Decision-support tools in conservation – improving user-centred design

By David Christian Rose, Researcher at University College London and Rebecca Robertson, University of Cambridge

The conservation community is embracing decision support tools as a way of linking science to policy and practice – delivering scientific knowledge in a useable form. These tools, which guide users through clear stages towards an evidence-based final decision, are usually computer- or app-based.

While their importance is increasingly recognised, many of these tools are too resource-intensive and poorly designed for use by practitioners. Uptake and use therefore frequently remains low. Drawing on this understanding, and hoping to share perspectives across the decision-support design spectrum, we decided to bring developers and end users of these tools together. The aim was to discuss the challenges, barriers, and experiences of researchers and practitioners, as well as to find space to work directly on existing tools and processes. The setting was a workshop jointly funded by the Luc Hoffmann Institute and the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute with the EU BON (Biodiversity Observation Network) supporting associated research.

The workshop was led by myself, now at UCL’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) and Rebecca Robertson (Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge). It built on previous work conducted at the University of Cambridge on decision-support tools for agriculture and on conservation knowledge products for marine policy. We are both interested in the interactions between science, policy and practice in conservation. At Cambridge we worked together in an interdisciplinary collaboration between environmental geography (myself) and conservation science (Rebecca’s background).

Funding and convening this workshop allowed a host of designers and users to share knowledge and ideas on what makes a ‘good’ decision-support tool. The workshop stressed the importance of engaging users at every stage of a project from conception through design to post-implementation feedback, and showcased some examples of tools. LHI’s Melanie Ryan shared her expertise of engaging stakeholders, stressing that successful engagement is built around trust and giving users ownership of the project and control of implementation.

A World Café-style exhibition allowed users to test various decision-support tools aimed at supporting conservation decisions. These included the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) which provides governments and the research community access to biodiversity datasets and allows business to screen for biodiversity risk. Ecobat, a tool to interpret bat data, was also presented, alongside Facilitator, which aids triple bottom line natural resource decision-making incorporating stakeholder values and factual knowledge.

Also in the line-up was the Local Ecological Footprint Tool (LEFT) which, for a selected area, assembles relevant environmental data from global databases, producing a map showing an index of ecological risk. Any landscape in the world can be assessed and the output maps include information on risk assessment, biodiversity, vulnerability, connectivity and resilience. Conservation Evidence is a free information resource designed to support conservation decisions. It summarises evidence from the scientific literature about the effects of conservation actions such as methods of habitat or species management.

Camgeocon presented a species distribution model which helps biologists and conservationists manage the complication of running niche models, which are used to make risk assessment decisions about resources and species affected by environmental shifts. Also presented was TradeMapper, an interactive tool originally developed by TRAFFIC and WWF to visualise trade data, as well as WCS’ Offenders Database.

Several take-home messages emerged:

  • It is important to engage users in tool design to ensure that the technology is relevant to their needs.
  • Make tools easy to use and streamlined – people are busy! Engaging colours and simple navigation help make the interface user friendly and therefore more likely to be useful.
  • Test the tool on ‘real’ end users rather than like-minded colleagues.
  • Consider marketing – users will not know about a tool unless its has a good marketing strategy and this can be complemented by what you learn from your collaborators in terms of the value to them.
  • Think about a business plan to ensure the tool can exist once funding ends. Will it be easy to maintain afterwards and what incentive is there for other people to do it? How can this be sustainable?

These messages will be collated into a paper for Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO). Check out our storify summary here.