In isolated areas, group decision-making can be difficult to achieve. And, when complex land-related issues need to be discussed, it can be almost impossible to bring all stakeholders together at the same time, in the same place, with an equal opportunity to have their say. Or is it?

MapChat may provide a solution. Internet-based, it combines webmapping and instant messaging, bringing dispersed communities together in virtual contact to discuss issues of common interest.

This tool was developed by Professor Brent Hall, doctoral student Michael Leahy and associates while at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Now, as head of the University of Otago's School of Surveying, he and Leahy (now an Otago research fellow) are refining and customising it for practical use.

Hall describes the technology as a geographic information system (GIS) that encourages public participation through the use of the internet. As such, it enables community members to communicate in real time, online, using "live" maps of an area of interest. It is ideally suited to any decision-making process that requires input from a wide range of stakeholders, such as resource management issues - housing developments, water use and wind farm developments, among others - and is particularly suitable for widelydispersed rural communities.

With secure login access to approved participants, the map interface comprises a number of layers that can be turned on and off, and is twinned with a messaging service. Its tools include those for highlighting areas of concern, drawing new features on map layers, adding text and comments, and sending messages. All comments and messages are time-stamped, threaded together and stored in a database for review and analysis. This means they can be shared live or viewed later - in much the same way as a text message or email - providing the flexibility of full and frank discussion without the need for participants to attend time-consuming public meetings.

MapChat saves all chat-based comments and links them to map selections, enabling participants and/or decision makers to arrive at a conclusion or solution that takes all opinions and points of view into account, to the fullest extent possible.

Hall says MapChat is user-friendly and cost-effective - it is written using open-source software - and, in a joint project between the School of Surveying and the LandCare Trust, it is now undergoing its first New Zealand trial.

The Upper Taieri River catchment, inland from Dunedin, has a difficult climate, harsh landscape and an annual rainfall of only 350mm - so access to water is crucial. However, at present, the Taieri River is over-allocated, with more individual users than consents. This situation is compounded by an historical water-rights system based on old mining rights, due to expire in 2021. Irrigators are now looking to revolutionise the way water is allocated within the catchment to ensure the whole community benefits.

By using MapChat, farmers and other stakeholders can create individualised irrigation strategies and requirements, and then "discuss" these individual solutions within the context of a community-based management approach. Sustainability of water access and continued viability of farming practice are central to this discussion.

MapChat will enable these individual strategies to be discussed collectively.

"The aim is to develop better relationships, smoother Resource Management Act processes, fairer community outcomes, improved environmental outcomes and, of course, a more efficient use of water," says Hall.