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The French experience of environmental data sharing

Why France supported the INSPIRE European directive?
Marc Leobet
p. 174-180

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The context of the late 1990s

1When I arrived at the Ministry for the Environment in late 1998, my mission was to disseminate information and maps on natural and technological hazards on the web. The legal framework was designed by a 1989 law that gave every French citizen the right to be informed about the risks that concern himself. Nearly ten years later, its implementation was still barely begun.

2In the field of natural hazards, but also in others, some politicians were convinced of the importance of environmental issues. The department had it not been created in 1971? He had quickly focused on water management, biodiversity and industrial pollution.

3But that’s an understatement to say that the more ancient departments were not enthusiasts at changing their habits. Public action is already difficult, consider orders from transversal policies related to the environment adds complexity. Disseminate information to the general public is having to explain or justify themselves. It was a lot to ask.

4However, in the late 1990s, internet arrives in the computers of some makers. The French government launches “Governmental Action Programme for the Information Society” who decides “a state more transparent and efficient, improving the internal performance of the administration and making life easier for the user, via a reorganization, online dissemination of public information and the generalization of remote procedures.” Notably, the Prime Minister was seeking to use the Internet to modernize government. In this context, the tactic was to press the lever of public opinion on the fulcrum of internet to move the government.

Initial findings of the dissemination of environmental data

5Internet, in 1998, that was 56Ko/s modems, no standard for IT, except html and jpeg, no user’s habits except those acquired on Microsoft Word. Fast enough, the problems of dissemination of environmental information, by a government of a country as large as France, have appeared in four forms.

Recovering environmental data in administrations

6First, the cultural reluctance to decide under the gaze of the citizen, that we meet up to today. This is a complex power struggle as data sharing lead to empowerment, and where there will be winners and losers.

7And the sense of ownership, for most of the people who produce spatial data, which lead to be reluctant to share “his” data, even within government.

Using data

8The heterogeneity of methods of observation or modelling of a phenomena related to the environment lead to an impossibility to compare and mix the data with a high level of reliability ;

9The infinite variety of type, structure, quality is costly for users, and sometimes prevent re-use ;

10The absence of information describing the quality (dates, methods, limits of use) drives the users to work blind.

Disseminating spatial data

11The cost of reference data, for example large scale maps on which environmental informations are often localized and without which diffusion becomes uneffective;

12The absence of standard broadcast on the Internet, which is a major gap for interoperability and make data sharing a headache.

13The scarcity of expertise in these specialized fields, which require knowledge in informatics, telecoms AND spatial information.

Appropriation by the citizens

14Ergonomics foreign to most users, as internet brings spatial data to new publics (academics, GNO, citizens).

15Issues of great complexity and a certain limit to the pedagogy of a government (what the data say? What’s the point?).

Back on the path

16Ten years of implementation, reinforced by the Aarhus Convention and Directive for the reuse of public sector information (2003) and by the INSPIRE Directive (2007) have helped to change our domain. The French part of the negotiation of INSPIRE was largely driven by our experience of the broadcast.

  • 1 A préfet is the representative of the national Government in a Département. There are 101 départeme (...)

17The most notable is probably the change in mindset of many public officials and policy-makers in the dissemination of public information. Since the mid-2000s, the spread of risk maps and other environmental information is no longer considered by some préfets1 as “defense secrets”. In early 2011, French Prime Minister has launched a policy of open data and a portal,, to expand the transparency of public action in all areas.

18Of course, after the ratification of the Aarhus Convention, EU rules require that citizens participate in defining decisions about the environment. For this, he must act as an “informed citizen” and therefore have a legal access to all information related directly or indirectly to a plan or program likely to affect the state of the environment, in the most wide. It is perhaps not the only explanation for this development.

19So, in France, the State has the right to prohibit construction in areas under natural hazards, or to compel owners to build under certain provisions to reduce the risk. Obviously, the owners have the right to challenge in court this attack on private property, protected by the Constitution. In 2005, the analysis of litigation by the Department of Ecology showed that to allow time for consultation and to share information builds a shared diagnosis, and saves time. Indeed, the temptation of some State services to push through, and not to explain the decision, leads more homeowners to challenge the decision. If successful on their part, the procedure is often delayed for several years. Our experience is the more decisions are introduced in advance to the population, the better they are prepared and the better they are applied.

20Moreover, a profound reorganization of the French State services took place and led to homogenize dissemination practices. Finally, the reference map data became free to public authorities, under the conditions imposed by the INSPIRE Directive.

21Under the aegis of the European directives (Water Management, Air Quality, Noise, Biodiversity and Flood now), many local information systems, national and European led to harmonize and standardize methods, data structures and databases data. Of course, the Internet has produced many IT standards, including through the Open Geospatial Consortium for the spatial part, and ergonomics, especially after the arrival of Google Maps. In recent years, in France, we have produced standards for environmental data not covered by European guidelines. Interoperability has became a more mature stand of standards, although all are not yet hugely deployed. Information systems at local, regional and national levels start to exchange information, although for the moment, these are the information systems of the Department of Ecology who benefit most.

22The number of users of environmental data has increased significantly, especially in services of local authorities and inside State itself, but also in some private sectors, such as insurance. One consequence of the widespread distribution of environmental data on the internet is the loss of direct communication between producer and user. In most cases, there is not exchange between them. In 2010, a survey of users of French Hydrographic repository told us that 40% of them belonged to local authorities, who do not attend any level of the national information system on water. It was a surprise, naïve afterward, to see so technical data so much used by parties outside the small world of water experts.

About data quality in an open world

23We have seen that the computer part of these operations become more standardized. However, in the environmental field, the methods are still varied. Even well-described, they are based on expert scientific body that operators from other areas are struggling to understand. Ontologies are often misinterpreted. How to provide to the user the warnings? Often, the scarcity leads a user to employ a dataset outside the scope of its use, if he found nothing else. In conducting his work knowingly, it is not a particular concern. But if he crosses unwillingly the line of validity, that’s all the scientific work, or the planning decision which is wavering. Some of us, in France and Europe, consider that the implementation of the mass distribution of public data must be accompanied by a strengthening of the description of data quality from the perspective of the user. This is the concept of “external quality”.

  • 2 During the 5th INSPIRE Committee meeting, the 14th December 2009.
  • 3 La qualité des données géographiques : état des lieux pour un débat, by Gilles Troispoux, 2011.

24At the request of France2, the European Commission organized a first workshop on this subject on March 2010 and at the annual conferences on INSPIRE. Unfortunately, this topic shows little progress: it is not yet well defined by a standard, and the only existing standard on the subject is only applicable by national mapping agencies. Yet it is a subject of work, including the University of Laval (Quebec, Canada) and, in France, the CERTU3, a specialized service of our ministry.

25Our view is that the next decade must accumulate findings, best practices for describing data sets, but not limited to rare cases of use that is found too often in the literature. We must continue to work on the subject of the external quality and to gain experience in the following decade, to be able to win in usability, after working, and have sometimes beaten, for dissemination.

What are the benefits of these policies?

  • 4 Le patrimoine immatériel des personnes publiques - Colloque organisé par le Conseil d’État à l’Écol (...)

26As mentioned above, the first is the establishment of a legal framework, more and more precise and binding to reach transparency. However, it seems to induce a behavior of public authorities more open than a real emergence of a citizen cons-expertise. While the practice of sharing environmental data are yet to improve, there is no case law which would bring a better understand of the different texts. The 16th of March 2012 , a conference of the State Council4 concluded that the difficulty of defining precisely the concept of public data let the debate open. However, most environmental data are, first, public data.

  • 5 La directive Inspire pour les néophytes, F. Merrien & M. Leobet (3e édition décembre 2011).

27European legislation requires many impact studies before starting a project on a territory. Every practitioner knows that 30 to 60% of the time of the study is spent to find, to get and to understand relevant data. The downloading of data, along with their metadata and a license simple, clear and stable, thus resulting in productivity gains. All available studies (Catalonia, UK, New Zealand, France) also show the very high profitability of a spatial data infrastructure (SDI). In France, following the Government, the implementation of an IDS following the rules of the INSPIRE Directive would create 29,000 jobs per year5.

  • 6 The Socio-Economic Impact of theSpatial Data Infrastructure of Catalonia, JRC reports, 2008.

28The most interesting, perhaps, for the geographer, was highlighted in the study of Catalonia6, updated. It shows that the establishment of a SDI has reduced the gap in accessing to environmental services among residents of affluent communities and those living in poorer communities. Access to services such as information on risks or a faster authorisation to build through the use of information systems provide competitive advantages to the most advanced communities. The sharing of this infrastructure allows territories, especially in rural areas, to better fight against the population loss. This is one reason for major investment of the French departments in the deployment of high bandwidth networks at home.

29However, these investments for the pipes are often difficult to extend to content. The problem of infrastructure is that it worths only by providing new services to the people or decision makers. Despite existing studies, often theoretical, the actual economic benefits remain unknown. In times of economic crisis, how to convince decision makers to invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed? Our answer is that the SDI should answer first the concerns of policy makers and citizens. It is obvious, but rarely explicite. The first priority could be to help drivers of SDI to build it according to the rules of art, and the most important are standards compliance and dissemination of good metadata. These elements should be explained to individual producers, and primarily metadata, simply for the proper use of their environmental data, at least by their own scientific colleagues. To help it, we maintain since 2009 a French “INSPIRE for Dummies”7. Furthermore, the French National Council for Geographic Information has produced technical guidelines about metadata of both datasets8 and network services9, and one guide about the management of federating catalogs10.

Now, the French SDI is enough reliable to allow the French President François Hollande to announce11, in March 2013, a national geo-portal for Urban Planning. This geo-portal will be build on the SDI, getting spatial datasets from municipalities and publics operators, and will be a tool for transparency and efficiency and, by the way, for the protection of our environment.

A conclusion?

  • 12 UMS 3468 - Database on Biodiversity, Ecology, Environment and Societies (BBEES).

30Less than two years ago, the French National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) realized that its funded works suffered from the same problems as those cited in this article. Data management should be improved in a sensitive context where scientists have to retain their data to progress in the scientific competition and to share it to enrich the collective thinking. A “mixed service unit”12 for supporting research units has been created: its priorities include the preservation, creation of catalogs and metadata, and dissemination. It is not without interest that it be housed in the Natural History Museum, a center of global environmental information.

31This experience illustrates that we are still to unite specialists and professionals. The relationship between humans and their environment are more complicated to explain, and this complexity often leads to mapping more or less happy, more or less oriented. No technical innovation will solve this.

32So what? Our experience is that this educational role is sometimes occupied by the State, but it is not always credible. It could be that dissemination of data aims mainly to feed mediators between professionals and citizens... or policy makers. They already offer, often, analysis and put into perspective the terabytes of information now available on Europe. Of course, they will sometimes be politically directed or will distort our and your information. But, in these matters, the role of a SDI must just be to ensure access to data, and to be neutral in putting forward scientific analysis. That is all, but that is huge, and that is the law of democracy.

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1 A préfet is the representative of the national Government in a Département. There are 101 départements in France.

2 During the 5th INSPIRE Committee meeting, the 14th December 2009.

3 La qualité des données géographiques : état des lieux pour un débat, by Gilles Troispoux, 2011.

4 Le patrimoine immatériel des personnes publiques - Colloque organisé par le Conseil d’État à l’École nationale d’administration.

5 La directive Inspire pour les néophytes, F. Merrien & M. Leobet (3e édition décembre 2011).

6 The Socio-Economic Impact of theSpatial Data Infrastructure of Catalonia, JRC reports, 2008.

7 INSPIRE pour les néophytes V, MEDDE/MIG, 2011,

8 Le guide de saisie des éléments de métadonnées INSPIRE v1.0, CNIG, décembre 2011 :

9 Le guide de saisie des métadonnées de service INSPIRE v1.0, CNIG, décembre 2012,

10 Guide de gestion des catalogues de métadonnées INSPIRE , CNIG, août 2012,


12 UMS 3468 - Database on Biodiversity, Ecology, Environment and Societies (BBEES).

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Marc Leobet, « The French experience of environmental data sharing », Netcom, 27-1/2 | 2013, 174-180.

Référence électronique

Marc Leobet, « The French experience of environmental data sharing », Netcom [En ligne], 27-1/2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2014, consulté le 23 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/netcom.1301

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Marc Leobet

Chief of French delegation to INSPIRE Regulation Committee, ministry of ecology, sustainable development and energy. E-mail :

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Netcom – Réseaux, communication et territoires est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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