We got tools, are you using them?

[This post is by Morgan Chow and Jane Ballard]

More than just data. And we mean it. While we may be called the Digital Coast, and our partnership was built around geospatial visualization data and tools designed to help coastal managers make more informed decisions, the tools developed through this partnership, led by NOAA as well as other partners, have evolved over the last ten years of collaborative projects, to be (without sounding like a broken record) more than just data. Today, the Digital Coast Partnership represents a larger toolbox and collaboration around coastal management across the nation. As the Digital Coast platform and Partnership has grown tremendously and continues to expand its reach across the U.S., the inevitable question is increasingly asked – how are the Digital Coast tools being used? How is success measured?

As part of our Digital Coast fellowships, we’ve been spending some time trying to understand how the various types of tools offered are being used on the ground by our different target audiences. Now this effort may seem fairly straight forward but wait, we’re going to make it more complicated. As we spend time evaluating tool use, it is important to recognize that both the sheer number of tools developed has increased, as well as the types of audiences our partnership is reaching, from policy advocates and the private sector, to the humanitarian sector.

At The Nature Conservancy, in an effort to develop metrics of success and collect standardized information of how TNC’s Coastal Resilience tool and approach are being used, we conducted a thorough program evaluation. We divided the program according to four main streams by which we want to gauge our success: 1. The strength of our network of practitioners, 2. Our ability to visually represent scientific results, 3. The level at which our innovative technology advances, and 4. The degree to which the tool is used to engage with external sectors.  Across the four streams, we identified 17 core metrics that we can use to track the program success in a combination of analytics and surveys.

These metrics are meant to be simple and straightforward, yet still capture the flavor and depth of such a wide-reaching program. For example, twitter followers, website and tool analytics, and newsletter subscribers help us capture the strength of our network of practitioners. Collaborative tool development and new partnerships allow us to track our external engagement. Deploying a user-specific survey to local partners helps capture tool use all the way to the decision to conserve and restore coastal habitats. While we know that Coastal Resilience tools have been used to inform decision making, before we created these standardized metrics we didn’t have any baseline to measure their value across all of our programs. Implementing these metrics beginning in FY18 will allow us to more systematically capture our tools’ influence in decision making.

At the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA), our tool evaluation has focused on the topic of ecosystem services and the local decision-making process in coastal communities. This involves working to understand where in the process these tools currently and potentially offer support amongst key players (planners, landowners, members of the public, commissions, nonprofits land trusts, advocacy groups, regulatory departments, etc.). Our current findings underscore the need for tools focused on increased understanding and training before the data and analytical tools are useful to the communities themselves. Before communities get to the point where they are asking about trade-offs or spatial conflict, many need to understand the broad issue first, so that there is reason for digging deeper into the ecosystem services of coastal habitats.  Local-level stakeholders are primarily aware of the Digital Coast tools focused on detailed analysis, and issues like the scale of the information or limited resources turn them away from using these tools, with the common takeaway that these tools are not “local enough”. When they turn away from these, they often turn away from the platform as a whole. This causes many potentially useful tools focused more on training or increasing awareness to be overlooked, which are exactly the types of resources these stakeholders often first mention as a need. To overcome this, Reserve staff are working closely with their surrounding communities and watersheds to increase familiarity with ecosystem services and their role in coastal management.

Throughout the Partnership, the endeavor to be flexible in defining the best method of support permeates, with even discussion on the language surrounding what a “tool” is evolving to focus on spatial as well as equation-, expert- or participation-based resources to empower users and communities. Allowing flexibility to account for various decisions and timeframes has proven important and necessary as the Digital Coast expands. From these exercises, we’ve learned that there is no straight forward answer to the common question – “how are these tools being used?” There are a variety of tools across the Digital Coast Partnership, catered towards an increasingly diverse audience base, that have been created to inform a wide array of coastal management decisions. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind how evaluation metrics, like those created for the Coastal Resilience program, and the lessons learned from NERRA’s place-based ecosystem service tool evaluation inform a deeper look at specific outcomes and specific audiences. This can help ensure the outcomes we hope to generate from the ever-growing collaborative toolbox that is the Digital Coast.


Two fellows, two stories.

Jane Ballard works with the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA), focusing on communicating and integrating ecosystem service values into coastal wetland management decisions. When she’s not condensing that sentence into fewer syllables, she works with Reserves and their local communities to assess their needs and see how ecosystem services and the Digital Coast resources can make it easier to make transparent, well-informed land use decisions. After growing up and attending university and graduate school along the Central California coast, she is spending the fellowship exploring the communities, coasts and mountains of Maine.

Morgan Chow works with The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Risk and Resilience team, helping to promote a nature-based adaptation approach to coastal hazards through the Coastal Resilience program. In addition to conducting a program evaluation for Coastal Resilience and leading its strategic outreach and communications, she also contributes to the program’s expansion to reach the humanitarian and technology sector in new partnerships with the Global Disaster Preparedness Center and Microsoft. Born and raised on the California coast, she’s worked her way north to cooler climates through Oregon for graduate school, and now Seattle, Washington where she is currently based.

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