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The interests at stake in the social appropriation of geographical information technologies for regional planning: Case studies from France and Quebec

Enjeux de l’appropriation sociale des technologies de l'information géographique pour l'aménagement territorial
Stéphane Roche

Notes de l’auteur

Thèse préparée sous la direction du professeur Jean-Baptiste HUMEAU, au CARTA-Laboratoire de géographie de l'Université d'Angers (URA-CNRS ESO) soutenue le 28 novembre 1997 à l'Université d'Angers. 2 tomes, 362 et 111 pages, 30 figures, 23 tableaux

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1The spreading of geographical information technologies (GIT) within local authorities has been increasing steadily since the 1980s. The craze for these modern spatial representation technologies is indeed ruled by the will to optimize interventions on space, and to rationalize data processing, but it reflects more deeply a new way to perceive territorial management issues, based on the predominance of pictures. Yet, our knowledge is still very weak relating to the existing links within local authorities between those involved in land planning, the territory on which their reflection and actions are directed to, and the appropriation of GIT.

2The focus of the study carried out in this thesis is threefold: Actors - Territory - GIT. It centres around the following research question: what are the real factors and implications of the development of a GIS in the planning activities of a communal territory, and reciprocally what are the influences exerted by the local context on this development ? This study aspires to: make explicit the links between the actors' spatial

3representations, the perception of the GIT usefulness and of the quality of geographical information, and the real use of these tools; to shed light on the various means of social appropriation of GIT; to analyse their consequences on the actors' logics and strategies and on the land planning reflection; to describe the role of the place and size effects on the phenomena of social appropriation of GIT and their induced effects; and to think about the incidences of these appropriation phenomena on the spatial diffusion processes of GIT.

Theoretical and exploratory research scopes based on reference spaces in France and Quebec

4The first part of the thesis describes the problematics, the methodology, the data used as well as the reference spatial units. It starts by broadly defining the geographical information systems as being, more than mere computer technologies, a set of processes, of informational and human practices. This precision is all the more justified since the questions have to do with the various types of users and their perceptions, rather than with the GIT designers. In a way, the analysis of the relationships between the supply and demand, which is a means to reverse the usual problematics.

5The research is based on a rather eclectic bibliography, a survey that was mailed to about fifty French and Quebecer towns, an institutional analysis, and above all on four comparative case studies carried out on four municipalities (two in France: Nantes and Mayenne, two in Quebec: Quebec City and Charny, Two large and two small ones). These case studies represent about seventy interviews that were conducted with reference actors: technicians, land planners and elected representatives.

GIT: a new component of the actors system for land planning

6The second part represents the heart of the research, it is founded on the numerous interviews conducted with the GIT users. It includes the technological approach to social and political stakes, and brings to the fore the difficulties related to the implementation and appropriation of these advanced technologies.

7The determining role of the perceptions in the social appropriation of GIT. The communal planning actors' behaviour, in front of GIT spreading, is extremely linked to their personal training, professional function, and above all to the perception they have of their institutional role, and of the calling into question or reinforcement of their status on account of the diffusion of these tools. It is also determined by their technical and computer culture - which, taken as a whole, is lower in France than in Quebec, as well as in the small town, compared to the big ones. Typically, the lower is their level of maturity and of knowledge regarding GIT, the more the actors are sensitive to the symbolics that derives from these new technologies, and the more they trust geographical information.

8The perception of the communal territory varies also very much. The actors whose function (often corresponding to their basic training) are the most technical are especially sensitive to the material and physical dimensions of the territory, unlike land planners or elected representatives. Yet, the GIT design and the way databases are structured encourage this kind of spatial representation to the detriment of more sensitive dimensions.

9Consequently, the actors' spatial representations are also determining in their way to perceive the quality of geographical information and its ability to represent the communal territory, and in their will to use it to support their reflection.

10From a group of actors to another one, the variation of the links between the perceptions and use of GIT generates, within a single local authority, different ways of social appropriation, which are potentially a source of change, of social transformations, or even of organizational contradictions. The GIT are perceived according to the status - technical, tactical, or strategic - of the actors, as a means to ìtechnicizeî land planning, as a common referential to all the departments, and thus a communication and negotiation tool, as an instrument that could better justify, argue, or influence a decision.

The social and spatial implications of GIT diffusion

11The power of these tools disrupt the personal ways of working, sometimes the approach to land planning problems, which can occasionally entail the modification of the town departments organization, as well as its hierarchy of decision-making. GIT are cartographic tools approved by all, as well as powerful communication, if not persuasion vectors. Elected representatives cannot remain indifferent to them, despite their implementation cost. It is a second computer revolution regarding land management. These organizational upheavals are linked to the confrontation between the GIS development logic, and particularly the new communication and information horizontal processes which go with it, and the traditional mode of vertical operation organized in a hierarchy of the municipal organizations (especially the bigger ones).

12Yet, the main implications linked to the GIT spreading come from they different forms of appropriation, which implies a recombining of the actors' logic at the local and national levels. GIS social construction processes are privileged exercise fields of power stakes to possess and master GIT, and probably even more geographical information. On a larger scale, the spreading of these tools entails, a (technical and methodological) disciplinary reorganization of the important guilds / corporations, the redefinition of their activities, of their roles, and of their behaviour in front of this new approach towards geographical information, and of the perpetual evolution of the products (software and data).

13But the GIT and their ability to mobilize and cross data from different sources on different themes, and to make the analysis scales vary easily help municipal actors to go beyond the mono-thematic professional perceptions ( by means of a widening and enrichment of their spatial representations). The relative time won thanks to the drawing tasks automation enables to spend more of it in the reflection, scenario-making and test phase. Yet, GIT still have today representation abilities that are limited to the physical and material dimensions. Therefore, they favour certain types of reflection to the detriment of others, a phenomenon that potentially entails a homogenization of spatial approaches, at the local level as well as at the national level.

14From a relational point of view, GIS development offers a new negotiation field and gives the possibility to create new collaborations or to enlarge some others, even at a level shared by several communes (the smallest territorial division in France). Yet, if those who master the tools are given more power than those who have the information, GIS spreading modifies the balance of power. Consequently, the development of a GIS in a municipality participates to a national movement of evolution of the skills, and to the creation of new approaches towards territorial problematics at a national level.

15This second part shows a progressive maturation of the demand of GIT coming from skillful and gifted users, who, beyond the ìlivingî cartography, perceive the analytical and prospective usefulness of GIS, their possible use not only in the fulfillment and communication of spatial files, but also in the simulation and negotiation of variants. The idea that we are having a tool for a ìcitizen democracyî clearly emerges from the extract of some interviews.

Towards a geography of the geographical information field

16Through a comparative approach, the third part tries to establish the main heads of a geography of the geographical information field. It takes a particular interest in the importance of the local and national contexts of the four case studies (place effect, and size effect) in GIT development and appropriation. It also deals with the GIT spatial diffusion processes in France and Quebec, with scales and contextual elements that explain these processes.

17The geographical, as well as social or institutional characteristics have an outstanding influence on GIT development.

18This is true at the national level. The particularities of the Quebecer geographical space (a huge territory full of natural resources, etc.), the governmental organization mode of operation (turned to the outside world, not very sectorial, much opened to the new technologies, etc.) and the motivation of certain actors in Ministries, combined with the dynamism of the academic, private and municipal sectors enabled geomatics to develop and to become an area of economic activities of its own in Quebec. As a comparison, it is from the municipal level that the geographical information field has developed in France (the decentralization laws are not irrelevant to the matter). Contrary to Quebec, the lack of implication from the French administration combined with the behaviour of certain great data producers have checked this development. Today the French geographical information field still cannot be identified, and it is far from being considered as a priority by the Ministries, even by those who are yet much concerned.

19But it is also true at the local level. GIT diffusion processes within the four case studies have been largely determined by some actors' will, by the particularities of the organizational structures, but also by their respective planning constraints. Therefore, a close link does exist between the mode and the level of GIT spreading on the one hand, and with the context that receives them on the other hand.

20GIT spatial distribution reflects these place and size effects. The analysis of the spatial spreading and geographical distribution processes of these technologies enables to notice that the latter come within the scope of the hierarchical and core-periphery models, like the technological innovation diffusion. Yet, as far as GIT are concerned, this process is mixed: hierarchy/contact added to forerunners' random component. The distribution of salesmen and software designers and their spatial strategy, but also the policy of the important diffusers of public data (DGI, IGN, etc.), or also the inter-communities and local authorities' projects, as well as the most dynamic municipalities' attitude constitute, for instance, determinant elements.

To Conclude

21All in all, this thesis asks questions about the way territory(ies) is/are thought of, conceived and produced by the different actors through GIS development. They clearly bring to the fore, by means of theory and experimentation, the influence of GIS development on a local authority's social and spatial dynamics. Even though this phenomenon was accepted intuitively, it has been hardly ever demonstrated through concrete field-work. A GIS, more than a mere tool, is a social construction, the reflect of certain spatial practices, deeply rooted in development context (local, and national; cultural; social and spatial).

22This type of case study, rooted in concrete socio-spatial contexts, enables to acquire a ìclear and straight-forward speechî to deal with GIS projects. Undoubtedly, the obtained results could bring a methodological assistance to the local authorities who wish to launch GIS projects, helps them to derive advantages from past experiences, failures, successes from the organization who have already stepped forward; to better understand where is their way, and to identify their own needs regarding GIT, as well as their potential. It is the opportunity to reconsider our conception of what is 'success' and 'failure'. Success can be different from the improvement of an organization's performances, or from the implementation of a technological solution that works. Success is more often related to the adoption, appropriation of GIT by the actors who serve their profession, even though these modes of appropriation entail an under-use, or even a use very different from those advocated by the normative methods.


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Stéphane Roche, « The interests at stake in the social appropriation of geographical information technologies for regional planning: Case studies from France and Quebec », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Aménagement, Urbanisme, document 62, mis en ligne le 23 septembre 1998, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphane Roche

Maître de conférences CARTA/CNRS - UMR ESO 6590 Université d'Angers 35,rue de La Barre - 49100 Angers, France

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