Global Survey of Tools Used for Marine Spatial Planning, Round 6: Lessons from the Field: Using Tools in MSP Processes

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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 they are using in the field and how well those tools are working.  We’ve shared many results of this survey in preceding blog posts.  For this final installment, we would like to share some of the general wisdom our survey respondents have gained over time about using tools. When asked about tool-related lessons they have learned, respondents emphasized four areas:

  1. Process, Process, Process: Over and over again, respondents stressed that tools aren’t valuable unless they are supporting high quality public processes with clearly defined goals and strong stakeholder participation. And they emphasized that the time-consuming work of obtaining stakeholder buy-in for tool use, and ensuring that stakeholders understand tool limitations and assumptions, is essential to effective tool use. Some specific comments:
    • “Without constituent support, the best laid spatial plans are less likely to be successful in the long-term.”
    • “Tools are only as good as the users and the aims of the planning process. Techies understandably get very absorbed by the details of the tool use, but users are more interested in ascertaining if they can trust the process, the analysts, and the tools. So, I'd say make sure you build up good working relationships with whoever has to accept or deal with the tool's results (that includes bosses too).”
    • “Be honest regarding the use and need of time for processes.”
    • “Tools are good for scientific analysis, however, local knowledge and review of the data is crucial to have a successful plan.”
    • “Schedule many, with duplication over time, demonstrations of the marine spatial tool and how to add to/use it in the communities affected.”
    • “Taking time to help the viewer/decision maker understand what they are looking at (i.e. what it actually represents) is important for a clear, transparent, productive planning process.”
    • “Ensure that ALL users are well aware of and fully understand (two very different things) any model assumptions in the tool.”
  2. Choose your tool(s) carefully: Respondents also stressed that MSP practitioners should approach tool use with clearly defined goals and do a lot of advance research on tools, including speaking with previous projects that have used the tool, to make sure they are choosing the best one(s) for their projects. Some specific comments:
    • “Determine in advance if you have the right data, scale, questions to use the models.”
    • “Research, research, research as much as you can in advance. Take training if you can afford it to get a better understanding of the applications, inputs, mechanics, and to help understand if the tool is the 'right choice' for your project.”
    • “Make sure you understand what the [tools] really do and what limitations they are subject to.”
    • “We also may decide to use different planning tools in different components of our planning area (e.g., data poor coastal areas are less suitable for Marxan than well-surveyed offshore areas).”
    • “Would recommended doing and inventory of tools that could help with your process and organize them around the scale at which they provide data.  You might find that you need several tools to meet your needs, from national scale data and tools to regional portals, to local and or in situ data sources.”
    • “Spend some time taking to others who have used the model to direct you where you can use the model.”
  3. Rubbish In, Rubbish Out: Respondents stressed the need for making sure high quality data go into the tool, otherwise results will be misleading and damaging to the process and its goals. Tool users should start thinking about appropriate data sources and potential data gaps early in the process and allow sufficient time to collect necessary data. Tool results should always be checked to make sure they are plausible. Some specific comments:
    • “The key to a valuable spatial planning analysis is collection of well-documented, spatially explicit data on the phenomena of interest.  This ensures that mapping software provides sound results.”
    • “Rubbish in = rubbish out - ensure you have good quality data and where you use proxies ensure the assumptions are plausible and shared with all stakeholders.”
    • “Be careful of the data.  Many areas are unmapped so by default not identified as important.”
    • “Spend time reading metadata for each dataset so that you better understand what information is being represented and what is being left out.”
    • “Be careful, check the data and run the results many times to make sure it makes sense.”
    • “Ensure data layers used are robust, current, and as accurate as possible. Relate any data gaps in a clear way.”
    • “Data collection usually takes longer than you expected.”
    • “Budget generous staff time for soliciting, finding and coding traditional knowledge into data layers to be included.”
  4. Get Some Help and Get Started: And, finally, to avoid perfect being the enemy of the good, survey respondents suggested getting training or finding mentors (experienced tool users) if at all possible and then jumping in and getting started with the tools (presumably after doing the tool and data research suggested above!). Some specific comments:
    • “If possible, it is helpful to have a quick presentation/webinar by experts on the tool for users.  I think this would help overcome the initial newness and possibly overwhelmed feeling that some possibly overwhelmed feeling that some … seemed to have.”
    • “Take basic training on-line and take it again if you get rusty.”
    • “Either take lessons or ensure you have a mentor to guide learning.”
    • “Work with a group that has been through the process to provide advice--that was helpful [to us].”
    • “Advice - understand the pros/cons and jump in to using the tool!”
    • “Focus on minimal baseline data to be 100% successful.”
    • “Use them - you don't need to be data rich for [all tools].”

MSP projects which are getting started using tools can connect with experienced tool users and potential mentors through the EBM Tools Network listserve (sign up at

As we wrap up this blog series, we would like to express our sincere thanks to all of the MSP practitioners who took the time to complete the survey and share their experiences and hard-earned understanding with the MSP community. The full series of blogs (including blogs about tools most commonly used for MSP, the full range of tools respondents are using for MSP, and cost/benefits of using tools) can be found at Best wishes for your work!


Hi, Sarah, this was a great series and very useful. Job well done. Best regards, Bud

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