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The Digital Transition and Use of Mountain Spaces

Marc Langenbach, Pascal Mao et Steve Taylor
Cet article est une traduction de :
Transition numérique et fréquentation des espaces de montagne [fr]

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1This special issue of the Journal of Alpine Research|Revue de géographie alpine is part of a series of studies on the effects of the digital transition on the use and management of mountain areas. The entry of our societies into a digital era has had direct or indirect effects on various facets of our daily lives (Sciadas, 2006), which are now entirely accompanied by digital devices, but also by the data they produce and which we voluntarily share (more or less explicitly when this comes under the general conditions of use of a product or service). The evolutions described here can be found in our modes of production and consumption, in our movements, in our social relations, in the uses associated with the media and cultural domains, but also in our leisure activities, whether sporting or not. Initial research in the information and communication sciences (Ibekwe-SanJuan, 2012) on the effects, impacts or recompositions underway have made it possible to qualify the profound effects of the rise of digital technology on our lifestyles (Lipkin, 2006; Bonnell, 2010; Doueihi, 2011; Marcuse, 2007).

2Geographers have taken these developments in several parallel directions, both by identifying new types of geographic information—Volunteered Geographic Information (Goodchild, 2007) and the processes by which digital users contribute to the production of this information (Sui et al., 2012)—and by developing reflections on the heuristic scope of these data (Mericskay, 2021). Furthermore, this work has been thematised via the study of the role of this information in the observation of urban mobilities (Le Breton et al., 2022), on the exploitation of geonumerical data by algorithms (Noucher, 2020), or on the role of digital footprints in studying the spatial behaviours of tourists in urban environments (Mondo et al., 2020) or by comparing them to other methods or tools for observing frequentation (Norman et al., 2018).

3However, apart from methodological work studying the contribution of digital technology to monitoring wildlife disturbance by ski tourers (Rupf & Stauble, 2018), little work mobilising digital footprints has so far focused on the category of space that is mountain areas, whether developed or not. Impacted by the effects of climate change, the use of mountain areas is currently subject to pronounced evolution (seasonal modifications, strong increase of frequentation in certain regions, new audiences, etc.) that is partly underlined by the notion of “recreational transition” (Corneloup, 2022). These ecologically fragile areas are regularly used for outdoor sports, digital footprints of which can be used for objective assessment, both in terms of quantification and spatial and temporal distribution (Davoine & Garat, 2022).

4In addition, digital uses have also strongly transformed the frequentation, particularly by recreational practices, of the mountains (Mao, Obin, 2018). Mountain goers are following pre-existing tracks, gathering real-time information on weather conditions, sharing and commenting on their experiences live or even a posteriori, and monitoring their performance. In so doing, on the one hand they participate in the production of collective spatialities specific to their sporting practices, using spatial media (Geffroy, 2020), and on the other, they produce a very large volume of data (experiential, meteorological, bodily or simply temporal), almost systematically geolocalised. These new digital practices have generated new needs in terms of equipment, connectivity (in places where this is logically and often difficult, such as mountain huts or sparsely developed massifs) or even the regulation of online communities. Regardless of how they are interpreted and analysed, they are concerned with all social practices rooted in the mountains, of which sporting activities are just one part. Thus, the production of geographic information, whether voluntary or involuntary through the use of connected digital devices, is becoming an increasingly important part of the decision-making processes of land managers and local authorities (Santoni, 2022).

5This collective publication is structured around a central issue in which the authors have placed their articles—what are the heuristic contributions of the digital transition to the observation of visitor numbers and practices in mountain areas?. These contributions are not intended to cover the whole of the scientific field we have just presented, which is currently emerging, but they do shed specific light on some of the issues and challenges identified through devices, new forms of practice, new tools and new uses of space.

6Robin Lesné et al. begin with a bibliometric analysis of scientific publications dealing with voluntary geographic information. The authors show that a large corpus of scientific articles (over 1,000 publications) has been using this concept since 2009. Geography and geographic information systems are largely represented through the analysis of objects such as social networks, or citizen and participatory sciences. On the other hand, few publications have focused directly or indirectly on the use of natural and mountain areas by tourists or sports enthusiasts. This is the subject of the second contribution by Camille Savre and Marie Eveillard-Buchoux. Using a sample of geonumerical footprints, the article shows how it is possible to understand the socio-spatial organisation of trail running and its forms of use at different scales. It also examines the methodological advantages, limitations and constraints of using this type of information. Romain Lepillé then shows that this type of approach is transferable to other territorial contexts. In this particular context, he looks at recreational use of the peri-urban forests of the Rouen Normandy Metropolis. Using a mixed methodology, combining quantitative (questionnaire and big data) and qualitative (semi-directive interviews) approaches, his contribution seeks to decipher the effect of the digital transition on recreational uses of nature and the representations associated with them. As a result of the digital transition, has the forest become a stadium like any other? Finally, Alain Schoeny opens up another dimension of the contribution made by volunteered geographic information: its mobilisation in the context of wildlife observations in line with the principle of participatory and citizen science. He describes the mobilisation mechanisms of a network of eco-volunteers following the reintroduction of the bearded vulture in the Mercantour National Park. The author defines the concepts of gamification and ludicization and details their effects in participatory science. The integration of a playful dimension into the means of involving the public in the process raises questions about the limits this implies for the research thus produced.

7While the contributions have partly addressed the role of digital technology in multiplying the number of ways to visit the mountains and broadening the audience, other aspects have not yet been addressed in the field of mountain visits, such as: its impact on the territories and/or natural environments in which recreational practices take place, and which call for objectification, or new uses, or the adaptation and virtualisation of older uses, in mountain frequentation, whether recreational or not (environmental mediation, heritage enhancement, etc.). In addition, the integration of digital footprints into decision-making tools and risk management procedures (particularly in terms of objectivising the logic associated with mountain users’ exposure) put in place by territorial players concerned with the controlled management of natural mountain areas (handling conflicts of use, over-frequentation and regulating access, preserving environmental quality, developing tourist or territorial attractiveness, etc.) is underway through several experiments or projects led by local authorities. However, to be truly useful in the design of public policies, this work needs to overcome major methodological and technical hurdles.

8So, while the mobilisation of big data is promising in terms of the quantity and interest of the information collected, it is still experimental and requires methodological, as well as heuristic, framing. From a strategic point of view, data are often pre-processed via algorithms, or “black boxes” (Noucher, 2023), specific to each platform, before being published or shared. This stage raises initial questions of trust in the data and their representativeness of the social facts they represent. Methods have yet to be consolidated, and the use or interpretation of digital footprints once collected is still a field to be investigated, particularly with regard to the governance issues mentioned above. The volume, complexity and heterogeneity of the datasets produced are still unprecedented, and these are areas that still need to be developed (GPS tracks, point data, textual data, quantitative and qualitative data, temporal data, etc.). One of the challenges here is to integrate this complexity into a coherent interpretative model.

9Finally, a last field of research in the field of digital transition in mountain areas is that of the ethical and legal issues underlying the use of geonumerical footprints generated by users of these platforms in the GDPR era. The terms of use of websites that collect and disseminate, in various forms, these data contribute to making them public, but this does not mean that others can store them, use them on their own initiative and using their own means. De facto, this runs counter to the right of access, modification of personal data and the right to be forgotten guaranteed by the GDPR. For all that, this information is not disseminated outside the rules of statistical anonymity to which research is bound. A common practice, when using these voluminous datasets, is thus to retain only anonymised or “pseudonymised” information. What are the consequences of these constraints on scientific practice? What are the interpretative limits in the absence of socio-demographic variables? What are the possibilities for describing practices and associating recurring practices in the absence of individualised characterisation? The answers to these questions are still largely unanswered. Various research projects could be launched in the future to provide some answers.

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Marc Langenbach, Pascal Mao et Steve Taylor, « The Digital Transition and Use of Mountain Spaces »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 111-3 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 21 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Langenbach

Maître de Conférences, Université Grenoble Alpes

Articles du même auteur

Pascal Mao

Maître de Conférences, Université Grenoble Alpes

Articles du même auteur

Steve Taylor

Associate professor, Director, University of the Highlands and Islands

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