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«Henk Koerten Taming technology The narrative anchor reconciling time, territory and technology in geoinformation infrastructures PROEFSCHRIFT ter ...»

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Ta m i n g t echnology

The narrative anchor reconciling time,

territory and technology

in geoinformation infrastructures

Henk Koerten

Taming technology

The narrative anchor reconciling time,

territory and technology

in geoinformation infrastructures


ter verkrijging van de graad van doctor

aan de Technische Universiteit Delft,

op gezag van de Rector Magnificus prof. ir. K.Ch.A.M. Luyben,

voorzitter van het College voor Promoties, in het openbaar te verdedigen op vrijdag 21 januari 2011 om 12.30 uur door Hendrik KOERTEN doctorandus in de sociologie geboren te Sneek

Dit proefschrift is goedgekeurd door de promotoren:

Prof. mr. J.W.J. Besemer Prof. dr. M.B. Veenswijk Prof. mr. dr. ir. J.A. Zevenbergen

Samenstelling promotiecommissie:

Rector Magnificus, voorzitter Prof. mr. J.W.J. Besemer, Technische Universiteit Delft, promotor Prof. dr. M.B. Veenswijk, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, promotor Prof. mr. dr. ir. J.A. Zevenbergen, Universiteit Twente, promotor Prof. dr. A.H. van Marrewijk, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Prof. dr. ing. P.Y. Georgiadou, Universiteit Twente Prof. dr. ir. A.K. Bregt, Wageningen University Prof. mr. dr. J.A. de Bruijn, Technische Universiteit Delft Taming technology The narrative anchor reconciling time, territory and technology in geoinformation infrastructures Henk Koerten IOS Press BV Nieuwe Hemweg 6b 1013 BG Amsterdam The Netherlands Fax +31 20 6870019 E-mail: info@iospress.nl OTB Research Institute for the Built Environment Delft University of Technology Jaffalaan 9 2628 BX Delft The Netherlands Phone +31 15 2783005 Fax +31 15 2784422 E-mail mailbox@otb.tudelft.nl http://www.otb.tudelft.nl Design: Cyril Strijdonk Ontwerpburo, Gaarnderen; dtp: Itziar Lasa Cover design: Itziar Lasa Printed in the Netherlands by Haveka, Alblasserdam ISBN 978-1-60750-698-0 (print) ISBN 978-1-60750-699-7 (online) NUR 755 Legal notice The publisher is not responsible for the use which might be made of the fol- lowing information.

Copyright 2011 by Henk Koerten No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by print, photoprint, mi- crofilm or any other means, without written permission from the copyright- holder.

Contents 1 Starting a new job.................................. 1

1.1 Entering a new world................................. 2

1.2 Research focus....................................... 5

1.3 Outline.............................................. 6

1.4 The Roman surveyor and the Greek geodesist: lively

–  –  –

In springtime 1999 I had my initiation in the world of geoinformation. Zandvoort is a small seaside town near Amsterdam and after working for four years as a systems manager for this municipality, I was promoted to the post of policy advisor on ICT issues. One of my blind spots was knowledge of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), so when a conference on reusing municipal spatial information was organised, it offered me a chance to find out more about what GIS and spatial information had in store for me. As I had no idea where to start it struck me as a good learning opportunity.

It turned out to be a conference with about 60 participants, mostly male, representing small and mid-sized Dutch municipalities. Presentations were given on re-using municipal spatial information by nationally operating companies. It appeared that a consortium of representatives of the twenty largest municipalities in the Netherlands wanted to establish an organisation to collect spatial information from all municipalities in the Netherlands on a voluntary basis with the aim of selling it as a national data service to the market.

They claimed that a huge market was waiting for municipal data; insurance companies, retail and marketing organisations could not wait to use spatial information from municipalities with a view to saving costs and developing new and innovative products.

The response from the audience was cool; this was certainly not what they had expected from this conference. As civil servants of smaller and mid-sized municipalities, they were being enticed by their large-sized counterparts to offer their spatial information to an organisation which would operate beyond their control. It was obvious they weren’t ready for that; however, presenters from retail and insurance companies had some smooth stories on opportunities lying ahead. Additionally, a policy worker from the Vereniging van Nederlandse Gemeenten (Association of Netherlands Municipalities, VNG) fully supported and recommended the initiative and a business consultant showed impressive figures of possible gains (‘you don’t have to dig for gold; you are already sitting on it!’). Finally, one of the representatives of a big-twenty municipality showed detailed plans for founding a permanent organisation, plans that were very concrete.

While the presenters were getting more and more enthusiastic, the audience just gave up taking the information seriously. Afterwards, over a few drinks there were some heavy debates and discussions. Of course the commercial potential of the initiative did not go unnoticed, but generally speaking, municipal civil servants saw it as just too optimistic. They were convinced that legal and organisational barriers would bring the whole project to a standstill. The presenters, however, remained positive, they were determined to make this initiative a success.


1.1 Entering a new world It was the above story that came to my mind when I read the job description early in the summer of 2005, before applying for the PhD position which eventually allowed me to write this book. I wrote the story down and emailed it with a request for more information, intending it as a demonstration of curiosity and affinity with the topic. To cut a long story short: I got the job and started my PhD project in October 2005.

Entering a new world, it was sheer curiosity that kept me going. Given my background in computer engineering, municipal information management and research in public management, it seemed to me that the ad for a PhD project to assess ‘the success-and-failure factors of the Geoloketten project’ (Geoportals) was specially tailored to my personal desires and wishes. Also, a Master’s degree in organisation sociology and a diploma in electronic engineering were potentially a perfect educational background. My engineering experience gave me the advantage of getting to grips with the technical nature of the geoinformation sector, but above all, it was my training as a social scientist that allowed me to record a journey of discovery.

From the moment I started working, I was sure I had found my topic: connecting social science skills with experience in a technical environment. I had gained some knowledge of geoinformation systems (GIS) from my experience as a policy advisor at the municipality of Zandvoort, but I was an absolute layman on the technical side, which was a combination of spatial data infrastructures, geodesy, cartography and civil engineering.

The aim of Geoportals, the project that I was about to embark upon, was to establish a network of information sources to disclose and present geoinformation from the participating organisations in a thematic way. This network would be one of the main building blocks for the Dutch National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) (Hoogerwerf, 2005). The Geoportals project was part of the Ruimte voor Geoinformatie programme (Space for Geoinformation, RGI), which belonged to the Besluit Subsidies Investeringen Kennisinfrastructuur (Rule on Grants on Investments in Knowledge Infrastructure, BSIK). In order to enhance knowledge infrastructure in the Netherlands, the Dutch government granted 30 million euros of BSIK funds to RGI, which were supposed to be doubled by participating organisations, with the mission of ‘enhancement and innovation of the geoinformation infrastructure and the geo-knowledge community in the Netherlands towards sound and efficient public administration and a robust business’ (RAVI, 2003: p. 1). One of the twenty approved proposals within RGI was Geoportals, bringing together 13 geoinformation organisations in a project with a budget of 2 million euros.

The Netherlands was definitely not the only country trying to realise an NSDI; others had done so already or were launching similar projects which had in common that they were treated as technologically challenging, yet [3] also as relatively easy, since they were presented as connecting databases with different sets of data. Meanwhile, it appeared that projects like these were often postponed or cancelled, giving rise to the notion that non-technical matters lent themselves more to the sharing of geoinformation Rajabifard et al., 2002; Rajabifard & Williamson, 2003; Warnest et al., 2003; Van den Toorn & De Man, 2000; De Man, 2003. However, no-one had asked how these datasharing processes would work out in practice or how they were envisioned.

One of the goals of Geoportals was to assess the success and failure factors of the project itself through a PhD research project, in fact the primary thrust of this book. I was struck by the initial PhD proposal, which was highly technology-centred. I felt the proposal which was among the information I received when applying for the position was ambiguous in that sense. On the one hand, the project had a clear objective: the realisation of an open, approachable, coherent network of geoportals as part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). On the other, the proposal also addressed a clear existing problem: geodata was ubiquitous, findable and accessible, but ‘the geoinformation field was not successful in connecting demand and supply from a user perspective’ (Hoogerwerf, 2005). At first glance the proposal seemed to reflect an old and ongoing discussion on similar projects with failing user participation. Geoportals was supposed to set that right through designing the project as a learning experience to be monitored in a PhD research project.

Besides being ambiguous, the proposal harboured a discrepancy. While Geoportals was considered a success factor for NSDI, NSDI was regarded here as a success factor for Geoportals. Though it was obvious to everybody that the data to be disclosed came from different sources, that very fact was hardly mentioned.

The proposal suggested that societal questions regarding use of geoinformation could be dealt with by building a system. This impression emerged from phrases in the proposal such as ‘a framework to be developed’, ‘search engines to be realised using standards’, and ‘development of an access model’. These targets were concrete, delivering tangible functionality, while the list of key questions concerned topics such as ‘the answering of societal questions’, ‘letting latent questions come to the fore’, and ‘the identification of inhibitors’. Targets reflected belief in the blessings of technology with themes such as knowledge flow, success and failure factors, and the realisation of demonstrators for cross-sector applications, which had no connection with the key questions. Demonstrators should preferably be developed for interaction between citizen and government, but again, no connection was established between these questions and the project itself in the proposal.

All in all, the proposal gave me the impression that something tangible was going to be built and that it would be inhibited or promoted by success and failure factors. Moreover, societal impacts were isolated from this system and [4] were consequently not seen as affecting the success of Geoportals.

That observation puzzled me. Why was the answering of societal questions in the Geoportals project transformed into a plan to build a system with no relationship to the initial problem definition? Why was no interaction perceived between society and the Geoportals concept? Why were the success and failure factors of a project that would benefit society defined as having no relationship with societal issues?

I needed to dig deeper to understand all this. I discovered that the project was co-funded by a consortium of organisations. Representatives of these organisations, who formed the project team, seemed to know each other quite well and to have lots of mutual acquaintances. They felt that a whole community of geoinformation professionals was looking over their shoulders, which made them a bit nervous. For me, there was more to explore about how this single project was linked to the geoinformation community and how it was experienced as logical and obvious, while it hardly had any links with the initial problem.

Discovering another world beyond Geoportals From talks with scholars and practitioners I soon learned that Geoportals was not the first attempt to disclose combined geodata from different sources.

For instance, another project, the Nationaal Clearinghouse Geoinformatie (NCGI), had been launched in 1995 to advance geoinformation-sharing.

At the outset of the Geoportals project in 2005, NCGI still officially existed.

Members of the Geoportals project saw that the clearinghouse concept had become obsolete for the simple reason that it had lost connection with technological developments. But above all, it was for them an example of failing attempts to disclose geoinformation – for which organisational officials could be blamed. When I asked why it had failed, people pointed mainly to organisational and cultural complications. Looking further, I gained the impression that members of the Geoportals project believed that a geoinformation sector had struggled for years as a close community to tackle the problem of geoinformation-sharing but had failed to do so.

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