Why SeaSketch Does More, Costs Less

We often hear from people who are unsure of whether they can "afford" SeaSketch. In all likelihood, they are already paying more for their current solution which accomplishes less than SeaSketch. Most people involved with marine spatial planning (MSP) have experience with some kind of software used for planning, such as a desktop GIS or modeling tools. But, unlike these tools, SeaSketch is Software as a Service (SaaS) which is very different from traditional software solutions. Having an incomplete understanding of SaaS may lead you to misunderstand costs and benefits of SeaSketch. Here are some of the statements I often hear:

  • SeaSketch licenses are $1,000 USD/yr/project whereas other software packages are free. Why does SeaSketch "cost so much"?
  • We want to own the software and keep using it when the planning process is over. Furthermore, we don't want to keep paying maintenance or license fees.
  • Internet connections in my area are too slow. SeaSketch may be unworkable.

The key to understanding why SeaSketch costs less and does more than other solutions is considering (a) SeaSketch features, (b) the alternatives to SeaSketch, and (b) the benefits of SaaS compared to other software solutions.

Before we unpack each of these points, let's assume that your MSP process will benefit from the following:

  • Collaboration
  • Transparency
  • Stakeholder involvement
  • Data- and science-driven decision making
  • Tools that reflect local or regional goals and objectives
  • Speed and efficiency
  • Leveraging local knowledge

SeaSketch is designed to meet all of these needs quicker and cheaper than any other solution. As a web-based application that runs in standard browsers, anyone with a computer and internet connection can use it. (I've blogged recently how one only needs a simple, cellular connection to the Internet to use SeaSketch. We need much less bandwidth than you might think.)

With little or no training, users (stakeholders, planners, resource managers, politicians, etc.) can contribute information and draw and analyze prospective plans in just a few minutes. Collaboration between users occurs in map-based discussion forums that ground conversations with data analysis and supporting geospatial information.

What are the alternatives?

Traditionally, the alternative solution is a desktop GIS or modeling tool, run by technicians in meetings. The tool contains the authoritative data layers and is used to analyze various MSP options (i.e., zoning schemes).

I have experience doing this sort of thing while working on California's Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, where we began exploring marine protected area options in the Central Coast using a desktop GIS. There are several major shortcomings to this approach.

First, by using a desktop application, you are limiting participation to those seated in the room. You may post the results of your meeting online, but then "participation" by others absent from the meeting is usually limited to "public comment". Second, the only one using the tool is likely to be a technician who has advanced training in GIS or modeling. These factors severely limit participation.

So, if you limit yourself to a desktop solution and you want to maximize stakeholder engagement, you must have a huge team of GIS technicians, with a huge budget for multiple stakeholder meetings in each area you're working, and a ton of time to analyze the work that comes out of each stakeholder meeting.

Or, you could have a smaller, more nimble team that holds fewer meetings, involves more stakeholders and arrives at decisions faster, with less push-back because arguments are grounded in data. This is what a web-based tool like SeaSketch offers you.

In short, SeaSketch dramatically reduces the number of technicians required to support a process, and it reduces the time that is required to reach a decision. If you still consider web-based applications to be more expensive than desktop solutions, then you aren't considering all of the additional costs in time and personnel required to effectively use desktop tools.

Software as a Service

At this point, you might be saying, "OK, I want to use a web-based application. I see the benefits. But, a software service has an ongoing license fee. What if I want to continue using this tool for years, without additional costs? Perhaps we should build our own web-based application so that we can keep it and use it for years to come."

In response, I would say, "That is insane."

First, let's consider what it costs to build a web-based tool for marine spatial planning. If you're building a simple data viewer (for inspecting a host of authoritative map layers, turning them on and off, etc.), you'll be lucky to spend less than $20,000 because that is the cost of two full software developer months. Although there are "free and open source" technologies you can use to build web maps, the time and expertise required to use them will create significant costs in programming labor.

Note that for $20,000 you would be able to build a very simple application for the display map layers but very little else. Furthermore, the developers would not have sufficient time to test the code, make it scalable, and truly useful.

If you want your tool to include analytics, the key to any data- and science-driven decision making process, you'll need to spend more. Your tool should allow people to author plans and analyze their potential consequence (e.g., costs and benefits to fisheries, conservation, shipping industries, etc.).

Unless you build these analytics into your web application, you will have to rely on desktop tools to analyze plans. I've done this before in the early days of the California MPA design process.  I've seen other processes do this too - like the UK's Marine Conservation Zoning process. Without a doubt, it's a bad idea to use the web to collect ideas (designs), and analyze them offline unless you're comfortable with the fact that feedback is not real time, the planning process will get bogged down, and only the technical elite (GIS technicians) will have access to the analytical tools needed for decision-making.

If you want to use analytical tools hosted on a web-based application, building one from scratch is very expensive. We led the development of MarineMap, the first web-based, collaborative GeoDesign tool for MSP. For each study region it was used (the northern and southern coasts of California), we spent over $250,000 to develop and implement the tool.

On the other hand, if we used SeaSketch to do the same thing today, we would spend about $50,000 for each region. As an added bonus, we would have dozens of useful features that were not available in MarineMap.

*SeaSketch costs less because each project uses the same exact application - one that is hosted in the cloud - and capitalizes on all of the development that preceded any given project. *

Also consider this. Representatives from the California Department of Fish and Game, the lead government agency involved in California's Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, were to use MarineMap after the MPA planning process was over. However, MarineMap took significant resources to maintain.

First, it was a standalone application that required a dedicated server. It used a complicated stack of free and open source technologies that only a handful of highly trained people could support and customize.

In short, the agency was out of luck. Without considerable human and technological resources, MarineMap could not be maintained. And this is one of the main reasons we decided to build a software service. Agencies who use SeaSketch do not have to have dedicated servers, or dedicated personnel to babysit those servers. All that is required to continue using SeaSketch after the planning process ends is a $5,000 annual license fee. Compare that to the $20,000 the Department of Fish and Game had to spend just to keep MarineMap alive for one year before we shut it down.

Free Software that Lives On Forever - a Myth

It should be understood that web technology changes over time. Browsers change, operating systems change, supporting software systems change. As such, web-based software needs to be maintained. If you don't maintain these systems, they become vulnerable, unstable or simply unusable.

Maintaining a system like MarineMap (a standalone web application hosted on a server) is expensive because it requires more attention and resources than a system like SeaSketch (Software as a Service). Our small team in the SeaSketch lab can maintain our software service for a tiny fraction of the cost, supporting hundreds of projects because they are all part of the same application!

Nobody should expect web applications to live forever without support. That's a myth with no real-world examples.

One Final Word

It may help to really understand that SeaSketch is a Software Service. It is not just software. When the services are no longer needed, then you shouldn't have to pay for it. If you still need those services, you should only have to pay the minimum required to support them.

If you use SeaSketch for marine spatial planning, you may reach a point where you no longer need it, or you want to take a break from planning and will consider using it for adaptive management at some point in time.

The final product from SeaSketch - all of the sketches (prospective plans), final plans (data), etc., may be exported and are therefore yours to keep. What you create in SeaSketch does not require SeaSketch to live on.

On the other hand, if you want to keep using SeaSketch, we hope that you will continue to support us!

Please contact me if I can provide additional information.

Will McClintock

Dr. Will McClintock is a Project Scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara and former Director of the MarineMap Consortium. He received a B.A. in Biology from Earlham College, M.S. in Behavioral Ecology from the University of Cincinnati, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology from the University of California Santa Barbara. He has participated in over a dozen marine spatial planning initiatives around the world.