Global Survey of Tools Used for Marine Spatial Planning, Round 5: Benefits and Challenges of Using Tools

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By Sarah Carr

In December 2012-January 2013, the EBM Tools Network and OpenChannels conducted a survey of MSP practitioners worldwide to learn what tools practitioners are actually using in the field and how well those tools are working. 91 practitioners reported using one or more tools for an MSP process or processes, and they cited a wide range of benefits of using tools. Some of the most commonly-cited benefits of using tools are that the tools:

  • Help visualize and analyze data (e.g., overlay diverse datasets, calculate potential buffer zones, estimate species distributions, classify habitats)
  • Help evaluate diverse management scenarios in a consistent manner (e.g., determine costs/benefits of different MPA configurations)
  • Empower stakeholders to visualize data (e.g., potential zones), run analyses, and develop proposals on their own and share information and opinions with other process participants
  • Help stakeholders develop a shared understanding of conflicts and tradeoffs, as well as create a common framework for negotiation
  • Provide an objective, systematic path to determining solutions
  • Bring science into the process (e.g., information about ecological functioning)
  • Help develop novel, optimal solutions (e.g., solutions that achieve more objectives, are spatially efficient, are least costly)
  • Help find credible sources of data and figure out data gaps.

Specific benefits we heard from tool users include:

  • “I could use different layers of data to relatively quickly determine…if my idea would contribute to a particular goal.”
  • “[The tool] can illustrate in map form how or where certain activities are or can occur. Seeing how uses overlap or intersect hugely helps stakeholders understand conflicting interests, and facilitates dialog.”
  • The tools “provide ‘objective’ solutions or at least objective starting points for finding agreement on where to allocate uses.”
  • The tool “brought forward solutions that had not been discussed up to then. [It] added an element of rigorousness.”
  • “Our process includes multiple users and jurisdictions--therefore having a tool that is transparent, and adds technical support to decisions has been very important to give our process legitimacy, inclusiveness with partners, and to give confidence to those with local knowledge to make recommendations or suggest how a space should be managed or used.”
  • It “takes a very complex situation and makes it easier to understand and gives people results which are easier to understand.  [It is] good at producing different scenarios, so that people can see what [an] assumption means on a map.”
  • Using the tool was the “start of constructive dialogue between stakeholders.”
  • “Immediate access to data at meetings was critical. Additionally, [the] ability for some stakeholders to use tool at home, to develop their own proposals, [and] analyze data gave them ownership of process.”
  • The tool “powerfully exposed potential problems between wildlife and fisher uses and proposed new marine energy development sites.”

Respondents also cited numerous challenges for using tools.  By far the most common challenge was finding and using appropriate data. In many cases, data (e.g., human uses of areas, marine mammal locations) were unavailable, inaccurate/outdated, too coarse, did not have sufficient metadata, or could not be shared publicly. Working with data from disparate sources and in different formats also presented a challenge for many MSP practitioners. Other challenges for using tools include:

  • Time and expense for learning and using the tool
  • Cost of tool license and supporting software/equipment (e.g., ArcGIS)
  • “Black box” aspect of tool and resulting tool results
  • Poor design or operation of tools
  • Including traditional ecological knowledge in tool use
  • Including multiple criteria and dynamic processes in tool use
  • And, last but not least, actually incorporating tool results in management.

Specific challenges we heard from tool users include:

  • “Priority areas reflect areas with most data available and are not [a] true reflection of priority conservation areas.”
  • “The learning curve [for using the tool] is quite steep.”
  • “The mapping tool required equipment too expensive for us to justify purchasing and technical skills we do not have within our agency.”
  • “No challenges were encountered using the tool itself e.g., ArcGIS software.  The issue was not having sufficient data.”
  • “More data layers should/could have been included from key stakeholders. Key traditional knowledge may not have been included.  It's time consuming to find, gather, and enter important data.”
  • “Gathering data! This was a much bigger challenge than using the tool.”
  • It was “difficult for people to understand the ‘black box’ aspects...  [We] had to really break down the analysis into component pieces to help partners and stakeholders become more comfortable with the outputs of the tool.”
  • “Data availability was and will always be a challenge in using the model.”
  • “We have found that preparing data for the models, running the models and creating outputs takes time. “
  • “Some limitations have to do with the quality of data; coarsely scaled data, or data where the source is questioned, or where the resulting data layer does not represent stakeholders' perception of what it should represent, were probably the greatest challenges.”

Readers, if you have been involved with using a tool in an MSP process, did you encounter any of these challenges? Were there any additional challenges that you faced that are not described here? Do you have advice for other practitioners on overcoming these challenges? Please tell us in the comments section below.

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