Map of the Southeast Blueprint in shades of purple with multicolored polygons drawn on top of it, representing spatially explicit workshop comments.
Last year, workshop attendees provided more than 50 spatial comments in the offshore Atlantic and Gulf waters and the U.S. Caribbean. How did these comments help improve the 2023 Southeast Conservation Blueprint?

This is the second installment of my 2-part series diving into how SECAS staff use the comments we receive at Blueprint workshops. In last month’s blog, we looked at how we synthesized feedback in the 2022 version of the Blueprint. This month, we’ll focus on the most recent update, version 2023.

How did we assess and apply feedback in 2023?

In May of 2023, we held another round of eight workshops. The geographic focus areas differed from 2022 as we focused on updates to the U.S. Caribbean (Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the surrounding nearshore marine environment) and the offshore marine environment of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. As part of the 2023 process, staff developed 24 new indicators specifically for these geographies, bringing the total for the 2023 Blueprint to 61 indicators. Though we applied it to new geographies, the process for soliciting feedback remained the same as the previous year as we requested thoughts on the draft Blueprint using the online feedback tool.

Triage and binning into themes

Predictably, the smaller geography was represented by fewer reviewers and fewer feedback polygons than 2022, as noted in Rua’s 2023 workshop recap blog. However, the workshops still produced more spatial feedback polygons that needed classifying and prioritizing. For 2023, the Blueprint team decided to collectively group the feedback from each workshop into themes. After every workshop, each staff person recorded their top 3-5 themes from that workshop, linking them to the relevant spatial feedback or comments provided by workshop attendees. This process gave the team a clear picture of not just what arose from the spatial feedback, but also the popular topics from non-spatial workshop discussions.

One major benefit of this simplified 2023 process is that it allowed us to prioritize post-workshop improvements as quickly as possible and draw on the unique perspectives of all staff members, rather than leaving the theming and categorizing to a smaller group.

This process resulted in a list of themes ranging from manatees and sea turtles to deep-sea coral and sand shoals. After the eight workshops, Blueprint staff prioritized the new list of themes based on the amount of feedback on that theme and our ability to address them. We chose to tackle 11 themes following the 2023 workshops and tried to fix them in the final Blueprint.

In Blueprint 2023, we managed to either fully or partially fix about 43% of workshop comments in the Caribbean (9 total) and 42% in the continental marine (5 total). The known issues we couldn’t fix yet are now documented on the website and included in the Blueprint development process as part of our commitment to continual improvement. In the Caribbean and continental marine, the known issues seem to group around a couple themes. For the Caribbean, there are known issues related to underprioritizing habitat for species like the Puerto Rican parrot, frogs, and rare plants. There are also broader ecosystem-level issues we hope to address such as better representing some protected areas, historical sites, coral reefs, and areas impacted by pollution.

Similar species- and ecosystem-driven themes emerge in the continental marine, as well. The known issues flag the need to better represent important areas for certain marine birds, turtles, and whales, as well as key ecosystem features like upwellings, parts of the shelf break, estuaries, and coral reefs.

We share these known issues with our community to be fully transparent, and to ensure feedback from users and expert reviewers remains in the driver’s seat of the Blueprint revision cycle. The 61 natural and cultural resource indicators are intended to represent the many facets of healthy, functional, and connected ecosystems regionwide, but they need further refinement to represent local priorities and conditions on the ground. Through the process of documenting known issues, we make sure nothing gets lost in the shuffle as we strive for the continual improvement of the Blueprint.

We expect to build on these past processes for consolidating feedback in 2024, but following our lean-startup process, we’ll likely continue to refine our approach for the better!

How do we plan to handle feedback in the future?

For the 2024 Blueprint improvement cycle, we plan to expand on the tool that we’ve used in our virtual workshops to capture feedback by releasing a tool which will remain open year-round. Workshops are a great way to bring together a cross-section of the conservation community and facilitate discussion around Blueprint improvements, but there’s nothing magical about that brief window—feedback is welcome any time. We might run into unexpected hurdles with this approach, but this is the direction SECAS staff would like to go, following the lead of our neighbors with the Midwest Landscape Initiative]!

We took the lessons we have learned over the last several years of collecting feedback and reworked our underlying feedback database—the system where all the feedback is stored. The new tool will still be spatial but will also capture non-spatial feedback! It will allow us to track the status of feedback more closely over time so we can quickly find comments that weren’t addressed in previous cycles and focus on those lingering issues.

Additionally, as we’ve gradually been able to resume more in-person collaboration and attend more in-person events, our team hopes to meet more users in person in the coming year. This gives us the need to keep better track of how feedback comes into the database through different channels—was the comment provided at an in-person workshop (like the one at the Caribbean Community of Practice meeting in St. Croix)? A one-on-one meeting? A Tools Café at a conference? And finally, in the future, we aim to build interactive dashboards that synthesize data in real time, helping us spend less time figuring out what improvements to make, and more time actually making them!

With these improvements to our feedback process, we should soon be able to solicit feedback year-round and make the Blueprint revision process more responsive, always striving to make it a truly living, spatial plan.