Hallmarks of a Successful Decision Support System

The terms decision support system (DSS) and decision support tool (DST) have become popular jargon in the conservation community. Whether you are familiar with this terminology or reading about them for the first time, it is important to understand what they are and how they can guide conservation actions.

To be successful, we must rely on Strategic Habitat Conservation, a structured, science-driven approach for making efficient transparent decisions about where and how to expend our resources. We must be as effective and efficient as possible — which is why decision support systems and tools can be invaluable.

For example, a decision support tool can express where on the landscape certain vegetative and other aspects coincide to create positive habitat conditions for a species. In some cases it may combine a variety of characteristics to determine areas of highest conservation value; in others it can combine cost, landscape characteristics and programmatic needs to show where habitat programs may have the most wildlife benefit.

So what exactly is a decision support tool and how does it differ from a decision support system?

Decision Support System vs. Decision Support Tool

In simple terms, a decision support system is a process that helps us evaluate information in order to make effective, efficient decisions about conservation delivery. It may help guide the creation of one or many decision support tools, which are products that help answer specific questions.

A decision support system is an analytical process, or series of steps, designed to compile and evaluate the best available information regarding a particular issue or decision at hand. This process can incorporate a variety of information types such as data, conceptual or empirical models and expert knowledge. It may also include the development of new partnerships and workgroups. A decision support system often includes examination of spatially explicit data, which can result in maps that identify important geographic areas. These maps may be decision support tools within the broader decision support system.

A decision support tool is a component of a decision support system designed to accomplish a specific task. These tools can take many forms such as a map, output from a predictive model, written guidance on habitat management or mitigation activities, etc.

What Is Needed for a Good DSS or DST?

A successful decision support system or tool assists decision makers in their strategic habitat conservation efforts by answering critical questions. Developing a successful decision support tool requires thoughtful planning and iterative review. It requires a bit of work, but the benefits from developing an appropriate system or tool can be significantly more effective than haphazard conservation work.

Below we outline key considerations for successful DSS/DST development.

  • Question/Need Driven — What is the purpose of the DSS or DST? It should satisfy a specific need.
  • Data Availability — What data do I have? What data do I need? Do the data exist? Are the data accessible?
  • Data Quality — What is the accuracy of the data? Are the data complete? How old are the data? How were the data collected and what are the implications for analysis?
  • Peer Review — Who should review the DSS or DST? A professional review from a variety of experts and fields (i.e., ecology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), statistics, economics, policy) is essential.
  • Target Audience — Who has requested the DSS or DST? Who will use it? Feedback from the target audience is necessary to develop a system or tool they want and can use. It’s important to recognize that the audience could be two separate organizations. For example, a wildlife agency requests a DSS for use by energy developers.
  • Stakeholder Participation — Who are the stakeholders? All the agencies and organizations that will use or support the DSS or DST should be involved in its creation.
  • Communication Tool — How will the DSS or DST be communicated to the target audience? These are primarily communication tools, but that is often overlooked in the creation and use of a DSS.
  • Measurable Success — How will I know if the DSS or DST is effective? Design measurable objectives for evaluation and adaptation stages of development and deployment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do we get people to use the decision support tools we develop?

There are two important steps to getting people to use the decision support tool you’ve created. First, when you are creating the tool make sure you involve the people who are intended to use the product. Their input into the process will insure that you’ve created a tool that meets the needs of the intended audience. The second step involves a healthy communications process. If you think the decision support tool you’ve created will be useful to a broader audience than the one originally intended, you need to communicate that in whatever way you have available. Newsletter articles, webinars and personal visits to demonstrate the tool are a few options.

Q. I have a priority map for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LEPC). Can we use the same map for other LEPC projects or for a similar project involving a different grouse species?

No. decision support tools are created to answer a specific question. The results of the analysis are not interchangeable with other questions or concerns. This is because of the way the tools are created. First, the data included in a decision support tool is specific to the question being asked and extraneous data are excluded. For example, a decision support tool that describes targeting of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands would not include a data layer that indicates locations of oil and gas wells. Second, creation of decision support tools should be a collaborative process with all partners, which means the tool is going to reflect the specific concerns of that group and will most likely not meet the concerns of other projects or groups. These two considerations together mean that the data included in each decision support tool are specific to the original question; therefore, it would be unwise to use a tool designed to support one type of decision to support a different sort of decision, even if there are similarities.

Q: I found a website that shows priority natural resource concerns. It will tell me exactly where energy development companies can and can’t site wind energy, correct?

Decision support tools are meant to provide scientific and/or socio-political support (or reasons) for a conservation decision. They are not meant to provide an absolute answer to a question. Wind energy development is an excellent example; we can create a decision support tool to identify areas with natural resources of concern; however, there are many diverse considerations that go into siting wind energy. Therefore, we can advise a company on an area to avoid but other considerations may make that decision unlikely.