Seamless data sharing in maritime spatial planning

One of the main prerequisites of successful stakeholder engagement in maritime spatial planning (MSP) is providing access to the best available knowledge – data about the marine space and maritime activities, as well as the ways in which they impact each other, the marine ecosystems and the services that they provide. The research team behind BONUS BASMATI has worked to harmonize the collection and use of MSP data in planning processes in the Baltic Sea Region and launched a prototype of the Baltic Explorer, a new interactive tool for real-time data flows between stakeholders.

Better insights for everyone involved

The idea behind the Baltic Explorer is to support more transparent and interactive use of data in stakeholder involvement in maritime spatial planning. The aim is to enable everyone involved to participate more actively in the planning process and strengthen the quality and consistency of the decision-making. The platform has been developed as part of BONUS BASMATI, a research project on maritime spatial planning and marine and coastal ecosystem services in the Baltic Sea Region.

Juha Oksanen of the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute in Finland is one of the people behind the Baltic Explorer, which has already been put to use in maritime spatial planning in the Baltic Sea. Oksanen says that the improved insight that the Baltic Explorer provides translates into stronger stakeholder engagement and is likely to lead to greater acceptance of the final outcome.

“The Baltic Explorer is an interactive GIS application that enables planning authorities and other stakeholders to collect, manage and visualise all data relevant to the maritime spatial planning process,” Oksanen explains. “It’s a multi-devise cloud application, which means that anyone who wishes to contribute to the planning dialogue can do so from their own device, whether a computer, tablet or smartphone. All participants in a stakeholder meeting can add features and data layers to the map and analyse these data in real-time.”

The Baltic Explorer is designed to assemble data from a range of official sources, such as the national marine and water management agencies and HELCOM, the Baltic Environment Protection Commission, but also from various project data servers. As an example, the data from the three BONUS BASMATI case studies, which concern local, cross-border and regional maritime spatial planning processes in the Baltic Sea Region, have been made available through the platform.

“In the Latvian case study, the Baltic Explorer was applied to visualise the seabed in order to re-assess the location of Marine Protected Areas off the shore of Latvia, as well as to identify new ones to protect the valuable benthic habitats in the area,” says Pyry Kettunen, Senior Research Scientist at NLS – the National Land Survey of Finland. “The stakeholders can apply different data layers and set thresholds, in this case, for example, the percentage of hard substrate in the Baltic Sea. This enables the stakeholders to assess the sea areas and find appropriate sites for different purposes.”


Photo by Margarita Vološina

Ensuring data quality and consistency

Another research priority in BONUS BASMATI has been to develop concepts to organise data for maritime spatial planning and making it easier to share relevant data sets with others.

“We’re looking at two kinds of data,” says Kerstin Schiele, group leader of the marine planning group at IOW – the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde. “We’re looking at data on activities, because maritime spatial planning seeks to organise maritime activities, and data on the environment, such as the depth of the water, water currents and species that occur in the area. Moreover, time series are important, as they allow planning authorities and other stakeholders alike to analyse the development over time.”

Schiele explains that the main challenge of sharing MSP data is to ensure that all data is organised according to the same quality standards, using a similar vocabulary and categorisation principles.

“In most cases, MSP data is something that you get from others, and it can be difficult to figure out how they’ve been created,” she says. “It’s important to know from where the data originate, who owns them, and under which circumstances they can be shared.”

Different data for different purposes

In the Latvian BONUS BASMATI case, the main emphasis was on data pertaining to the marine habitats, i.e. the geology and biology of different areas, whereas the project’s Danish-German case study assessed potential sites for aquaculture development in the south-western Baltic Sea.

“We collected data on the condition of the sea areas, such as turbidity, sediment types and water currents,” Schiele explains. “Most importantly, we looked into data concerning the suitability for mussel farms, including chlorophyll, distance to the shore and other activities, such as if there were holiday homes along the coast, whose owners might object to new aquaculture sites.”

Virtual mussel model created by Marie Maar and Miriam von Thenen

In addition, the researchers implemented a virtual mussel farm tool to calculate how mussels would grow in these marine environments, providing important data on growth rates and biomass accumulation. This data could then be used to assess the various ecosystem services from mussel farming, for instance the impact on water transparency.

“BONUS BASMATI builds a bridge between environmental functioning and the benefits to the people,” says Schiele. “It’s a way to better understand the links between the ecosystems, ecosystem services and human well-being in order to support informed planning decisions.”

An issue that needs to be further explored is the integration of qualitative data in planning. As an example, the third BONUS BASMATI case study, which addressed tourism and shipping in the Baltic Sea Region, was based mainly on interviews with stakeholders. This created some challenges, Schiele says.

“It’s something which has been neglected very much in data repositories so far. The repositories are based on GIS data, which means that all data needs to be linked to a specific location. We want to be able to also include information that’s not spatial per say, but still has spatial meaning.”

Open and democratic approach to MSP

One of the things that distinguish the Baltic Explorer from similar Spatial Decision Support Systems (SDSS) is that it’s aimed not only at data experts but rather the broader spectrum of stakeholders.

The most important outcome is that you increase the transparency and legitimacy of the process and make sure that people’s voices are heard,” says Oksanen. “The Baltic Explorer digitalises stakeholder engagement and management by making use of different types of spatial datasets. It demystifies the data and therefore supports better planning decisions.”

“This is important,” Schiele agrees. “A marine spatial planner is not necessarily a data specialist or marine scientist. Every research discipline has a particular way of creating and analysing data, which may not be easily understood by others. There’s a gap between gathering and analysing data and turning them into something meaningful for spatial planning. Therein lies the main challenge.”

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