represent informationfrom local people's experience, rather than just from a machine's observations.In rural South Africa and industrial West Virginia, GIS are being developedwhich combine conventional socio-economic, environmental, and infrastructuraldata with non-conventional behavioral and cognitive information. A regionalpolitical ecology conceptual framework informs the GIS production process. Theresearch is intended to contribute toward more democratic decision-makingprocesses while also exploring the constraints and possibilities associatedwith alternative GIS production and use. Harris writes in Pickles (1995),

Our argument for a participatory GIS is intended to demonstrate aGIS application where local knowledge, community needs, and specific socialhistories are appreciated and incorporated into the development process, and"expertise" is viewed as interactive. In this way the production ofinformation is viewed not solely as a top-down operation but one whereby localknowledge arising from social narratives is converted into data within a GISfor research and policy formation. (Pickles 1995: 197)

The GIS project in South Africa is exploring a process that places a valueon complexity of information which comes from multiple settings throughmultiple perceptual filters. South Africa may be interesting to Hawaiiansbecause both places share a long indigenous struggle for self-determinationafter a history of colonialism. (The primary goal of the South Africa GISproject is to support social equity and self-determination.)

In comparison with a clean "objective" streamlined knowledge that fitsnicely into a GIS framework, the inclusion of an interactive data gatheringprocess may seem "messy", to some. Yet it brings an increased complexity tothe GIS framework, through a variety of information types. Harris continues:

With the inclusion of a combination of more than "one knowledge," it is likelythat a GIS database will contain conflicting information and substantivefuzziness. Such was found to be the case in our study with the many differinginterpretations by "experts," local participants, and the study team ... Withthe inclusion of locationally fuzzy local knowledge many issues begin to ariseas to how multi-objective goals, based on multiple criteria, and usingimprecise and possible conflicting data, might actually achieve what is assumedto be consensus decision-making. Indeed, greater quantities of information maypromote social conflict. (Ibid: 219)

The possibility for increased social conflict supports what McElvaney toldus about his experience combining information about endangered species andprivate land ownership, which challenged the popularly assumed potential GISholds for support of conflict resolution. A GIS that can represent many viewsof reality may turn out to be a tool that will expose historical injustice topeople and their places and thereby fuel conflict between different socialgroups. But as people gain experience in resolving social conflicts, GIS mayin the future also encompass information about the resolution of socialconflicts.