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MarineMap: Crowdsourcing Scientifically Defensible Marine Habitat Protection Areas

What’s the problem?

Protecting the diversity and health of marine habitats (and the organisms that populate them) off the California coast has become a pressing concern. The California Department of Fish and Game is leading the state’s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI), a legislative effort that will establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along California’s shores to protect the natural diversity and abundance of the state’s marine life.

The Initiative relies on citizens, representing many different and often contentious stakeholder groups, to help define proposed MPAs. But actually defining MPAs is challenging for several reasons:

•Environmental groups and Extractive Use communities (such as fisherman) often have different ideas about the definition of “protection”.

•Economic factors need to be balanced with preservation goals.

•Stakeholders need an easy way to map, share, modify, and discuss MPAs.

•Defining MPAs requires getting stakeholder communities to actually agree that the “lines on a map” represent acceptable protection areas.

•The MPAs defined by this citizen stakeholder process need to meet science-based guidelines to ensure that preservation goals of the initiative can be met.

•The MLPAI legislation requires precise geographic coordinates to describe the location and extent of protection areas.

So, we need to make it easier for stakeholder groups to reach consensus on the coastal areas that will be protected, and the level of protection within each area. To achieve this goal, citizens with no previous knowledge of GIS or mapping technology must be able to easily and quickly create maps of proposed Marine Protected Areas.

To be considered valid, the habitat protection area maps need to meet science-based guidelines. MLPAI participants need to a way to share and discuss their proposed protection maps with other stakeholders, members of the communities they represent, scientists, and policy makers. And finally, stakeholders must be able to quickly and easily modify their proposed protection area maps as their understanding of the issues evolves.

Solution Requirements:

It was clear that the MLPAI needed a map-based system to support the creation of Marine Protected Areas. And based on our early efforts in Central and Northern California, it was equally clear that a traditional GIS approach to creating and managing protection areas would not work.

Instead, we began to see the habitat protection mapping process as an analog to OpenStreetMap or Wikimapia, in that we wanted to let regular people define geospatial entities (e.g., Marine Protected Areas) using a simple, fast, and collaborative tool.

We also recognized that our web-based application (which we named “MarineMap”) would need to do much more than either OpenStreetMap or Wikimapia. Because Marine Protected Areas need to protect and preserve specific habitats and biologic communities, our application would need to ensure that users created areas that meet science-based guidelines. Moreover, our application would need to ensure that users couldn’t “game the system” by selectively mapping protection areas in a way that would favor one goal over another.

Because the MLPAI requires many stakeholder communities to reach consensus on the location, distribution, size, and level of protection for each Marine Protected Area, MarineMap allows participants to share their proposed areas with others. MarineMap users can collaborate and share their proposed MPAs, and comment on the proposed protection areas of others.

Finally, we knew that our stakeholder community would include many people new to mapping, and we wanted to make MarineMap easy to learn and fun to use.

Our Approach:

MarineMap integrates traditional GIS techniques and cutting edge Open Source geospatial technologies.

MarineMap’s technology stack is fully Open Source, and includes PostGIS, GeoServer, GRASS, GeoDjango, Python, Extjs, OpenLayers. These technologies allowed us to rapidly develop a geospatial decision support tool that incorporates the sophisticated spatial analyses we need to ensure that users create valid Marine Protected Areas.

Our application code followed a Model-Viewer-Controller (MVC) design pattern, allowing our development team to efficiently build and test application code. Data access relied on a RESTful architecture when appropriate. In addition, MarineMap uses web services (in particular OGC specifications for WFS) as a means of implementing specific functionality. JSON provided a lightweight means of formatting application data for display in MarineMap’s presentation tier, while the Extjs JavaScript library provides a visually pleasing means of displaying data and supporting various user tasks.

We chose Google Maps as our basemap tile cache. MarineMap is also capable of displaying the enormous set of spatial data (as a series of map tile caches) needed to support the creation of Marine Protected Area polygons. These tile caches are cartographically sophisticated, and were created using ESRI’s ArcGIS desktop application accessing extensive datasets managed using ArcSDE middleware. We converted our ArcGIS cartography into map tile caches for approximately 65 datasets using Arc2Earth. This approach allowed us to use the full suite of ArcGIS cartographic capabilities within MarineMap’s Open Source application framework.

Presentation Goals:

We believe MarineMap represents a logical next step in crowdsourcing: automating and easing the creation of geodata that must meet sophisticated spatial processing business rules to be useful.

A primary goal of our presentation will be to show how we built an application that allows people with no knowledge of GIS or mapping technology to create geodata (in our case polygons representing marine habitat protection areas) that meet strict science-based guidelines for validity. Because the MPAs defined using MarineMap will be incorporated into State legislation, it’s vitally important that we ensure these crowdsourced data can achieve the protection and preservation goals developed by MLPAI participants.

Our presentation will focus on:

•Our rationale for developing MarineMap using Open Source geospatial technology, and for developing some of the datasets using more traditional GIS technologies. In particular, we’ll discuss the overall architecture of MarineMap, and why we choose the application development patterns used in the application.

•Using geospatial analyses to ensure MarineMap users define valid protection areas. We’ll also discuss how we deploy sophisticated spatial analyses within MarineMap using PostGIS, GeoServer, and GRASS.

•How we developed and tested MarineMap to ensure that fast and it’s easy to use.

Ultimately, we hope to demonstrate that a purpose-built web application such as MarineMap can help ordinary citizens create the scientifically valid geodata essential for legislators to change public policy.

Why will people want to attend this presentation?

We believe that Where 2.0 attendees will find this presentation interesting for several reasons.

As far as we know, MarineMap represents one of the first web applications able to support collaborative and consensus-based public policy decision-making in which geospatial data are absolutely essential. Indeed, it’s impossible to develop effective Marine Protected Areas without maps and geospatial analysis.

On a technical level, many Where 2.0 attendees will find our use of traditional GIS tools, Open Source technology, and Web 2.0 design and application development practices informative. We believe that MarineMap represents a real-world example in which modern geospatial technologies (e.g.: PostGIS, GeoServer, REST, OpenLayers) and traditional GIS technology and data formats (e.g.: ArcGIS, ArcSDE) have been integrated to create a new and essential web-based tool for a decidedly non-technical group of users.

Finally, attendees may see MarineMap as an interesting early example of how governments might address a universal problem: helping diverse stakeholder groups make hard, multi-objective decisions about allowable habitat uses that balance economic drivers with the need for preservation and protection.

Dennis Wuthrich

Farallon Geographics

CEO of Farallon Geographics (www.fargeo.com), a geospatial system integration and web application development company

Member of Board of Directors and Past President of Bay Area Automated Mapping Association

Contributor, Geospatial Solutions Magazine

Photo of Matt Merrifield

Matt Merrifield

The Nature Conservancy

Matt Merrifield is the geographic information systems manager at the Nature Conservancy of California specializing GIScience and conservation planning. Mr. Merrifield is also a principal investigator of the MarineMap Consortium – a group working to advance the integration of marine policy, science and technology by creating better tools for marine spatial planning.

Matt has a B.A. in Geography from U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. in Geography, Resource Management and Environmental Planning from San Francisco State University