Participatory research at York: Where did we come from?

I’m John Forrester and my research is around human engagement with the science behind environmental issues. See more information. In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the methods we have used for participatory research over the years I have been at SEI.

Early GIS for participation work at SEI

Early GIS for Participation work at SEI

Nearly 20 years ago SEI was using GIS for Participation to record local knowledge of cattle herders in South Africa. SEI wanted to find out what they knew and present that knowledge in a way easily usable by decision takers. This proved useful, and GIS-P in various guises has since been used to translate citizen knowledge across different level of policymaking in the UK, in China, and elsewhere, particularly in developing countries.

We try and target ‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as poorer residents who often feel disenfranchised, young people and school children, and the elderly.


Participatory GIS can help give voice to those usually under-represented in decision-making processes

We have also used participatory methodologies to record community views about a wide range of issues including urban [re]development , transport exclusion, and access to goods  and services including natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa , and flooding.

For us, however, what is often key is not the techniques of the engagement method (although these are necessary to get right) but the participation itself. Recently, participatory computer modelling has become a reality in Kenya, working with Howard Noble in Oxford. These Participatory-Agent-Based Models now show many of the useful characteristics of the participatory maps we produced earlier.

Using models to explore issues with stakeholders

Using models to explore issues with stakeholders

Importantly, they can be used to communicate knowledge, but they can also be used to explore with stakeholders (see left) the points at where alternative policy or resource use decisions could have been taken so as to explore more sustainable options. Over the years, SEI has developed several participatory methodologies– and not just the ones described here.  We believe these approaches can be used to more comprehensively understand and describe a range of stakeholders’ knowledge regarding environment and development problems.


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