Position Paper on Collaborative Spatial Decision-Making

Dave Lemberg
Department of Geography
University of California at Santa Barbara


Spatial decision making generally involves conflict between various interest groups. Any design for a spatial decision support system for use in a group environment should incorporate into its structure, not only the spatial analysis tools to generate feasible alternatives, but also the ability to use these instruments within a context of a process of negotiation and mediation. A GIS is a natural and powerful tool to be used in developing solutions to land-use problems. There is a real danger, however, that such a powerful device may be misused, either through ignorance, or by design. Misuse by ignorance may be remedied through training and through user interface and system design. Misuse by design must be prevented through procedural and methodological checks and balances. This paper will center on the following:

1. The special difficulties of dealing with spatial-locational problems in a public domain.

2. The applicability of principled negotiating techniques to conflict resolution in spatial-locational problems among many interest groups.

3. The advantages and disadvantages of multi-user versus single-user interfaces in Group Spatial Decision Support Systems with regard to use in public meetings on spatial-locational disputes.

4. A list of research questions centering on the development of a set of methods and procedures for a single-user based Group Spatial Decision Support System for problem definition, alternative generation, and negotiation support for spatial-locational problem solution in public meetings.

Spatial Problems and Spatial Conflict

Spatial problems such as site location, site closure, land-use decisions, boundary adjustments, NIMBY issues, etc., have many common properties that make them difficult to solve. These problems in general are hard to define. What exactly is the problem? What are the spatial and temporal bounds on the problem? Who are the interested parties? To use a spatial metaphor - where do we draw the line? This is a real problem. To apply Tobler's First Law of Geography, "All things are related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things", a spatial issue should effect everyone on Earth. Fortunately, the amount of that relationship is negligible for most of the world's population on any given issue. On the other hand, modern transportation and communications technology have created ever more complex relationships among people and organizations which are extra-local in scope.

Such relationships include networks of families, friends, special interest groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, corporations, government organizations, etc., that may communicate by phone, by mail, by e-mail, by electronic bulletin boards, by the printed media, or by television program. The groups may be bound by only one issue or by more complex ties of work, beliefs, or other links. The growing complexity of our society has made it every more difficult to determine exactly who might be effected by a land-use decision, who should be informed of such issues, and who should be invited to take part in public hearings, study groups, and negotiation sessions.

The set of spatial-locational problems are also hard to evaluate. Given that the problems involve many parties with many different agendas, how can landowners, developers, preservationists, community groups, government, and other diverse interests negotiate agreements? Each party has its own values and priorities to apply to the issue. Which values does one apply? All of them? None of them? A synthesis of all of the parties involved? Even if one could come to a consensus on a set of values for the interested parties, how would one go about evaluating alternative solutions? How does one measure combinations of material and non-material costs and benefits (fiscal, environmental, aesthetic, etc.)? Conflict is inherent in spatial issues. There is not necessarily and way to settle and issue in terms of right or wrong, or good or bad. Rather, decisions may be imposed from above based on one set of values and priorities (at the expense of those holding to other values and priorities), or decisions may be made by a process of negotiation and compromise by which the interested parties come to some agreement of mutual gain or at least equitable loss.

Spatial Problems and Negotiating Techniques

In working with spatial-locational problems in a group setting, the type of spatial representation used to define the problem can either exacerbate or alleviate the level of conflict between the parties in the room. A standard "flat paper map" or similar static display on an overhead projector or CRT can create the perception of a "zero-sum game". Information provided by such maps are limited. Changes on such a map can easily be perceived as a win or lose situation. A boundary moves and territory is gained or lost. A GIS can create the perception of a "win-win game" through a more complex representation of space and time. Many layers of information displayed on the same space creates room for negotiation. The impacts and benefits of many facets of a plot of land may be seen, and alternatives and trade-offs may emerge. Complex problems require complex understanding and creative solutions. Flexible tools are required to better define the problems, illustrate the interests involved, create empathy among the participants, and allow common generation of alternative solutions.

One major problem in reaching solutions to spatial problems (land-use, site location, etc.) is positional argument. Arguing over positions ("You can't put a collection center in my neighborhood", "Closing a school is not an option", "All old growth forest must be protected", "We must drill on this location", etc.) can produce negative outcomes. The positions of the parties produce barriers to effective communication, reducing the likelihood of a consensual agreement among the parties. Arguing over positions endangers relationships among the participants. Each party is more likely to gain the perception of a win-lose situation in the dispute and such a decision is more likely to result in a win-lose outcome. Bargaining among parties with solid positions becomes more difficult with many parties involved. It only takes one recalcitrant party to kill any agreement.

Fisher and Ury outline four points of principled negotiation. These four points are outlined below, along with my own adaptations of these principles to spatial-locational problems, GIS, and Group Spatial Decision Support Systems (GSDSS):

          From Fisher and Ury                			As Adapted to Spatial Problems

People:   Separate the people from the problem    	Separate the people with the GSDSS
          Attack the problem, not each other      		Attack the problem on the maps and 
                                        				on the electronic displays)

Interests:     Focus on interests, not positions       	Manipulate the maps, not each other

Options:  Generate a variety of alternatives      	Simulate a variety of alternatives

Criteria: Base the result on some objective       	Base the result on evaluation of 
          standard                      				impacts (distance, cost, damages, 

Multi-user and Single-user Group Spatial Decision Support Systems and Spatial-Locational Problems

Assuming the need for a GSDSS for use in the negotiating process for spatial-locational disputes, a driving question is what sort of GSDSS interface is best suited to spatial conflict resolution? Two different approaches - the multi-user interface and the single-user interface come to mind. Each have advantages and disadvantages as a base for a GSDSS for a land-use negotiation and mediation tool.

Multi-user interfaces for GSDSS's have the major advantage of allowing participation by all members of the public meeting. Such a system allows all parties instant access to information and allows all parties to participate in the alternative generation process. The "hands-on" approach allows all participants to feel that they are part of the decision making process. The disadvantages of a multi-user interface for a GSDSS are centered on equity and on the control required in a negotiation process as opposed to a simple decision making process. Using a multi-user system, experts have advantages over novices in manipulating the system. You are likely to end up with "dueling consultants" representing rich interests against each other, and riding roughshod over any interest group with such resources.

Retaining control of a public meeting and mediating a negotiation process among interest groups would become difficult if all parties had uncensored access to an open GSDSS. Opposing sides are likely to distort the representation of the problem to their own positions, making constructive compromise and alternative generation more difficult. It is difficult to control the accuracy of the input data if anyone can enter data into the system. The design and cost of such a system would be expensive in terms of hardware, networking, and software problems (user interfaces and multi-user sharing).

The advantage of a single operator system is in the way that the system administrator / operator /mediator team can create the conditions required for a successful negotiating session. The meeting facilitator has control over the meeting, keeping the flow of the meeting on the issues rather than on personalities. The planning staff can filter the input data for validity, excluding non-verifiable data. Alternative solutions and the output maps generated for these alternatives may be filtered for positional distortions. These filtering functions will minimize the "Experts'" influence over the proceedings - one side is less likely to overwhelm the other due to superior resources. Finally, the user interface problem is simplified. The operating interface can be aimed toward a higher level user. The hardware and software required should be cheaper.

The disadvantages of a single-user GSDSS center on the requirements for a set of highly skilled operators and support staff. Required staff skills would include data filtering, GIS and spatial concepts, and negotiation and mediation skills. The public meetings will be less "democratic", in that the facilitator will have full control over the negotiating process. The process requires legitimacy from the parties involved, much like submission to arbitration for civil disputes. Control by the facilitator and the planning agency means limited access by the participants. There is a danger that some participants may feel excluded or discriminated against. The success of such a system requires strong ethical rules against bias.

Research Questions

Is the single user group spatial decision system a superior approach for resolving spatial conflict in a public context? It remains to be seen. Given the advantages of the of the single user GSDSS, there are many research question that can be applied to the development of a set of methods and procedures for problem definition, alternative generation, and negotiation support for spatial-locational problem solution in public meetings. One major question is the role of the user in the negotiation process. I propose three possible roles: the Operator, the Facilitator, and the Mediator.

The simplest role is that of the operator. The operator acts as a technician for the group, operating the system and generating simulations and alternative scenarios only on requests from a group leader or from members of the group. The operator does not act as a participant in the group. He or she does not initiate solution alternatives or join into the discussion. Rather than being a part of the negotiating process, the operator acts as a human user interface for the others in the meeting. In some ways, this is like a multi-user GSDSS without the requirement for simple user interface software and multiple input terminals.

The facilitator acts as a consultant for the group. He or she operates the system, generating simulations and alternative scenarios on request from the group, but also adds his/her expertise as a spatial analyst as a participant in the group process. The facilitator controls the flow of the meeting through suggestion. He or she does not have a formal leadership role, but may steer the negotiation process through constructive alternative generation, proposing alternatives that attack the central problems rather than those that explicitly favor one position.

The mediator not only acts as a participant in the group decision making process, but acts in a leadership role within the group. By operating the spatial decision support system and taking a leadership role in problem definition and alternative generation, the he or she can focus the attention of the group on finding common ground and negotiating a workable solution. The mediator has the added advantage of filtering capability. He or she can question, moderate , or reject proposals or information that are inaccurate, distorted, biased, or inequitable.

Other questions to be examined include:

What sort of functionality is required for a Group Spatial Decision Support System? Is spatial decision support the main need or is spatial understanding support more important to the process?

Can we design a general purpose GSDSS for land-use issue negotiation, or would it make more sense to design many specialized GSDSS's for site location, schools, emergency services, etc.?

What sorts of graphic displays would be most effective for a single-operator GSDSS?

What sort of procedures would be most effective for conducting negotiation and mediation in public meetings supported by a GSDSS? How would the participants forward their queries to the operator? What sort of time frame would the process work under?

What sort of data filtering would be required to support such a system? How would data sets be evaluated for validity and bias?

Are we creating a new profession of a GSDSS mediator/facilitator/operator? What sort of training would be required to fill this position? GIS, spatial concepts, data processing, land use planning, negotiation and mediation techniques? What sort of system of ethics would be required for such a group in order to retain legitimacy by the disputing parties?


Armstrong, M., Lolonis, P., & Honey, R. A Spatial Decision Support System for School Redistricting URISA Journal, V. 5, pp. 40-52, Spring 1993

Armstrong, M., Rushton, G., Honey, R., Dalziel, B., Lolonis, P., De, S., & Densham, P. Decision Support for Regionalization: A Spatial Decision Support System for Regionalizing Service Delivery Systems Computers, Environment, & Urban Systems, V. 15 pp.37-53 1991

Cohen, Herb, You Can Negotiate Anything Bantam Books, New York 1980

Couclelis, H. & Monmonier, M Using SUSS to Resolve NIMBY: How Spatial Understanding Support Systems Can Help with the "Not in My Backyard" Syndrome

Edelman, Joel & Crain, Mary Beth The Tao of Negotiation Harper Collins, New York 1993 Fisher, Roger & Ury, William Getting to Yes Penguin Books, New York 1981

Forester, J. Planning in the Face of Conflict APA Journal, Summer 1987, pp. 303-314

Jarke, M. Knowledge Sharing and Negotiation Support in Multiperson Decision Support Systems Decision Support Systems, V. 2, pp. 93-102 1986

Jarke, M., Jelassi, M.T., & Shakun, M. MEDIATOR: Towards a Negotiation Support System European Journal of Operations Research, V. 31, pp. 314-334 1987

Jelassi, M.T. & Beauclair, R. An Integrated Framework for Group Decision Support Systems Design Information and Management, V. 13, pp. 143-153 1987

Nunamacher, J.F., Dennis, A., Valacich, J. & Vogel, D. Information Technology for Negotiating Groups: Generating Options for Mutual Gain Management Science, V. 37, pp. 1325-1346 1991

Rao, V.S., & Jarvenpaaa, S. Computer Support of Groups: Theory-Based Models for GDSS Research Management Science, V. 37, pp. 1347-1362 1991

Sycara, K. Negotiation Planning: An A.I. Approach European Journal of Operations Research, V. 46, pp. 216-234 1990

Sycara, K. Problem Restructuring in Negotiation Management Science, V. 37, pp. 1248-1268 1991

Tobler, W. A Computer Movie Economic Geography, V. 46, pp. 234-240 1970

Uri, William Getting Past No Bantam Books, New York 1993


Dave Lemberg
Graduate Student
Department of Geography, University of California at Santa Barbara NCGIA

A.B. Political Economics - University of California at Berkeley, 1981

Masters of Regional Planning - University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill 1983

Thesis - Application of Telecommunications Technology to New Community Design

Dissertation Topic - Optimization Models for Magnet School Program Location

Prior to returning to school in 1992, I spent 6 years as Senior Planner at Educational Data Systems, Inc. in San Jose, California. The firm sold software and consulting services to school districts for long-range facility planning. My task over that time was to design and program a modeling system that started as a mainframe text driven system into a Spatial Decision Support System for school district planning. The use of the system evolved from a system that only the consultants could operate to a graphically driven system that school personnel could use with a couple of days training. Attached to the system was a methodology for using the computer to develop a dynamic master planning document that changed with changes in district parameters such as enrollment, new home building, dwelling yield shifts, migration rate changes, etc. The next step was to use the planning system, ONPASS, as a tool for large group presentations and planning sessions. The background for this position paper came from experiences in using the SDSS as a negotiation and mediation support tool.

Other work experience involved consulting, planning, and computer programming with a private transportation company, a public utility, a public planning agency, and a public transit agency.