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Sharing a common good: the geographical information on the sea and the coastal zone

Sharing and disseminating geographical information is increasingly necessary to the integrated management of coastal zones. This challenge is not only technical but raises organizational issues for the public sector. Feedback from an experiment conducted in Normandy.

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 Spreading and sharing the information on environment is now considered as a condition to gain the support and participation of citizens and elected representatives regarding environmental policies. Pooling the information also avoids a costly and useless duplication of efforts, provides consistent frameworks to users and encourages the production of high-quality, ready-to-use data.

 Even though they are among the main producers of spatial data, it took a long time for the State services and the public agencies to fully appreciate the opportunities offered by this dimension. In coastal areas, natural or accidental catastrophes have revealed the dispersion of the environmental data needed by public action; more generally, integrated coastal zone management requires geo-referenced data from various sources. It is within this context that the French government created on an experimental basis an inter-services mission on the sea and the coastal zone (Mission inter-services de la mer et du littoral, MIMEL), with the objective of strengthening coordination and transversality between public services and bodies. MIMEL used a spatial data infrastructure (SDI), i.e. a collection of data with the associated informations (metadata) and the services, tools and technologies needed for their management and their diffusion. Analyzing this experiment enables to draw some generic lessons applicable to the development of SDI for integrated coastal zone management.

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Normandy, the regions covered by MIMEL

A first step was to assess the current practice of MIMEL partners in the field of geomatics (i.e. tools and methods used to collect, represent, analyze and integrate geographical data).

A survey showed that most State services and public bodies lack a culture of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), with a wide range of expertise levels and tools used for data management. One out of four has no GIS software, and among the seven State services who use one, three use it only to view geographical information layers. In addition, more than half of them plan to buy layers without buying the associated metadata. Most of them are conscious of the interest of sharing and spreading the information they produce, but they rarely have the tools and the expertise to do it.


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One of the results of the survey: format of the data produced

The potential of SDI was experimented through two operationally oriented applications: a dynamic atlas of maritime regulations and the updating of the POLMAR-TERRE atlases of Normandy. Anti-pollution plans are required to provide "a detailed and ranked list of areas to protect as a priority" in the form of maps. As they are produced at the scale of the Department, these atlases can be very different, in terms of both content and form. Through geomatics, it was possible to define a standardized approach, to identify the competent producers of data for each information field and to build a consistent and structured base of information. This lead to the online publication of a numerical atlas preserving the continuity of coastal areas, which so far were truncated by the administrative boundaries of Departments.


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Screenshot of the Marine pollution webmapping interface POLMAR-TERRE

 While working on specialized technical tasks, scientists had to devote much time to functions of support and networking. Co-building a shared tool is a long and iterative process which needs to consider behavioral, organizational and political parameters. The experience shows that when developing a SDI, the practical and functional organization of the network is as important as its technical components.

In addition to the classical difficulties encountered for the integration of data into a consistent GIS, the work with MIMEL partners revealed specific constraints.

Services do not have equal resources in terms of skills and personnel dedicated to geomatics, and lack training and supervision capacities. Another point is that it is often difficult for them to accept the idea of mutualisation. Whereas some of them are reluctant to the technology itself, most consider it as an interference in their competences and their missions. Within this context, an important driver for change is the weight of authority (stemming from the European directive INSPIRE).

Sharing data is not devoid of risks for the institutions as it entails a certain loss of autonomy and takes place within a network of relations which can include tension, antagonism and competition. As an experimental administration, MIMEL ended its missions in 2010 within the framework of the reorganization of decentralized State services. Its works were transferred to the Interregional Direction of the Sea, with the objective of extending the experience of Normandy to all French maritime regions bordering the English Channel and the North Sea.

While traditional management methods have shown their limits in marine and coastal areas, management and exploitation projects are increasingly challenged by various stakeholders: institutions, professionals, scientists, residents, users. The way some of them use geographical information and associated methods to serve their own purposes shows all the importance to foster an effective democratization of the access to geographical information and its tools.


The paper

Le Berre I., David L., Le Tixerant M., Defenouillère J., Nogues L., 2013. Infrastructure de données géographiques et gestion intégrée de la zone côtière. Les enseignements de l’expérience MIMEL. Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography, Cartographie, Imagerie, SIG. Document 652, 21 p.

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The authors

The authors of this paper work in the laboratory  LETG-Géomer (IUEM), in the SARL Terra Maris and in the DREAL de Basse-Normandie.


The journal

 CYBERGEO is a European electronic journal of geography; its aim is to allow a more rapid communication of research and to promote a more direct discussion between authors and readers. In order to widen the exchange of ideas, methods and results, it publishes in the main European languages. It is open to all fields of geography, without favoring any current nor thematic area.


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