December 9, 2016
By Noah Hagen
I’m a programmer on PEWI, a simple web-based learning tool designed to help people understand human-landscape interactions and ecosystem service tradeoffs (see figure below). One day, while working on PEWI’s code, I got pretty curious about whether there were other, similar tools out there. Also, being somewhat competitive by nature, I wondered what ‘the other groups’ were doing. I figured creating watershed tools is probably the vocation of a few, with groups working in this area just a small subset of the scientists and stakeholders interested in the impacts of human decisions on the environment. You can imagine my surprise when I set out to find a few oases in the software desert and, instead, found myself inundated with applications. The good news is that, among the flood of wonderful tools, PEWI still holds a unique place. Here are the results of my exploration.
While a plethora of tools are out there, I found five main tools that compare to PEWI in their intent and usability. These include Model My Watershed, Pimp Your Landscape, Rock Your Watershed!, Smartscape, and Watershed Conservation Screening Tool. I spent time learning to use each of them, emailing their developers, and reading model documentation, news releases, archived website snapshots, and published literature. I looked into underlying science; educational use, especially as a curriculum element; and the many facets of the programs’ front ends. Again, as a competitive person, I also spent an inordinate amount of time working my way up the leader boards for the tools that have them, probably to the chagrin of middle schoolers everywhere.
I found that the applications could be quickly divided into two obvious groups: those implemented within a Google Maps interface (Model My Watershed, Smartscape, Watershed Conservation Screening Tool) and those, like PEWI, that relied on homemade graphics (Pimp Your Landscape, Rock Your Watershed!). The more realistic looking programs were notably less game-like, but did provide feedback that felt instantly credible when compared to the graphics of the game-oriented programs. There was a great measure of overlap between inputs and outputs across the programs with the maximum number of output indicators being 10 while input land types coupled with conservation options generally allowed for 15 to 20 distinct combinations. In terms of learning curves, orientation time ranged between 5 and 45 minutes. You can find my entire white paper comparing the applications here.
Conducting this investigation and writing up the results helped me better understand PEWI’s niche. While its cartoon style may hinder its authority, I found that its scientific buttressing is on par with or exceeding all of the other tools I examined. PEWI has a unique position between totally realistic and totally game like, and has an amazing potential for guiding learning and achieving specific educational goals that just isn’t present in other tools. On the other hand, PEWI is lacking features including urban land use options, a high level customization of conservation practices, and outputs such as those regarding pollinators and economic effects. While PEWI certainly outperforms many of the programs in educational outreach, some have more aggressive initiatives and show there is plenty of opportunity to get PEWI into the hands of those who stand to benefit from its lessons.
Overall, though, for all of these tools there is the question of ‘staying afloat,’ which really is about staying relevant. Even with all of the fantastic and diverse features to be found across these watershed programs, the tools left me hoping for a feeling of forward progress or some electricity in the air around their development. If PEWI continues evolving, especially in expanding its public reach and providing a tool for immediate integration of new science, then it truly will provide something entirely relevant and special. Then, in 3, 5, or 10 years, some unsuspecting undergraduate like myself will sit down on the first day of summer and find a project that is changing both minds and ecosystems.
Noah Hagen is an undergraduate physics major at Iowa State University. He spent the summer of 2016 finalizing the code for PEWI v2 and developing the framework and code for PEWI v3. Stay tuned and you’ll see all of Noah’s amazing work: we expect to release PEWI v3 in the spring of 2017.