PhD Defence Rehana Shrestha

interactive map-based support systems: supporting social learning and knowledge co-production on environmental health issues 

Rehana Shrestha is a PhD student in the research group Urban and Regional Planning and Geo-information Management. Her supervisor is M.F.A.M. van Maarseveen from the faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation.

Declining health of people living in cities worldwide is raising concerns to many international organizations as well as to national and municipal governments. In particular, health inequity issues are gaining attention. Health inequities defined as differences in health outcomes among the population are found globally between countries, but also locally within cities, including cities in developed countries. At intra-city level, these inequities are attributed to complex interaction between social, economic and physical environment conditions, captured in the concept of environmental health. Environmental health issues comprise those aspects of human health that are determined or influenced by factors of the environment. These environmental factors are usually found to depict inequalities in their spatial distribution. The general question with respect to these inequalities is whether or not environmental benefits and burdens influencing the health of people are spatially equally distributed over an area or among groups of population. Furthermore, it is recognized that these environmental burdens and benefits exist simultaneously, interact and thereby influence the health of people in a complex way. 

Addressing these inequities in health outcomes should be a concern of both urban planning and public health sector. Planning can affect the health and wellbeing of people through influencing the physical environment either positively or negatively. The public health sector is showing an increasing awareness of the importance of social determinants of health and can provide valuable expertise and resources for improving the health conditions of people. Therefore, collaboration, deliberation and a dialogue between urban planning and public health are needed to address these environmental health issues. Yet, scholars report on sporadic engagement at the interface between urban planning and public health. Besides institutional and legal challenges, this finding could be explained by the ‘wicked problem’ characteristics of these environmental health issues. In this vein, scholars now call for new forms of collaboration that can constructively integrate different ways of thinking of stakeholders from various sectors of society. Deliberation by stakeholders in social learning and knowledge co-production is called for so that such problems are explored from various perspectives, awareness of mutual expectations is raised, insights into the causes are gained, as well as the means required to transform. However, scholars are advocating that social learning does not emerge with every arbitrary group interaction. Learning opportunities need to be nurtured in participatory activities thereby involving different actors in knowledge co-production.

The development of Planning Support Systems (PSSs) show that these tools have the potential to support stakeholders in social learning and knowledge co-production processes. Such tools might be valuable to integrate both the spatial dimensions of environmental health issues and the knowledge, values and perspectives of stakeholders in the process. However, the usefulness of such tools have not been explored in an environmental health context. It generates the research question: How can an interactive map-based support system engage stakeholders in a social learning and knowledge co-production process in an environmental health context, taking into account spatial dimensions of environmental health at local level and cumulative effects of multiple environment burdens? To address this question the study aimed to explore the usefulness of interactive map-based support systems in this context. Four sub-objectives have been formulated for which the main findings are summarized below.

To support stakeholders in an early planning phase of developing a shared problem understanding, a methodological approach namely Interactive Spatial Understanding Support System (ISUSS) is developed in chapter 2. The approach that has been tested with a group of stakeholders in Dortmund combined two methods—interactive maps integrated on a MapTable and the construction of a ‘rich picture’ drawing. Findings show that the approach supported communication of explicit and tacit knowledge among participants in an interactive and dynamic manner. The MapTable appeared to be a useful medium to bring people together. By facilitating them in a structured manner the participants were engaged actively. Social learning was evidenced at different instances where participants sought to change their existing knowledge through reasoning and interaction. Construction of shared meaning were observed a few instance. The combined use of interactive maps and the ‘rich picture’ drawing was particularly found to be useful to support articulation, sharing and integration of both locally spatialized knowledge and non-spatial or yet to be spatialized knowledge in the discussion. As part of the approach stakeholders’ knowledge and perspectives on the problem situation in Dortmund were mapped. In doing so, various underlying drivers and causes for the detected inequalities in the area were identified jointly, including both constraints and potentials. Nonetheless, certain challenges with respect to completeness and comprehensiveness of indicators and supporting larger number of participants in a single session were found while implementing the approach.

The point of departure taken in chapter 3 is that people living in urban environment are exposed to multiple environmental burdens and benefits that are distributed disproportionately across a population with varying levels of vulnerability. Therefore, this study has developed an index-based approach to assess these multiple burdens and benefits in combination with vulnerability factors, particularly at a detailed intra-urban level. Data for environmental indicators were obtained at a fine resolution from the city administration whereas social data for vulnerability indicators were disaggregated by employing a dasymetric method. The approach was applied to the city of Dortmund to identify ‘hotspots’ of high cumulative burdens of multiple environmental factors and high social vulnerability. Results show modest inequalities burdening higher vulnerable groups in Dortmund. However, at the detailed intra-urban level, inequalities showed strong geographical patterns. Large number of ‘hotspots’ exist in the norther part of the city compared to the southern part.

Owing to the need to support stakeholders in collaborative assessment of cumulative burdens, a methodological approach namely interactive stakeholder-based cumulative burden assessment (Interactive-CuBA) is developed in chapter 4. The approach aimed at facilitating science-based stakeholder dialogues as an interface for engendering social learning and knowledge co-production among stakeholders. The index-based approach developed in chapter 3 has been adopted for this purpose. Two workshops, one in Dortmund and another in Munich, were conducted to test the approach. The approach allowed the participants to interact with each other using a flexible and auditable CuBA model implemented within a shared workspace of the MapTable and supported with facilitation. Findings showed that the participants were enabled to deliberate on cumulative burdens collaboratively, to learn about various issues with respect to cumulative burdens and thereby to co-produce knowledge on problem and opportunities for assessing cumulative burdens in the context of resource allocation. Further needs for improvement with respect to the approach were identified: e.g. explicit inclusion of qualitative information, design of the model and tools to avoid distraction, and extending the CuBA model with other indicators.

A conceptual framework for an approach of interactive map-based support system to support social learning and knowledge co-production is presented in chapter 5. The framework integrates the lessons learned from the development and testing of the two approaches—ISUSS and Interactive-CuBA—with the framework on social learning as described in chapter 1. The framework intends to serve as a conceptual basis of an approach of interactive map-based support systems for promoting social learning and knowledge co-production.

In conclusion, this study presents novel approaches of interactive map-based support systems for promoting social learning and knowledge co-production among stakeholders on environmental health issues. The approaches developed in this study provided a platform to engage various stakeholders in deliberation on environmental health issues, to include diverse knowledge and perspectives and to facilitate social learning thereby co-producing knowledge interactively. These approaches could potentially support health-related planning processes to engage stakeholders from both planning and health. The conceptual framework developed in this study provides a basis for the design of an interactive map-based support system with respect to the exploration of complex spatial problems.