Questions About Conservation Software

Chris Steins's picture
In recent years, many large conservation plans -- including the plan that led Australia to ban fishing on a third of the Great Barrier Reef -- were produced using a computer program called Marxan.

Marxan imageSoftware developer and Australian professor Hugh P. Possingham is now raising questions about the validity of the software in certain circumstances, Second Thoughts for a Designer of Software That Aids Conservation (New York Times).

In a recent study, Possingham found that unless the software recommendations are implemented within 12 months, the software is less accurate than the rules of thumb that conservationists typically use "in the dark, primitive pre-software days."

"In nearly every case, the simple rules performed better than the optimal plan. Even the simplest opportunistic decision-making - buying any available property that sheltered some species of concern - performed just about as well as the optimal plan. Dr. Andelman said she was surprised at how badly the plan performed and how quickly it became useless compared with the simple rules. "

Sure, I'm an advocate of technology. But I think some sort of scientific evaluation of planning support systems is sorely needed. As more cities and counties turn to technology to help advise policymakers about the best planning decisions, we -- as the planning community -- need confirmation that the technology we are using really does lead to better planning decisions.
Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.


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