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Indicators in Practice

Apr 30, 2015

Digital Observer of Protected Areas

Capo Caccia Marine Protected Area in Sardinia, Italy ("Alghero - Capo Caccia e isola di Foradada (01)" by Gianni Careddu - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

--E.O. Wilson, 1998, Consilience

The Digital Observer of Protected Areas (DOPA) opens its Introductory Report with the above quote from evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, immediately drawing attention to the need for “synthesizers” who can bring information together to help guide decisionmaking. The DOPA project, developed by the European Commission in collaboration with a number of international conservation organizations, endeavors to achieve this goal by bringing together a series of distinct datasets about protected areas to help inform management decisions.

Case Study: Digital Observer of Protected Areas

Scope: Global

Released: 2013 (updated in 2014 with additional updates planned for 2015 and 2016)

Intended Audience: Protected area managers, governments, and scientific researchers

Potential Application: Helping policymakers and decisionmakers at regional, national, and international scales set conservation and management priorities, particularly for parks and protected areas

Developer: European Commission, in collaboration with United Nations EP World Conservation Monitoring Center, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and BirdLife International

Website: http://dopa.jrc.ec.europa.eu/

Description: DOPA is an online protected area database that aggregates a wide range of datasets on protected area coverage, habitats and ecosystems, and species distributions to help inform conservation and management decisions at local, regional, and global scales. The tool was developed primarily to support the European Union’s efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of international governance on biodiversity and ecosystem service issues. However, the detailed information on protected areas presented through the tool has a wide range of potential applications, from informing on-the-ground management decisions by park rangers to helping the international community coordinate broad biodiversity conservation initiatives.

The data is sourced from a number of different institutions, including the World Database on Protected Areas by UNEP, the Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World dataset by the World Wildlife Fund, and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In its current form, DOPA consolidates this data into a series of searchable ecological and habitat-related indicators for the world’s protected areas.

The project was launched in 2013, and has three main components that are scheduled to be finalized by 2016:

  • DOPA Explorer, which is a publicly-available web-based tool that allows users to explore upwards of 9,000 marine and terrestrial protected areas over 150km2 in size and identify characteristics related to their perceived value and human threats.
  • DOPA Validator, which will allow registered users to validate the information presented in DOPA Explorer and provide additional details about the protected areas described in the tool. This is essentially a ground-truthing method, by which experts can provide verified information to support the automatically-generated indicators in the Explorer. The feature is not yet operational but is planned for 2015.
  • DOPA Analyst, which will provide end-users with modelling tools that can be used to forecast climate change impacts on protected areas, determine connectivity between protected areas, and simulate the impacts of adding or removing a protected area on the broader region’s environmental status. This feature is not yet operational but is planned for 2016.

Figure 1: Screenshot of DOPA Explorer displaying the homepage interface

DOPA Explorer is the only currently operational feature of the DOPA project. The web-based map enables users to search for and examine protected areas using a variety of different metrics, such as geographic location, species richness, or presence of certain habitats. Once a protected area is selected, DOPA Explorer automatically generates a series of indicators and statistics about that area.

Some of the most notable types of data available through the tool include the ecosystem services provided by the protected area. With it, policymakers can be armed with information about the tangible benefits that protected areas are providing to their constituents, as well as the anthropogenic threats or pressures facing that protected area, from land conversion to resource extraction to poaching. The Explorer tool also provides information on climate trends and observations in protected areas, all amounting to a rich picture of the impacts and some of their drivers within park boundaries.

Utility of DOPA

The developers of DOPA anticipate that a number of different user groups will benefit from the information collected in DOPA Explorer. The European Commission can rely on the data to assist with priority-setting for its protected area conservation efforts. UN organizations, individual country governments, and NGOs can utilize baseline information presented in the Explorer to assist them with establishing and implementing conservation and policy targets. Researchers can extract data from the Explorer in raw format to support research and analysis efforts.

Since this is a brand-new tool, there are a number of limitations, many of which the tool’s creators acknowledge. The authors point out three primary gaps in the present incarnation of the DOPA Explorer:

  1. Some data layers, such as rainfall, vegetation, and carbon storage, are only available for certain parts of the world;
  2. The resolution of the data is 1km2, which in some cases will not be detailed enough to accurately inform on-the-ground management decisions;
  3. Less detail is available on the characteristics of marine protected areas than of terrestrial protected areas, underscoring an overall global weakness in the availability of environmental and ecological data within marine systems. 

DOPA Explorer also faces some data validation challenges as a result of the sheer magnitude of datasets that are included in the database. Capacity issues prevented project developers from independently validating every piece of data, but  the upcoming launch of DOPA Validator should begin to address some of those issues by providing a mechanism for users with expertise in relevant areas to verify or correct information in the existing datasets.

Because of the data-heavy nature of DOPA Explorer, which comes with a lengthy guidebook to illustrate the tool’s capabilities and to help users navigate the online interface, DOPA will likely have the most utility for environmental professionals familiar with working with large, spatially-explicit datasets. However, in a world of constant environmental change and limited resources, the data aggregation and visualization services provided by DOPA—and by other biogeographic tools like Yale’s Map of Life—will become increasingly important to environmental managers who must make decisions based on the best available information.

For a more detailed overview of the DOPA project, including a manual with instructions for using the DOPA Explorer, see https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/sites/default/files/dopa_explorer_beta_user_manual_07_11_2013_submitted.pdf