Editor’s note: In 2013, MEAM spoke with Nick Napoli, who was then the ocean planning project manager for the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, to learn about challenges in preparing data and maps for the regional planning process in the northeast US. The Northeast Ocean Plan was certified by the National Ocean Council in December 2016, and we now catch up with Napoli, who currently leads development of the Northeast Ocean Data portal and the implementation of the Northeast Ocean Plan under the auspices of the Northeast Region Planning Body, about how the portal is being used and next steps. He can be contacted for further information at nicknapoli01@gmail.com.

MEAM: Tell us about some of the main users of the Northeast Ocean Data portal and what they are using the portal for. Can you provide an example or two of how the portal influenced the ocean plan that was certified in December or other regional management processes?

Napoli: It’s interesting that you ask this because understanding and communicating the different uses of the portal has become a priority over the last six months since the Northeast Ocean Plan was completed. We just published a “case studies” page on the portal where we are posting stories about the portal being used for different purposes. We have posted our first three case studies and are currently drafting another ten. We also have many other case study ideas that have been either submitted as comments through the portal over the years or that we’ve heard about when we’re out meeting with people. We hear more and more every week.

We’ve also collected monthly statistics since early 2013 on unique visitors to the website and on the use of each of the individual datasets. We’ve seen a steady increase in use over time, and a big jump since the Plan was certified in December of 2016. In April of this year, we had close to 10,000 unique visitors – the most we’ve had in any month since we started. We also see daily and weekly spikes in web hits and in the use of specific datasets around the time of agency announcements, public meetings, or other events related to regulatory and management processes. It’s great to see the portal have this kind of relevance.

In terms of how the portal influenced the ocean plan – the portal is the foundation of the Northeast Ocean Plan. Almost everyone involved in the planning process could agree that regional maps of human activities and ecological resources, all of which were developed with extensive stakeholder input, would facilitate better discussions and decision-making around ongoing and emerging issues. The plan describes ten priority regulatory and management themes in the Northeast and then describes how data for each of those themes, which are available via the portal, can be used as a first stop when considering potential conflicts, opportunities, impacts, and affected stakeholders. As a result, we constantly hear from people who want to make sure that their activity is represented accurately on the map.

In terms of specific examples, we know the portal has been used to inform siting of the first offshore shellfish farm in US federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was also used to site a wave buoy that informs mariners transiting the Cape Cod Canal. It has been and currently is being used by the emerging offshore wind energy industry in the northeast. It is also currently being used to inform the New England Fishery Management Council process to review deep-sea coral protection alternatives. Two weeks ago, at a public meeting, six federal agencies described how they are using the portal to inform their regulatory and management responsibilities. Different industry representatives – fishing, aquaculture, shipping, to name a few – use the portal to demonstrate how proposals for new activities or potential management alternatives can affect their businesses. We frequently hear from consulting companies that are working on state or federal agency projects or that are representing different industries and businesses in a regulatory process. And there are many more examples.

MEAM: Any lessons learned from the Northeast process that you would like to share with others working with ocean data portals for planning and management processes?

Napoli: We learned a lot of lessons. Here are a few that are on my mind now.

First, I think we need to be aware of how big a site we have become. Our priorities now are updating the data, maintaining the site, and communicating its value. There is sometimes a tendency to go after every data gap or suggestion someone makes, but we really need to stay focused. Different opportunities can be tempting, but they can also grow an effort to be too large to manage and maintain over the long term.

Second, we should have used the website to start telling our story about the value of the portal, in a concerted way, much sooner. We’ve always talked about the value and demonstrated it in different planning or stakeholder meetings, but we haven’t done much communication through the portal itself. For example, we should have put case studies up a long time ago. We were just very focused on building the portal and developing the plan until recently, and we just didn’t have the capacity to do this until now.

Finally, and related to telling our story, it’s great that we can now have users talk about the value of the portal. The tremendous support we’ve received from users – from federal and state agencies, industry and environmental organizations, and foundations as well as individual stakeholders and researchers – who have gone out of their way to talk about the value of the portal has been crucial to its success. We can’t thank them enough for this support.