20 June 2012 Science Briefs

SNAMP PUB #12: Expanding the table: the web as a tool for participatory adaptive management in California forests

Article Title: Expanding the table: the web as a tool for participatory adaptive management in California forests.

Authors: Maggi Kelly, Shasta Ferranto, Ken-ichi Ueda, Shufei Lei, and Lynn Huntsinger.

Research Highlights:


  • We built a participatory website for the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (http://snamp.cnr.berkeley.edu).

  • We analyzed the content and use of the website to determine how it contributed to participation in adaptive management.

  • The web played a crucial role throughout the adaptive management cycle by supporting communication and delivery of information about the project, thus increasing the transparency of the scientific process.

  • The web played a small, but important role in public consultation, by providing a forum for targeted questions and feedback from the public.

  • Internet technology did not actively support the two-way flow of information necessary for mutual learning.

  • Web technology complements face-to-face interactions and public meetings, rather than replaces them.

Background:

Because management projects in contentious natural resource contexts often involve finding reasonable compromise or shared understandings between participants, the success (or failure) of such management is partly about information. Techniques for public participation continue to evolve in order to facilitate a more comprehensive flow of information to, from, and between diverse audiences. The Internet is part of this evolution: web-based tools that provide information exchange between diverse participants and stakeholders about complex environmental systems are also increasingly being used in natural resource management and decision-making. This recent growth in Internet communities and web-based participation tools raises the question of how web technology might facilitate the flow of information required in participatory adaptive management. In this paper, we examine the role of the web in facilitating public participation through a case study - the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) - a participatory adaptive management project focused on Forest Service vegetation management treatments in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Results:

Analyzing the website traffic data from Google Analytics between October 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011, we found that the SNAMP website received over 71,000 unique visits from the United States (>80%) and a number of other countries. The site traffic peaked when the quarterly “web updates”- where we send out to our stakeholders information about the project and any updates - were sent out via email. The most visited landing pages besides the home page were Fisher, Features, Documents, Photos, About and Events. The data from an email survey conducted by the Public Participation Team in 2010 showed that most survey respondents (72.2%) had visited our websites. Email survey respondents agreed that the website helped them keep up with SNAMP events, increased information transparency, was easy to use, and was a good source of information. However, the discussion board received very low use, as only 8% of the survey respondents had posted comments to the website. We suggest that this might be because our most active discussions take place in face-to-face meetings.

Conclusions:


  1. Based on this case study, public participation is most effective when a combination of participatory tools are used, including the web, public meetings, active outreach, and open channels of communication for reaching a broad pool of participants.

  2. Using Stringer’s continuum of public participation as the framework for analyzing the information flow via the SNAMP website, this paper suggests that the website supports communication through disseminating information to the public, and it played a small but significant role in public consultation.


  3. The website did not facilitate extensive and vibrant online discussions, or mutual learning, about scientific processes or results.


  4. The reasons that the website does not act as a vehicle for mutual learning are: 1) it does not facilitate three-party conversations very well; 2) it does not provide for face-to-face interactions needed for social networking; and 3) it has a very small user base to generate sufficient online content and dialogue.


  5. Website design should be adaptive, and website evolution and maintenance should be budgeted ahead and funded. Users needs assessments are necessary to understand how to design and develop a website; as are assessments of how the users collaborate and interact during the life of a project.

Full Reference: Kelly, Ferranto, Ueda, Lei, Huntsinger. 2012. Expanding the table: the web as a tool for participatory adaptive management in California forests. Journal of Environmental Management 109: 1-11.

The full paper is available here.

For more information about the SNAMP project and the PPT team, please see: here.

We also list a series of recommendations and lessons learned for those developing similar websites.


  • Emphasize and articulate the role of the website. Having a web- site that delivers timely and relevant project information to participants is an important piece to public participation efforts. In SNAMP, the web has played an instrumental role in making project-related information centrally available for a demographically and geographically diverse audience, thus promoting project transparency. The website component to a project can easily be overlooked, and its importance needs to be emphasized in the initial budget and proposal preparation.

  • Assess available resources and limitations. Websites require active management and an on-going commitment from project partners to provide content. After the website was built, SNAMP continued to employ a web manager to post new documents and other content to the website, and monitor discussion boards for questions. Additionally, it is important to assess how much time project partners (e.g., the scientists and/ or managers) are willing and able to give to on-going web needs. It is important to assess what is reasonable to ask of the scientists and/or managers in the project, and design a website within those limitations. Scientists should be given a reason- able estimate of their participation expectations and the outset and should budget accordingly.

  • Keep participants actively involved in the website. Peaks in SNAMP website use consistently followed release of “web updates” (email with links to recently posted documents). Additionally, participants were reminded about the website at every SNAMP meeting and all emails about SNAMP included links to the website. These activities helped to keep participants actively engaged in the website, and helped participants stay informed about important posts to the website.

  • Incorporate dynamism. While early design planning is critical, it is also important to recognize that project needs can evolve, and the website needs to be able to respond to new needs. This includes both needs that were missed at the outset and new emerging needs. This is particularly important in complex projects that last multiple years. New project needs such as access to increased media, or a distillation of peer-reviewed publications might need to be added to the website’s functionality. In an echo of adaptive management, this idea is similar to the “agile programming” philosophy which is defined as starting small and constantly revising in response to feedback from users.

  • Funding. There is a clear need to account for the creation and evolving design and maintenance of a website in a project’s funding plan. A successful participatory website requires funding for a web manager to maintain the content on the website, post documents and events, monitor discussions, and respond to any unforeseen problems. There is often a misconception that once a website is built, content and discussions will organically emerge, but in reality these kinds of participatory websites (such as wikipedia) require active management. In addition, personnel who can interact between the project and the stakeholders to provide on-going content, science communication, and facilitate the on-line discussions should also be considered in funding.

  • Implement multi-modal participation. Participants often require many ways to get and give information about a project. With a diverse and heterogeneous audience, websites and meetings alone will not reach everyone; these disparate and distributed participatory tools compliment, rather than replace each other.

  • Follow protocols developed by information technology disciplines. The importance of website design and planning cannot be overstated. There is a wealth of information and research available from information technology disciplines providing guidelines for website design. These guidelines are not well integrated into natural resource management literature, despite their importance for project success.


These key guidelines were used in creating the SNAMP website:


  • Define website goals. Specific goals for the website should be articulated early and used to guide the design process. For example, is the website to be a planning tool to gather and synthesize diverse opinions about locating a specific event or is it to solicit feedback about an existing event?

  • Identify the target audience. Having as comprehensive as possible a list of the target and potential users of the website is the precursor to conducting user needs assessment. It is important to understand their goals, degree of involvement, and preferred methods of communications in the project.

  • Perform a user needs assessment. The design elements (goals, audience, aesthetics, and use) should be explored early in a project through focused interviews, story-boarding, and scenario explorations with members of the target audience. Recommendations for these activities are discussed in literature focusing on user-centered design.

  • Competitive/comparative analysis. Competitive/comparative analysis of similar websites should be performed to understand and learn from successes and failures of other similar websites, and to provide a context for choosing website functionality and content.
    Usability. A website should be intuitive in design, easy to use, and easy to navigate. Depending on the goals behind a website, it may need to provide content in a variety of formats and provide multiple ways to access data.

  • Aesthetics. Aesthetics influence the user experience and ultimately the continued use of a website. Our recommended is to use familiar, off-the-shelf components as much as possible, but to keep the “branding” coherent and consistent through the website.

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