Building a Coastal Web Atlas for the Mid Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean

Blog series logo

Alfonso Lombana is a Marine Scientist with The Nature Conservancy and is a lead on the data team with the Mid Atlantic Ocean Data Portal. For over 15-years, Al has designed and implemented conservation projects throughout the world’s threatened ecosystems and has achieved lasting solutions to threats such as urbanization, overharvesting, and climatic changes. His expertise in adaptive management, spatial conservation planning, and GIS Is helping institutions develop strategic plans that protect endangered species and habitats while maintaining sustainable resource use, for maximum benefit to people and nature. Here, Al answers questions about a data portal with mapping capabilities for the Mid-Atlantic States.

Al, first, could you tell us a bit about the Mid Atlantic Region’s efforts?

The Mid Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) is a partnership between governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to establish shared priorities, and provide a collective voice around a new era of ocean challenges and opportunities. The primary priorities shared by the states are around climate change adaptation, renewable energy, marine habitats, and water quality.   

During the last few years, MARCO developed a data portal; what’s the purpose of the MARCO portal?

The purpose of the MARCO portal is to engage stakeholders throughout the region around MARCO’s shared priorities by putting state of the art mapping and data visualization technology in their hands in concert with data essential to understanding the use conflicts inherent when planning for the multi-use ocean environment.

How did MARCO decide what the portal should be?

The Portal is both a data repository and visualization tool. As a data repository, the Portal fills a special role in the region and is the only place where disparate data on a variety of sectors is brought together in one place. The design is such that other stakeholders who are involved in ocean planning efforts and want to learn more about these sectors can download this data for their own purposes. To make it even easier for stakeholders to access this information, the Portal also houses Marine Planner – a powerful mapping tool that takes available data and gives users the option of layering it together via map to visualize potential use conflicts.

Who is the audience for the portal?

As a national resource, everybody has a stake in the ocean. It touches the lives of the 56 million people inhabiting the region in any number of ways – from transportation to safety and food. Just as the ocean is a multi-use environment, the Portal’s data repository, mapping and visualization tools are designed to be easily accessible by all kinds of users. Whether they are a commercial or recreational fisherman, ocean researcher, high school teacher, or policy maker, stakeholders can come to the Portal, see the information available there first hand and learn more about their ocean and its many uses.

How do you feel the audience shaped the direction and design of the portal?

As the region progressed toward a more collaborative approach to ocean planning, the need for a tool like the Data Portal became more and more apparent. There needed to be one place for people to come together to see all of this information. There are similar portals in other regions that have helped engage stakeholders in the ocean planning process in the same way.

Who built the portal behind the scenes?

The Mid Atlantic Ocean Data Portal was developed by partner members from Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute, Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, The Nature Conservancy, The University of Delaware’s Gerard J. Mangone Center for Marine Policy, and Point 97.

Could you describe the process of gathering data from all the different sources and convincing offices and stakeholders to contribute and share for others?

Populating the Portal has been a collaborative effort. Our data team reaches out to agencies and organizations to gather data, takes submissions from those same groups who come to us directly, and also pursues funding to create data that has never assessed for the region, like the recreational use data gathered in a project led by the Surfrider Foundation. It is in everybody’s best interest to have accurate information on the table in this process; however, some data is more sensitive than others. In those cases our data team works with the provider to determine the appropriate amount of detail to include in the portal while still allowing the information to be available publicly and hopefully utilized in future conversations about use conflict.

Thanks for sharing the background Al, could you provide us with some examples or success stories of how stakeholders have used the portal?

One great success story from this region is the collaboration between the Portal team and Coast Guard. Through the Portal we produced maps that helped the Coast Guard respond to the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management during a public comment period for the proposed lease areas off the shore of New Jersey. Through the Portal, the Coast Guard was able to show how shipping lanes would be impacted by the proposed lease areas through the newly available AIS data which they had provided, but which had not been made public until their inclusion on the Portal.

To our readers,
Does your planning area have a data portal? Please provide the link below for others to explore, and share with us any challenges or successes your area has found in developing coastal web atlases.

The CMSP-AT course features watercolor artwork in its online course handbook and in-person training handbook.

This content is part of a Top List!

The OpenChannels Team curates important content into Top Lists. Browse through the links below to see what other content is included in this Top List.


While as a former graduate student at Texas A&M University at Galveston, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the Texas Coastal Planning Atlas (  A web-based interactive data tool, which is a collaboration between the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores (CTBS) and the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) at Texas A&M.  Not only is this resource an excellent education tool, but the Coastal Atlas offers coastal managers in Texas one of the most extensive spatial analysis tools to benefit coastal planning.

Additionally, there are a few National data portals offered by the EPA and NOAA.  

1) EnviroAtlas ( - An interactive web-based tool for the public at-large to better understand ecosystem services.

2) Digital Coast Tools ( - Offer a wide-array of spatial analysis tools to improve coastal planning.  

I certainly applaud the efforts of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean to create a regional coastal planning data portal.  The availability of spatial analysis and coastal planning resources is quite abundant these days, so setbacks to effective coastal zone management don't have any further excuses.  Although these tools are not widely know by the public, there is certainly room to grow.  These tools can not only help communities learn more about their environment, but also help support environmental planning efforts close to home. 

After reviewing the MARCO website and Marine Planner, I recognize an impressive effort to pull together all this information.  The site contains downloadable GIS data layers that can help regional planners build their own maps. As regional planning tool, MARCO provides coarse-scale GIS layers rather than more site-specific information.  But it’s useful to see the big picture.   I wonder who uses MARCO?   Sometimes academics (and others) create slick tools that few people will actually use.   (I know from personal experience.).  So I was encouraged the read the brief case study about the Coast Guard using MARCO in testimony to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management I(BOEM) regarding placement of wind farms.   Probably any effort to collect, summarize and disseminate information is a useful endeavor in the age of big data.  Nice work, MARCO.

All this commentaries regarding ocean data are fascinating and never ending. I hope artificial intelligence could help us make a more complete use of these data and help us to take better planning or management decisions. I have been dreaming to develop an interactive data base using information from the scientific papers... those papers have enormous quantity of information published since the beginning of the nineteen century. You can see my video about the idea: (Links to an external site.)

Just think how useful could be this kind of scientific data source if you need to obtain scientific information from your planning area. I will be thankfully to receive your commentaries about the App explained in this video. I am really looking support to develop this idea.

Also I want to give you a link about protected areas: Protected Planet (Links to an external site.) which is the online interface for the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), a join project of IUCN and UNEP, and the most comprehensive global database on terrestrial and marine protected areas.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of new blogs. Simply visit any blog post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.