J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 334-347
doi:10.4236/jssm.2009.24040 Published Online December 2009 (www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrast r u c t u res:
Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
Henk Koerten1, Marcel Veenswijk2
1Department of Delft University of Technology, Amsterdam, Netherlands; 2Department of Culture, Organization and Management,
VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Email: h.koerten@tudelft.nl, m.veenswijk@fsw.vu.nl
Received September 10, 2009; revised October 16, 2009; accepted November 18, 2009.
This paper examines narratives relating to the development of National Geo Information In frastructures (NGII) in eth-
nographic research on a Dutch NGII project which was monitored throughout its course. We used an approach which
focuses on narratives concerning the environment, groups and practice to elicit sense-making processes. We assert that
narratives are relatively fixed and that they only change under specific circumstances. Moreover, the fixing of or
change in narratives takes place in practice, so our research approach aimed at analysing narratives of practice, which
we label ‘storyboards’. For this purpose, project meetings and conferences were observed, key persons both within and
outside the project environment were interviewed, and an analysis of relevant documents and video footage was under-
taken. Storyboards are created by actors as a result of day-to-day challenges related to project goals, technology and
infrastructure. In our research we found that these storyboards occur as vicious circles from which actors cannot es-
cape. In the specific case analysed, our interpretation of the narrative storyboards suggested that these vicious circles
are caused by the ina bility of project participants to distinguish between infra structure and innovation requiremen ts in
their daily work.
Keywords: Narrative Analysis, Narrative Approach, Innovation, Organisation, NGII, Infrastructure
1. Introduction
There is a worldwide tendency to create facilities on a
national scale to collect and disseminate location-based
information, usually called geo information [1]. Car naviga-
tion systems are a form of geo information used by the
general public, and geo information is also applied in
government and business organisations to make them m or e
effective. Within organisations, this information is often
managed by a Geographical Information System (GIS),
and between organisations, through National Geo Infor-
mation Infrastructures (NGIIs) with national governments
playing a key role in their dissemination [2–5].
When setting up a program aimed at establishing N GII s,
policy advisors take organisational aspects seriously, but
do not treat them as manageable phenomena [6,7]. Tech-
nical aspects are regarded as crucial [3], and those in-
volved in implementing the programs generally seem to
overlook the organisational consequences, denying the
relationship between organisational change and NGII
implementation [8]. Therefore, organisational structures,
modes of cooperation and work relationships have not
been topics of interest in the context of research into
NGII implementation [9].
However, while technological developments are still
regarded as crucial, those invo lved in implementation are
now more inclined to take the organisational aspects of
NGII development into account, culminating in design
rules borrowed from political science, economics and
management science [10–12]. Practitioners still point to
difficulties with infrastructure development–mostly in
the context of specific projects–of which we still have
little knowledge of the lived experience of the project
members [13,14].
Our aim is to find out why people who have problems
in their daily work nevertheless maintain their current
practices and refrain from looking for alternative meth-
ods. In relation to NGII development, there is a tendency
to continue developing design rules while rarely taking
the implementation processes into account. Our focus is
practical: on how NGIIs are discussed in meetings, inter-
views and policy documents, where these discussions cul-
minate in the creation of narratives. The research ques-
tion guiding this paper is: How can we understand NGII
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 335
implementation using narrative analysis? Our secondary
questions are: How do technological and organisational
aspects interact with each other? How are goals and re-
sults perceived? And do these goals and results change
over the course of the project?
Using a narrative approach, this paper provides an in-
depth ethnographic case study of a Dutch NGII imple-
mentation project called Geo Portals. The project was
intended to realise a part of the Dutch NGII by disclosing
governmental geo information in a thematically organised
way. Our research findings demonstrate that the initial
project goal of building an infrastructure gradua lly c h a n ge d
over the course of the project, moving towards knowl-
edge creation to facilitate innova tion aimed at the further
development of the NGII.
We will start with a description of the theoretical as-
sumptions underlying the narrative analysis approach to
research, followed by an account of the research meth-
odology. An analysis of th e project in terms of the theory
will follow, and finally, we will provide a summary and
some concluding remarks.
2. The Narrative Analysis Approach to
Symbolic interactionism introduced the idea that human
thought is shaped by social interaction, and treated the
modification of meanings and symbols as a process [15].
Goffman expanded this notion by adding the ability of
human beings to look at themselves from another point of
view [16], framing the notion using the theatrical terms of a
‘front-stage’ and a ‘back-stage’ [17]. Over his career, Goff-
man became aware of the ritualistic and institutionalising
aspects of social interaction, but failed to specify how
and why these frames or structures emerge [18–20].
Sociologists have attempted to understand society by
gaining insight into how the structures involved in the
process of modernisation affect our lives [21–24]. Some
have made efforts to integrate micro and macro ap-
proaches [25–27]. For example, Bourdieu implicitly re-
jected the assumption of an objective truth, implying that
structures are socially constructed, and he attempted to
take a middle position which he labelled both ‘construc-
tivist structuralism’ and ‘structuralist constructivism’ [27 ,2 8] .
Bourdieu conceptualised habitus as the cognitive structures
through which people deal with the social world, being
both individual and collective, dialectically developed
and internalised, a process which he labelled ‘practice’.
A ‘field’ was conceptualised as a network of relations
among objective positions and not as a network of inter-
actions or inter-subjective ties among individuals. These
relationships, regarded as ex isting externally with respect
to individuals, determined the position of individual
agents through their acquisition of various kinds of capi-
tal: economic, cultural (knowledge), social (rela tionships)
and symbolic (prestige). In this process, field and habitus
define each other in a dialectical relationship.
Bourdieu and Goffman may have different points of
departure, but there are similarities in their conceptuali-
sations. Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective may, to a
considerable extent, be comparable to Bourdieu’s habitus,
while Goffman’s notion of frames resembles Bourdieu’s
field concept and practice is more or less interchangeable
with Goffman’s concept of the ‘front-stage’. While this
comparison may appear to be a broad generalisation, thes e
observations will prove useful in blending the two ap-
proaches together into one theoretical concept for re-
search. Nevertheless, while an intersectional framework
such as this might provide useful notions about the life
world affecting individual, group and inter-group behav-
iour, the very aspect of meaning creation remains unad-
dressed. It remains unclear how images come to life and
develop over time, as this framework assumes univocal-
ity, iniquitousness and fully informed actors and as such
the ambivalence, ambiguity and incompleteness of world-
views is overlooked.
Thus, the theoretical notions presented above provide
useful hints for a theoretical approach but do not address
the process of sense-making needed to answer the re-
search question. Therefore, we will focus on the inter-
pretation of lived experience as a guide for action and
extend this towards a narrativ e approach using linguistic,
anthropological and social psychological insights [29–31].
Interpretation, meaning creation and sense-making have
become guiding concepts in the development of less
positivistic methods [32,33]. Two sources that have in-
spired narrative theory may be distinguished: a ‘linguistic
turn’, inspired by Saussure, Wittgenstein, Chomsky and
Derrida, and a ‘narrative turn’, with more emphasis on
stories and meaning, represented by authors such as
Barthes, Bakhtin, Boje, and Gabriel [34].
In itself, language has no relationship to time or the
originator of an utterance [3 5]. The concep t of discourse,
however, is treated as a combination of spoken word and
written text, linked to time and space and used to make
sense of the world, without drawing a distinction between
the two [36]. In relation to the concept of discourse, the
process of enactment is conceived of as communication
through written and spoken symbols, usually linguistic.
For example, to complete a management task, people
write, read, speak, listen and discuss, using messages
which convey myths, sagas, results, setbacks, challenges
or strategies [37].
While language has been recognised as the dominant
vehicle for the development of meaning in the discursive
approach, the dynamic character of organisational prac-
tice has invoked interest in linguistic aspects other than
text alone, such as metaphor, st ories, novels, rituals, rhetoric,
language games, drama, conversations, emotions and sense-
making [38]. Grounded in literary criticism, new meth-
ods of analysis have emerged and been labelled as the
narrative turn, which is aimed at delineating stories and
storylines rather than texts [39–42].
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
Meaning is created, maintained, altered and destroyed
and may be used to contemplate, to manipulate, be pur-
poseful and invoke change [43–47]. The narrative turn
has been considered fundamental in interpretive organ-
isational research for conceptualising the notion of or-
ganisation in a more dynamic way (Hatch and Yanow,
2003). These dynamics have been envisioned in terms of
people using and producing frames of reference in a cy-
clical process of enactment-selection-retention [48], as a
dialectical process moving towards objectification [28],
or as a narrative that is edited under particular circum-
stances [31,49]. The concept of narrative is broad, in the
sense that it can be regarded as structuring human mem-
ory, and therefore should be conceptualised as both me-
dium and process [50]. The concept of discourse, how-
ever, is more defined, referring to meaning produced in
the exchange of signs and symbols, and in this respect
more closely related to symbolic interactionism [50,51].
Narrative has been regarded as story [42], as telling a
story [38] and as the art of telling a story [52], while
there are also other approaches concerned with linking
stories and narratives [49,53–55]. Living in a world
composed of stories, we use narratives for communica-
tion and to give meaning to experience [42]. In providing
an account of events, narratives allow us to create an
interpretation of these events, relating the story in a fa-
vourable manner. Some stories are created for single use,
while others are retold and altered and in the process gain
a meaning they would never have had if they had been
told only once. In this way they become a frame of ref-
erence for future stories and actions [56]. Once stories
begin to have a life of their own, they grow further to
become narratives which might be only loosely or even
poorly connected to the original [55]. They become uni-
versal images, constituting all aspects of society, refer-
ring to the culture of all kinds of people, culminating in
identity-creation using social categories [57]. From a
manager to a company car, human and non-human iden-
tities are created by storytelling, leading to narratives that
are continuously constructed and therefore subject to
change. Having a plot does not imply that narratives are
always visible and recognisable, they can be prominent
or latent, and can also sometimes be unconsciously pre-
sent to actors. They are an interpretation of assembled,
either real or imagined stories, which Boje, after Clair,
called ‘narratives dressed as theories’ [55].
The hermeneutic approach implies that a specific nar-
rative can only be understood when it is interpreted in
relation to other narratives, for example if we conceptu-
alise narration as a ‘grand narrative’ grounded in many
‘micro stories’ which are mutually dependent [49,55]. This
notion is reminiscent of the sociological micro- macro
debate which links Bourdieu to the insights presented above.
To avoid being confined to a type of hierarchically lay-
ered concept, one can focus on th e morphology of narra-
tives over time, conceptualising how such narratives are
edited by the actors involved so as to invo ke th e narrative,
as well as sustain or to change it [31,49]. However, be-
cause the editing process is associated with the particular
editors, there is a danger of overemphasising the role of
individuals and in so doing implicitly sustain the idea of
‘culture creation’ or ‘cultural intervention’, which we hav e
seen before [43,58].
The notion of narrative has also been distinguished by
declaring everything before narrative to be ‘ante-narra-
tive’. Verduijn refers to ante-narrative as ‘lived experi-
ence’, which she finds to be speculative, multifaceted
and ambiguous, and while it always tends towards a co-
herent story, it is always prior to its reificatio n into a sen-
sible narrative [30,34,55]. However, while this distinc-
tion may be tempting, it is difficult to sustain the division
between narrative and ante-narrative. This approach also
presupposes that all the storylines–the ‘Tamara of sto-
ries’–can be known by the researcher [30]. However, it is
impossible to grasp the full picture, just as it is impossi-
ble to simultaneously be in all places at all times. None-
theless, people still look for a clear, overall picture to give
sense to their experiences, and therefore missing elements
are filled in and the incomplete picture is supplemented
with fantasies that function as experiences and thus con-
struct the full picture [35,50]. Thus, the development of
meaning requires an overall understanding of the relevant
situation, in terms of both ante-narrative and narrative.
As humans, we can only understand change with great
difficulty, we notice when something has changed only
after a certain period of time has elapsed and we perceive
this as an interval [59]. As a result, change is reduced to
a series of instances: the difference between one state of
affairs a n d anothe r gives us clues a b out cha n ge, dete rmining
our thinking about time in a profound way [ 60 ,6 1] . D ue t o
modernity dictating a linear concept of time, we tend to
experience that as ‘concrete lived time’ [62], and while
change is basic to life, it is difficult for humanity to grasp
it. In this sense, we are ‘becoming’ instead of ‘being’
[60,63,64]. The concept of becoming elicits the sen se we
make of change. Sense-making, or meaning creation, can
be envisioned as a human attempt to comprehend change,
in a process in which we attempt to convert an influx of
stimuli into adequate concepts [62]. However, striving
for fixed concepts in the process of sense-making means
that intentional shifts in meaning rarely occur because of
the tendency to maintain familiar concepts. Despite this
tendency, meaning does change–usually without the aware-
ness of the meaning creator–due to the changing environ-
ment. The propensity to ignore change by creating stable
narratives is prevented by these changing circumstances,
giving change the quality of ‘basic assumption’ or a ‘deep
structure’ [65], or of basic, dichotomous, generally sub-
conscious human preferences [66]. For Schein, the more
superficial cultural notions are, the more they are sub ject
to change, in which case perhaps it would be better to
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 337
describe both superficial and deep structures as changing,
but with the latter not being narrated as such.
2.1 A Narrative Framework for Research
As the outcome of sense-making processes, narratives
are dynamic. How narratives come into being and how
existing narratives enhance or constrain new narratives,
creating relative stability or a momentum towards ch ange,
will be conceptualised within this framework [67]. We
will discern n arra tive con ceptualis ations about scen e, ac t or s
and actions, in terms of narrative setting, narrative space
and narrative storyboard respectively (see Figure 1) [40,68].
A narrative setting concerns notions about the narrated
environment. Narrative spaces refer to configurations of
actors and how they interact with each other and narrate
their world, individually and collectively. Narrative story-
boards arise from reflection on practices and are trans-
posed into relatively fixed patterns, which can be regarded
as the outcome of the propensity of human beings to con-
sider sense-making itself in terms of fixed concepts [62].
The narrative setting conceptualises narratives about
the environment, time and space. The notions of local
and global, presence and absence and home and abroad
are combined in the narrative setting, and images of the
technological environment are also found here. Notions
about change, stability and institutionalisation come to-
gether in an enacted location, which is to say, a locus
where narratives combine [66,69,70]. People act in dif-
ferent ways, within different groups, within a specific
narrated setting, acting in a local or global manner and in
an explicit or implicit way. They create narratives about
that specific location at that specific moment using im-
ages from the past, present and future, from the local
community to the global environment. It is their lived
experience of that location which is narrated.
The narrative setting also refers to the physical envi-
ronment, which includes buildings [71,72]. Gastelaars
analysed a building as a site, space or skin, and as a place
to be [73]. She refers to the theatre, using the metaphor
developed by Burke and Goffman in their notions of a
Figure 1. Theoretical focus
front-stage, an offstage or backstage, and the wider en-
vironment [17,40], making us aware that physical loca-
tions may have different functions in different contexts:
in one situation the location may be considered to be f r on t-
stage, while in another it may be backstage or reflect an
even wider environment. The presence of props and the
‘personal front’ of people, realised through physical ob-
jects, also needs to be mentioned in th is context.
Thus, the narrative setting has tangible and non-tangi-
ble aspects [48,69,74]. An intangible software program
used through a tangible computer is an example of a
complex relationship which has a fundamental impact on
how things are done [75]. Bijker has suggested that tech-
nology is shaped through images of how it will be used,
being conceived in subjective, partial and distorted im-
ages [76,77]. The narrative setting enacts how technol-
ogy in the lived environment is linked to time and space
[60]. It is a relatively stable image of the environment,
however vulnerable to redefinitions. Only when they be-
come untenable, will narratives about the setting explic-
itly or tacitly change, influenced by narratives about the
past, present and future.
One or more narrative spaces may be discerned within
a narrative setting. They represent groups of people and
are therefore the link to human existence. They might
enact a department, organisation, profession, religion or
subgroup. The interplay of narrative spaces might invoke
action or conversely create a deadlock or cease-f ire. Na rr a-
tive spaces are ever-changing kinds of ‘zoning plans’ for
enacted human groups, determinin g their nature and lim-
its, and they may form quite complex combinations, as
human thought is very capable of generating and han-
dling these complexities. They do not necessarily have
links to or comply with organisational or societal struc-
tures [45,66,78]. Governed by a search for predictability,
narrative spaces appear to represent stability, enacting
cultural entities to create a stable environment. However,
narrative spaces are also vulnerable to change, as they
must adjust to new developments, which are usually con-
ceptualised as changeable, moving from one form of sta-
bility to another [79–81 ]. Thus, a narrative space is e n a ct e d
as stable, offering a comfort zone, an image which in-
vokes predictability, b ut also a path to follow, towards an
enacted, desired state of affairs. Narrative spaces allow
people to know wh at to do, who to trust and where to g o.
They make clear what is important and what is not, wh at
is consonant or dissonant, and ultimately they indicate
how to progress to another stage. While experienced as
stable, narrative spaces are consciously and uncon-
sciously changing.
Narrative storyboards are the bedrock of human ac-
tions, providing predefined scripts. In a world that is made
up of a constant flow of events we enact that world as
stable and predictable, while also requiring fixed recipes
for action. Heavily anchored in narratives on the envi-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
ronment and social groups, they are also based on past
and future actions [28,48,59]. People adhere to certain
unwritten rules in daily life, allowing them to present
themselves as good citizens, and thus feel uncomfortable
when the rules are not appropriately applied [82]. Story-
boards provide us with a narrative of how to move from
an initial state of affairs towards a new state within a par-
ticular context. They may relate to action that still needs
to take place, that which is being undergone, or that w hic h
has already taken place, linking the action in question to
time and space and thereby delimiting the storyboard’s
explanatory power. In this way a plot of the action is
provided and related to the circumstances con ceptualised
in narrative settings and narrative spaces [17].
Storyboards emerge in relation to groups of people, who
can be considered as apprentices becoming accustomed
to a general way of doing something [83]. The people wi thi n
such a group may feel confined in relation to a specific
array of actions which have been proposed as a means to
move from chaos to order [84]. Predictions concerning
actions and outcomes are made because these allow peo-
ple to know what to expect and to determine which stories
are dominant and how they form a logical sequence [53].
The narrative storyboard makes us aware of the limited
ways of creating a plot. It reveals how a specific story-
board connects to the setting and spaces of its constitu-
tive narrative and what aspects of the narratives are spe-
cific to that storyboard. Their predictable features make th em
triggers for change. In this way, while the exact prediction
of narrative progression is impossible, the narrative provides
building blocks for the analysis of change, shedding light
on how narrative change can be mapped [30].
3. Methods
This section will provide some information on the con-
text of the Geo Portals project, as well as an explanation
of the ethnographic research design.
3.1 Context
In early 2005, the Na tional Initiative for Innovation S ti mu-
lation (BSIK) began the Space for Geo Information pro-
gram (SGI) (Ruimte voor Geoinformatie). The project
ran until the end of 2008, with a budget of 58 million
euros. The SGI program was set up to provide grants to
projects dealing with geo information and thereby stimu-
late innovation and promote the realisation of the Dutch
National Geo Information Infrastructure (NGII). The Geo
Portals project emerged from the initial discussions on
the content and design of the SGI program, bringing to-
gether thirteen governmental and non-governmental or-
ganisations in the field of geo information who proposed
the establishment of a network of geo portals for the dis-
closure of geo data. The Geo Portals project had a two
million Eu ro budget, with 60 p ercent of its fund ing com-
ing from the SGI initiative, while the participating or-
ganisations were to supply the remaining 40 percent. Within
the Geo Portals project, geo data was regarded as a
crude product that should be thematically disclosed in
order to obtain geo information from which society as a
whole could benefit.
In relation to the multifaceted palette of the SGI pro-
gram, Geo Portals was one of the larger projects, and was
often described as a prestigious, key project by program
officials. The projects that were set up were evaluated in
terms of their ability to bring the Dutch NGII closer to
completion. In this context, Geo Portals was focused on
the overarching goal of the program: disclosing geo data
from di ff er ent source s to prod uc e ge o inform ation.
3.2 Research Design
In the next section, we will present ethnography of the
Geo Portals project, which ran from the beginning of
2005 until the end of 2008. It will become clear that nar-
ratives referring to the project changed during its pro-
gression. However, before turning to the case description
we will explain the ethnographic design of our research.
One researcher monitored the project during its course.
Because social scientific research on how the project was
conducted was one of the project goals, the researcher
was accepted as a full member of the project committee,
which consisted of one representative from every partici-
pating organisation. Monthly meetings were scheduled
with the intention of addressing management issues and,
especially at the outset, serving as a platform for devel-
oping the scope of the project. Workshops open to and
aimed at professionals within the geo information sector
were also organised with the purpose of project promo-
tion. Two brainstorming sessions were held by the project
team in the first phase of the project, intending to estab-
lish a clear and univocal project approach agreed on by
the project committee. These events were observed and
also interviews were conducted with key persons, both
during the commencement and conclusion phases of the
project. Relevant documents and some video footage
were also analysed. In additio n, the researchers observed
the presentations of the project at the geo information
conferences, as well as the subsequent audience reactions.
Ethnographers have to be convincingly authentic (‘been
there’), plausible (relevant to the reader) and engage in
critical analysis [85]. In order to do so, this research pro-
ject followed writing conventions developed by Watson
and extended by Duijnhoven concerning the transfer of
field notes into convincing and authentic texts [86,87].
To meet these requirements, we will present excerpts
from our interviews and field notes. In order to summa-
rise the numerous discussions occurring during meetings,
these have been condensed into a representation of the
typical form of the discussion concerning a particular
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 339
I remember how Geo Portals emerged. The idea behind
broking and bargaining events organised by SGI was that
through discussion among representatives of geo infor-
mation organisations, ideas for concrete projects would
pop up. During one of those meetings, the Geo Portals
concept just came out of a plenary discussion. Then the
moderator asked which organisations were willing to par-
ticipate. Representatives of interested organisations raised
their hands, as did I. So, all of a sudden I was an initiat-
ing member of an instantly formed club of enthusiastic peo-
ple who wanted to disclose geo information through portals.
topic. These representations of conversations are in essen c e
fictitious; however, they are based on conversations re-
corded in field notes and, to a lesser extent, in interviews.
The research materials revealed the presence of narra-
tives that developed over time. They were in continuous
flux and either prominent or concealed, close or distant.
The narratives within the project not only show how pro-
jects function as arenas where the narrative of change is
created, contested, appropriated and diffused, but also how
the quest for project narratives among members may serv e
both to reduce as well as to increase ambiguity. On the
one hand, the project narratives seem to reduce ambigu-
ity by providing a ‘narrative of change’ in terms of the
use of new software applications. On the other hand,
these software applications fail to offer a solution be-
cause they create a new ambiguous situation, requiring
another ‘narrative of change’. Coping strategies are de-
veloped through the redefinition of the initial project
goals, aligning them to these narratives of change.
4. Analysis
In this section we provide a detailed description of three
phases of the Geo Portals project. Each is described sepa-
rately and followed by a narrative an alysis that identifies
the narrative setting, space and storyboard.
4.1 Getting Started
The SGI program started in 2002, with the basic idea of
stimulating innovation in order to boost geo information
sharing. The next step was to bring together representa-
tives of organisations in the GI field to make goals more
concrete. The result was a glossy brochure, with a pro-
gram outline produced by a con sortium of 10 universities,
20 research institutes, 60 companies, 40 governmental
bodies and 30 geo information producers [88]. It was ar-
gued that government needed complex information about
a complex society to develop convincing policies. To m a ke
the information manageable, it was to be ordered spatially
as geo information, disclosed by a National Geo Informa-
tion Infrastructure (NGII). The bottom line was to make geo
information av ailable in a structur ed manner, with it bein g
disseminated independent ly by indi vidual organi sati ons.
To promote future projects, SGI organised ‘broking and
bargaining days’ on which representatives of orga nis atio ns
from the GI sector were invited to generate project ideas.
It was in this context that the concept of Geo Portals
emerged. Some typical observations of those in atten-
dance were as follows:
SGI mobilised the field. They organised broking and
bargaining days in order to get rough ideas. Some 25
ideas were identified as potentially successful. In the end,
these ideas were connected to organisations; it was just
one big dating show. It became obvious that some central
portal facility was needed and that our organisation
should play a role in its development.
That the overarching concept of Geo Portals should be
liberty united, was obvious from the outset. A central, top-
down organisation was totally out of the question. Th e i d e a
was a network of portals of different nature, working
together with a mini mum set of rules.
Those involved in the discussion saw the rudimentary
concept of Geo Portals as a collective idea in need of de-
velopment. The thirty organisations willing to participate
were gradually reduced to thirteen, and in October 2002,
representatives from these organisations presented an
initial proposal which envisioned thematically catego-
rised, colour-coded portals lik e red for built environment,
green for nature and agriculture, and brown for sub-
surface conditions [89].
After the initial submission in 2002, a rewriting proc-
ess occurred, giving the project more focus. In the min-
utes of early project meetings, there are clear conceptions
about how data should be distributed. It was stated that
all the processes for disclosure, search, diffusion and pay-
ment should be web-based, while how all the different
data sources were to be connected was not a matter of
discussion. The first rudimentary description of the geo
portal framework presented a static image: the portal wo u l d
be based on proven technology and standards and also on
a fixed notion of architectur e [90].
While the project goals were stated clearly and unam-
biguously, at their regular meetings the representatives of
the participating organisations expressed doubts about ho w
to proceed. They were uncertain about the financing and
procedures for reporting to SGI, but even more about the
essence of the project. Now the project was about to start,
the representatives felt the need for definitions about
what a portal should look like, how users would be
reached and what technology would be used in its setup.
A typical discussion in a meeting of representatives would
proceed as follows:
A: If we want to set up a proper Geo Portals, we need
to be clear about standards. It is obvious that we use the
most recent and commonly used standards. We are not
going to use any standard that has not been accepted by
the community, or that has not proved to be useful.
B: I agree on that. If nobody objects, we should pro-
ceed to the next topic, and that is user orientation. We
have to be demand-driven, preventing us from making
the same mistakes they made in the NCGI project. So
how can we be demand- driven?
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Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
C: First and foremost we need to disclose our data in a
way that it can be readily found. Furthermore, we need to
present it in a format that can be read by the user. So, we
need to use the proper standards.
B: I agree. We need to use proper standards, those that
are widely accepted.
A: Now we agreed on how to settle the standards issue,
we are discussing standards again.
The motto of Geo Portals was ‘liberty united’, which
reflected the fact that it was a network of portals estab-
lished by various organisations, each with its own auton-
omy, but working according to a minimal set of rules. In
defending this view of the essence of Geo Portals, it was
often explained as a reaction to a former national project
regarding geo information, the National Clearinghouse for
Geo Information (NCGI). The feeling was that NCGI had
failed due to the central, top-down enforcement of de-
tailed standards and work procedures and this had proved
to Geo Portal protagonists that organisations were not in-
clined to comply voluntarily with strict rules. To avoid
another failure, they decided to meet as a small group of
motivated organisations connected through a minimal num-
ber of mutually agreed standard s.
While Geo Portals was sketched out in organisational
terms, discussions on how to proceed would always come
down to technical matters. Standardisation was consid-
ered to be crucial, followed by the question of whether
the data was accessible enough. The bottom line was that
it was most important that the issue of technological
standardisation should be settled properly. Technological
matters dominated discussions:
A: Technology is not really a problem anymore. We
can build everything we want without any limit. All the
techniques needed are at our disposal.
B: That’s right, the things that do matter are organisa-
tional aspects. Look at the US example of Geospatial
One Stop. They just do it: American government agen-
cies put everything they have on the web, without restric-
C: But its quality is doubtful at best, they don’t guar-
antee its accuracy. I wonder if anybody actually uses it.
A: If we follow the example of Geospatial One Stop,
then it will look li ke NCGI. We have to do better t han that.
B: Just use the right standards. That is of paramount
importance. The architecture we have developed is per-
fectly equipped to set up a network.
A: If we stick to proven technology and standards,
nothing can go wrong.
B: But what is that, which standard is proven, which
standard is commonly used, which one really works?
C: Here we go again!
In November 2005, the core team, made up of repre-
sentatives of a few major participating organisations, at-
tempted to tackle the problems experienced by calling the
project team together for a two-day brainstorming session in
a remote countryside hotel. The technology and stan dardi-
sation issues had been declared settled, but still played a
role, while the intention was to produce a strategy for
developing a user-driven approach. The program for the
session mentions a meeting with a public relations cons ult -
ant and the question of how to bring more u ser -d riv en nes s
into the project. In fact, user orientation was extensively
discussed, eventually leading to a ‘motto’ of which the
team was very proud: ‘Able to find and allowed to use’.
The subsequent working conference, in which the pro-
ject was to be presented to the GI community in Decem-
ber 2005, w as also a pressing issu e. The p roject team h ad
mixed feelings about whether there was anything tangi-
ble to demonstrate and thought that if this was not the
case, it would be better to cancel the presentation. After
some deliberation it was agreed that a rudimentary ver-
sion of the Red Portals would be demonstrated.
Thus, in December 2005 the Geo Portals project was
launched before a GI audience at the conference. The
core team was determined to make a convincing state-
ment by showing that the project was user-driven and
was doing the right thing in terms of technology, but also
felt a little uncertain. The audience was familiar with SGI
and its projects and knew of the existence of the Geo
Portals project, but was unfamiliar with the details. Sheer
curiosity brought about fifty GI professionals together.
In his introduction, the scientific director of SGI signi-
fied the importance of Geo Portals for SGI, proclaiming
it to be a key project. The core team then gave a presen-
tation about the demand-drivenness of the project and
elucidated the ‘motto’. Despite the importance with which
this was regarded by the project tea m, it barely raised the
interest of the audience. However, the demonstration of a
rudimentary version of the Red Portals website using data
from the built environment had an astonishing effect.
What the Geo Portals team considered window-dressing
was the very thing that convinced the audience of the pro-
ject’s importance. In subsequent discussions it became
apparent that participants were convinced that the Geo
Portals project was SGI’s key project and that it was
technically well managed and would make a difference.
The Geo Portals project team celebrated the day as a success.
4.1.1 Narrative Setting, Space and Storyboard
In this case, technology is the dominating factor in the
narrative setting. In the past it has been an impediment w ith
respe ct to in fr astru ctu re deve lop men t, but in thi s se tt ing thi s
was no longer the case, the team considering it possible
to apply GI technology for the disclosure of data in a way
that society as a whole would benefit. In this setting, GI
technology is seen as an ever-developing and changing
phenomenon that will be mastered through the applica-
tion of standards and result in an infrastructure with a rather
static form, divided into thematically organised compart-
ments of dat a t hat give it a ne atl y ar range d a ppe arance .
In the narrative space, the project team has a direct re-
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Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 341
lationship with the GI community. Individual project m em -
bers belong to organisations that financially support the
project, but these organisations are not recognised as indi-
vidual pa rtne rs. As a whol e, the organi sation s have a neutral
and minor role and are all seen as equal and as supporting
the common cause of sharing GI data. GI data users are
recognised as a defined group through the user motto, but
a clear picture of these users has still not been dev eloped.
A storyboard emerges concerning the propensity to let
technology work for the GI sector through the application
of standards. The Geo Portals project is seen to be acting
on behalf of the entire GI sector, detached from individual
organisations and creating a stable infrastructure.
4.2 Attempting to Reduce Uncertainty
The project team continued its project meetings on a fixed
day of the month in a centrally situated venue, with meet-
ings held in a building occupied by one of the participat-
ing organisations. The morning agenda was devoted to
management matters, while discussions prepared by a core
team member or an external speaker took place in the
afternoon. However, fundamental issues would emerge d ur-
ing the morning sessions and be discussed over lunch,
sometimes continuing throughout the day, suggesting a
certain level of insecurity. Nevertheless, a research pap er
written by the project members to convince European
peers expressed confidence [91].
The Geo Portals project was meant to provide all pos-
sible kinds of data, to be delivered to both professional
users and the general public. Professional users only needed
disclosed data, while lay users could be provided with
software services which had to be developed for inte-
grating, harmonising and presenting data. Existing ex-
amples of the disclosure of geo data through websites
were reviewed, the flaws convincing the project mem-
bers that there were many difficulties involved in bring-
ing together different sources. Services designed to har-
monise and present data were seen as essential to Geo
Portals, emphasising the user orientation of the project,
which was communicated to the GI commun ity. The core
team developed the example of a beer brewer in need of
geo information to assist in finding a location for a new
brewing facility. In all the subsequent presentations and
promotional material, including an SGI promotional film,
this example–which connected different processes within
different public organisations–was made prominent [92].
User orientation also generated interest in legal aspects
and the issue of digital rights management. A researcher
affiliated with Geo Portals translated an approach for r eg u-
lating copyright on th e intern et into a model ap p licable to
the field of geo information. This model, regulating legal
and economic aspects of geo information, was regarded
as essential for Geo Portals, although, however important
it was felt to be, it was also seen as a separate entity, u n l i k e
technological issues. Technology was held to be dynamic,
while the access model was found to be static. Further
development of the model was embedded in another SGI
project, placing it beyond the control of the project team.
At the end of 2006, the project team began to feel un-
comfortable about the lack of steering capacity at SGI.
While SGI saw Geo Portals as the core project of the
program, the core team thought SGI, giving voice to the
management of individual organisations, should provide
an overarching framework. As SGI was seen as the cus-
todian of the National Geo Information Infrastructure, a
serious discussion among project participants was de-
voted to this topic:
A: We are supposed to work on NGII. For SGI, Geo
Portals are considered as focal, but they don’t say any-
thing about the guidelines we should follow or how to
connect to other projects that are part of the NGII.
B: They are talking about a test bed for NGII, but is
NGII only a test bed? Are we supposed to deliver some-
thing that actually works?
C: We are certainly working on our data viewer, but to
what standards should it comply? Are there any organi-
sations that are going to use it?
A: They say that a new GI coordinating organisation is
in the making–yet another organisation that is supposed
to organise something. We need guidelines and all they
do is establish a new organisation. This does not sound
like coordination to me!
D: I think that as a Geo Portals team we should take a
stand and do what SGI refuses: take the lead!
The core team did not feel supported by SGI, which
until then had been seen as the keeper of the National
Geo Information Infrastructure, of wh ich Geo Portals w a s a
part. At the end of 2006, SGI published an article in a
leading professional magazine with the provocative title:
‘Where to with the Dutch Geo Information Infrastruc-
ture?’ [93]. It provoked discussion and also made the
core team feel that SGI had no strategy.
Geo Portals concentrated on the work to be done: new
services had to be developed with new software. Choices
had to be made on what technology to use and what stan-
dards to apply. The core team, representing three gov-
ernment-supported knowledge institu tions and a software
company, felt responsible for this part of the project and
took up the challenge of drawing up a framework and
organising software development. A participating engi-
neering firm also did some work, but took little part in
any conceptual, organ isational or management activities.
During the software development process, the core team
came together on a weekly basis to coordinate software
development which was undertaken by software engineers
from core team member’s organisations. In spring 2007,
these efforts resulted in a data viewer, a software device
designed to be capab le of consistently retrieving g eo data
from different sources on a computer screen. The Geo
Portals core team, being enthusiastic about it, saw it as a
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
requirement for bringing the ultimate goal, a system of
Geo Portals, one step closer.
While celebrating this achievement, project me mbers s oon
felt that the newly developed data viewer was already
becoming outdated because new techniques were now
available. This gave software engineers the opportunity
to develop even more sophisticated viewers. Thus, whi le
having a tested product ready for implementation, the
development process went on, with an enthusiastic core
team managing the same team of software developers.
While working with the newest technologies they gave
the impression that these developments were quite normal
for them–new technology had to be explored and applied.
4.2.1 Narrative Setting, Space and Storyboard
In this phase of the project, the narrative setting becomes
increasingly dominated by technology. To serve lay users,
services have to be developed using state-of-the-art tech-
nology. Standards are still important but they are ap-
praised as being of lesser concern. Legal aspects are seen
as a separate area that needs to be dealt with, but not
necessarily by the project management team.
In the narrative space, the management of individual
participating organisations is seen as collectively organ-
ised into advisory boards of the SGI program. The pro-
gram itself is considered to be unsupportive, as it simply
does not have a policy, and those on the boards are not
seen as GI experts, but as serving the interests of indi-
vidual organisations, which are not necessarily the inter-
ests of the Geo Portals project. Those involved in the
Geo Portals project must recognise that in order to be
successful they must plot their own course, which will be
to address the newest trends in GI technology.
The storyboard at this stage is at the po int of exploring
the latest GI technology and incorporating this into a test
website. Once the technology is ready to be used as a
building block for GI infrastructure, further effort will be
put into assessing newer technological improvements.
4.3 Towards Judgement Day
In 2007, the Geo Portals project was on track as far as
software development was concerned, but the core team
was becoming increasingly agitated, feeling that the ini-
tial goal of sharing geo information was moving out of
reach. At the project team meeting in April 2007, a dis-
cussion on this point was initiated by two core team
members in an attempt to engineer a breakthrough:
It is terribly sad that we cannot build on the achieve-
ments of SGI. It looks like management does not recog-
nise what it is all about. In the Netherlands we have an
abundance of geo data, distinguished scholars, high GIS
penetration, a vast and schooled workforce and many
knowledge exchange networks. Perfect circumstances for
great ideas. But guess what? We just keep on chatting!
Nobody seemed to be in charge of developing the N GI I,
and the decision-makers at SGI were depicted as abstract
thinkers with no practical knowledge. It was felt that a
breakthrough was needed, and the appraisal of the SGI
promotional conference held in March 2007 did not dis-
play any confidence:
A: I am sad to say that real sharing of geo information
is further away than ever. We have just had the SGI con-
ference in Rotterdam. It lacked any ambition. The bottom
line was: ‘The NGII has to be developed, but let’s move
on as we did’. That’s not the way to get it done.
B: It was a convention of the same people that you see
all the time at such events; ‘the usual suspects’ were do-
ing their ritual thing.
C: It was like being in some religious rally, people
celebrating and praising something of which everybody
has a different image.
B: It is a paradoxical situation. When we need a break-
through, surprise, surprise, nobody wants to change, we
keep on doing things the way we did, and nothing really
C: Everybody talks about the costs of an NGII, the
benefits are not mentioned.
A: An NGII will add v alue, that’s the raison d’ être. If
we only want an NGII for incident management and
fighting terrorism we’re on the wrong track.
Despite the uncertainty, Geo Portals was considered to
be successful because it offered technical solutions. The
technology only had to be brought to a meaningful con-
clusion in order to establish the NGII, but failing man-
agement seemed to obstruct this. Perceptions of the role
of Geo Portals started to change:
It is perfectly clear that it was unattainable to build an
infrastructure. Just look at the budget we had for this
project: it was clear even before we started that it was
insufficient. Our job was to deliver building blocks, to
innovate for the sake of an NGII.
We are good at the technological aspects. So if they
ask us for such a project, we will handle technology.
Without any guidance from SGI, it is impossible to de-
velop an NGII. What we can offer for a future NGII is
best practices and software tools. We form a community
for NGII development.
Another working conference was organised for Novem-
ber 2007 with a striking theme: ‘Just do it’. External ex-
perts were asked to focus on financial, legal and organ-
isational aspects, while Geo Portals project members were
keen to present the technical aspects. The message in
workshops was that new software applications, as devel-
oped by Geo Portals, were fully capable of integrating geo
data from different sources. This message was symbol-
ised using Lego blocks, representing geo data building
blocks which could be put together in any possible way.
Now that the finish was in sight, the project team
wanted to deliver results which could be used in the fu-
ture. Slowly but steadily, the project goals were redefined.
The obligation to produce tangible products changed, with
the Geo Portals team coming to see itself as a ‘commu-
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Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 343
nity of practice’. The image of the project as developing
building blocks for an NGII now changed, with Geo Portals
being reconceived as a knowledge-creating project. The
atmosphere also changed, from distress to optimism to
euphoria, although one of the more sceptical project
team members noted that what was occurring was ‘ex-
pectation management’.
It was felt that the positive results should be dissemi-
nated to the GI commu nity, for examp le in a resear ch pa p er
[94], and a new sector-wide policy coordinating organi-
sation called Geonovum began to promote itself. While
the Geo Portals project team had at first thought that this
organisation was covering up the failings of the geo in-
formation sector, they now thought that Geonovum could
secure the innovative achievements of Geo Portals for
the future. The image of SGI changed accordingly, from
being purely involved in funding to becoming a knowl-
edge-boosting program that should be continued.
At the closing conference in December 2008 there was
confidence about the results. The highest civil servant
responsible for geo information in the Ministry of Hous-
ing, Spatial Planning and the Environment was the key-
note speaker, addressing 150 people in a prestigious loca-
tion. A specially produced video presented the improve-
ment of the accessibility of geo information as an ongo-
ing project, suggesting that there was much work still to
be done. Software applications were presented as step-
ping stones in a continuou s progression, invoking a great
deal of interest in newly developed techniques. A new
website wit h a new nam e (Ca rt a Fab rica ) wa s also launched,
where the achievements of Geo Portals were to be made
available. Both the core team and the audience were op-
timistic about the future.
In interviews held after the completion of the project,
the image of technology as dominating all developments
was persistent. Standards were seen as a thing of the past
because technology was now seen as being capable of
connecting all forms of data. The approach was referred to
as ‘Web 2.0’, signifying that the new technology was
obviously web-based. It was also noted by Geo Portals
project members that Geonovum was still working on a
National Geo Register aiming at the registration and stan-
dardisation of all governmental geo data but that this project
was obsolete because Web 2.0 would solve all the con-
nection problems where standardisation had failed. How-
ever, most importantly, the National Geo Register was
seen as a project that hampered innovation in the geo
information sector.
4.3.1 Narrative Setting, Space and Storyboard
In the narrative setting, technology is now treated as the
essence of Geo Portals. Technology is seen as an un leashed
phenomenon, now labelled as ‘innovation’, and it is ready
to solve any problem, with the aim of making the world a
better place. Innovation is thus seen as an enabler of dy-
namic geo information management, without being chaine d
by standards. However, the solutions created by this
technology are found to be obsolete before they can be
used, not because they do not function properly but be-
cause they are superseded by solutions powered by even
more sophisticated technology.
In the narrative space, both diverging and converging
tendencies can be observed. The GI sector management,
speaking through organisations such as Geonovum and
SGI with their emphasis on standards, is found by Geo
Portals project members to inhibit the possibilities cre-
ated by the application of technology. By providing in-
sufficient funding they are also seen as responsible for
not delivering Geo Portals as originally planned. Realis-
ing that the initial goals were untenable, the Geo Portals
team redirected their aim towards creating innovation to
facilitate the creation of an NGII. As the SGI was sup-
posed to stimulate innovation in g eo information sharing,
the Geo Portals project team felt quite comfortable with
their new goals, knowing that their project would stimu-
late innovation.
The storyboard that can be identified here aims at the
production of new technologies which could be made
available to the GI sector. It affects the reframing of
goals, moving from the creation of a static infrastructure
into making new technologies available. This reframing
is justified through concluding that the funds originally
granted by SGI were inadequate to realise the GI infra-
structure considered in th e initial plan.
5. Discussions
In this paper, we have used the framework of narrative
setting, space and storyboard to analyse the Geo Portals
project. Three phases of the project were identified, in
which the narrative setting and space could be placed in a
relationship with a developing storyboard. The Geo Por-
tals project had a clear beginning and end, and there were
also some preparatory activities which were considered
to be important for the analysis, as well as the impact of
the project on the Dutch GI sector.
Initially, the Geo Portals project proposal was to de-
velop an infrastructure serving societal needs. These needs
were converted into user profiles with different demand
structures. As project participants became dissatisfied
with the lack of guidelines for an overarching strategy,
they started to develop software applications. Because
they considered themselves to be the vanguard of ever-
changing technology, the idea of building an infrastruc-
ture slowly faded. Consequently, the goal shifted towards
providing a toolbox, which in turn changed into the im-
age of the project as stimulating innovation.
The narrative setting, dominated by rapidly developing
information technology, encouraged project participants
to look to the future, and the Geo Portals project acted as
a means to deal collectively with this task and to apply
the latest technology to create newly developed software
applications. Geo Portals project members, acting inde-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation
pendently of their respective organisations, made new
technology available, while unintentionally ensuring that
no individual or organisation could be blamed for failure.
Because the Geo Portals project was supposed to be benefi-
cial to the whole GI sector, the project team decided to
supply state-of-the-art technology.
In the narrative space, SGI was seen as an enabling
organisation, acting on behalf of the Dutch GI commu-
nity, in relation to which the Geo Portals project would
be beneficial to the whole sector. The Geo Portals project
team saw SGI as a temporary organisation, being part of
the GI community and primarily involved in sustaining
the Geo Portals concept through funding with money
budgeted for the GI community. This relationship made
the project team cautious, responsible and somewhat self-
reflective. Thus, SGI brought the GI community to gether
around a financing source, forcing individual organisa-
tions to cooperate with each o ther in order to be eligible
for funding.
The analysis shows a cyclical storyboard: whenever
new technology was tested and approved, newer tech-
nology was already virtually available to be tested and
eventually to be confirmed as a new standard. The data
shows two of these cycles, with the typical pattern being
depicted in Figure 2. This is the storyboard of the action
occurring within the project, which can also be inter-
preted as a vicious circle [95].
In a world with a pressing and increasing turnover of
technological innovations, reliable infrastructures might
create stability. The two competing narratives of stability
and change always struggle for dominance. An infrastruc-
ture is a fixed, predictable, stable, unambiguous and ubiq-
uitous facility that users almost tak e for granted [96] and
a focus on the development of a standardised infrastructure
utilises the narrative of stability, a prominent f ea tu re in t he
initial Geo Portals project proposal. The difficulties in-
volved in standardisation were already recognised in the
project’s subtitle: ‘liberty united’ and a strict regime of
standardisation was also feared, as well as being consid-
ered difficult to implement. Therefore, a limited, ‘light’
version of standard isation was proposed.
Throughout the project, fro m the initial presentation of
the Red Portals, which was hailed as innovativ e, until the
conclusion, when the entire Geo Portals project was de-
clared innovative, the emphasis was on change. Newly
developed software, already obsolete on the day of its
realisation, was not considered a problem. Moreover, it
was seen as essential, as the average GI professional sees
tomorrow’s technology as the solution to problems en-
countered today.
The storyboard of innovation remains prominent. The
core message of SGI, to be innovative, hampered the de-
velopment of an infrastructure. For this reason, the project
was reframed i nto a knowled ge-generatin g endeavour, driven
Figure 2. The storyboard of innovation
by a storyboard of innovation. Ultimately, the GI com-
munity would judg e the proj ect on its in novative q u alities,
presented through state-of-the-art software. While this is a
tangible result of the four-year Geo Portals project, it is
only temporary, with no reference to infrastructure.
6. Conclusions
Delivering infrastructure seems to involve two contra-
dictory aspects [97]. On the one hand there is a narrative
of change, expressing the urge to work with the newest
technology, and on the other hand there is a narrative of
stability which sees infrastructure as predictable and sta-
ble and thus useful. These two narratives seem to fight
for attention.
As the Geo Portals program basically aimed at innova-
tion, the narrative of change was dominant, and can be
identified in the innovation storyboard. Infrastructure de-
velopment rather than infrastructure building was paramount,
and thus a stabl e, recognisa ble infrastructure was abse nt.
The narratives reflect the basic stability/change con-
tradiction [66]. The confrontation of these two differing
narratives is not uncommon and has been called the ‘in-
novation paradox’. It is found in large public sector pro-
jects where a fixed infrastructure has to be delivered in
an unstable environment [49].
It has been suggested that when problems with the
construction of infrastructures emerge it is necessary to
focus on project designs in the light of cultural settings
[98]. However, here there was more at stake. A GI commu-
nity, seemingly preoccupied with innovation, desperately
required a useable infrastructure. While one of those in-
volved in the project suggested that infrastructures are
always in a process of innovation and should be regarded
as ‘moving targets’, in order to be used, infrastructures
also need to be stable. Thus, the sector as a whole must
find equilibrium between stability and change in relation
to infrastructure. Now th at these d riv ing forces hav e been
identified, a breakthrough is within reach.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Narrating National Geo Information Infrastructures: Balancing Infrastructure and Innovation 345
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