Don’t Hate, Integrate!

Brendan Campbell ·
21 November 2018
Environmental Report Cards |     10 comments

By: Brendan Campbell

Do you remember that feeling of receiving a bad report card and knowing that you'd have to show the report to your parents? If you are anything like me, that feeling is all too familiar. Now imagine if your backyard was going to receive the same type of report card based on its ecological health (instead of how well it remembers the quadratic equation or the process of cell division). Would your backyard "pass"? This week's topic of discussion in our Environment and Society class was integrated assessment. More specifically, we discussed how environmental report cards can be used to integrate various metrics and create one, easy-to-understand statement regarding the natural and social health of an area.

This week we had the opportunity to talk with Heath Kelsey, the Program Director at the Integration and Application Network at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Heath led the class through a discussion of the development and evolution of the report card process by talking about several published report cards, including the Moreton Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River, and Orinoco River report cards. With each respective report card, new challenges were faced and refinements to the process were considered and applied. Respectively, each of these report cards had to consider larger spatial and temporal scales, where resources internally were used differently.1

To make the report cards more adaptable to a wide variety of environments, it is imperative that report card grades are assigned to each region based on the health and functionality of the ecosystem within the context of the particular region. To quantitatively measure the health of the system, report cards use indicators. Indicators are signs or signals that relay complex messages in numerical form.2 Specific indicators should be place-based and chosen depending on the structure and function of an environment in order to make the most accurate and meaningful assessment. This methodology allowed for assessments of larger systems such as the Mississippi River and Orinoco River, where these bodies of water span several states or countries.

As the popularity of report cards grows, there are plans to evolve report cards to include more social and cultural data, in addition to environmental data.3 Including social parameters in report cards is a way to connect natural systems with human systems and allows for more thorough and meaningful integrated assessment. Over the years, report cards have also adapted to changes in technology, methodology, and funding so that a report card in one area can be compared over time to show improvements or degradation in the surveyed region.

Example of the interactive report card website looking at the health of benthic communities within Chesapeake Bay. (
Example of the interactive report card website looking at the health of benthic communities within Chesapeake Bay.

One of the key messages I took away from this lecture was that being honest and transparent about any uncertainty in data or elsewhere is crucial. Not every assessment is perfect, and it is important to be open about any gaps in the data or problems within the system. Honesty and transparency build trust within the community and leave spaces for improvements on future assessments. Another takeaway was just seeing how different stakeholders, as well as researchers from different backgrounds, were willing to come together to help make these assessments. This level of collaboration, where you have various teams working in unison towards a common goal, is a pretty powerful concept. No stone is left unturned and, at the end of the day, the assessments reflect this integration and become important collections of research.

As I conclude, I want to challenge everyone to think of ways that these integrated assessments can be used in your own work. One of the interesting parts of this class is the diversity in all of the students' and professors' backgrounds, so I am curious to see how these reports can be used among different scientific communities. One part of these assessments that are of interest to me is how environmental factors change over a spatial region and how those changes impact shellfish population and determine how suitable those areas are for aquaculture or restoration.

In summary, I also wanted to post some of the questions that were brought up in class, along with the responses or general conclusions that were made during our discussions.

Questions and answers from class:

How can you compare indicators that have intersecting dimensions?
It is not always a problem necessarily, but it is important to understand how indicators intersect when making an assessment

How do you approach using indicators that are strongly correlated with each other?
When two indicators have strong correlations, they create redundancy and often only one of the indicators are necessary. A combination of similar indicators is not optimal for an assessment.

How are report cards used to advance and improve the management of natural resources?
For example, one of the report cards resulted in a conference which had the goal of developing an action report that was then presented to congress. Another idea was to potentially use report card results alongside a system dynamics model to develop improvement scenarios based on different management practices and intensities.

What is the process behind integrating multiple report cards to summarize a large region?
Using a bottom-up approach has shown to work for places such as the Gulf of Mexico report card where, as funding comes in, it is possible to look at multiple small areas over time and then gradually expand the study region until enough work has been done to create a large-scale report.

Who uses the report cards?
Maryland's former governor Martin O'Malley used report card data in developing the BayStat website to monitor the environmental status of the Chesapeake Bay. Report card data was also used by the U.S. Corp of Engineers in their status report of the Florida Everglades. Another example of report card use is NOAA's use of report card data in their work on coral reef monitoring systems.

1. Carruthers, T., Carter, S., Lookingbill, T., Florkowski, L., Hawkey, J., & Dennison, W. (2012). A Habitat-Based Framework for Communicating Natural Resource Condition. International Scholarly Research Network: Ecology, 384892.
2. Longstaff, B., Carruthers, T., Dennison, W., Lookingbill, T., Hawkey, J., Thomas, J., Wicks, E., & Woerner, J. (2010). Integrating and Applying Science: A Practical Handbook for Effective Coastal Ecosystem Assessment. IAN Press, Cambridge Maryland.
3. Pascoe, S., Tobin, R., Cannard, T., Marshall, N., Kabir, Z., & Flint, N. (2016). Developing a Social, Cultural and Economic Report Card for a Regional Industrial Harbor. Plos One.

Next Post > Creating the Texas Coast Ecosystem Health Report Card


  • Alana Todd-Rodriguez 4 years ago

    You created such a creative and clever title! I liked that you challenged readers at the end of the blog post, leaving us all with something pretty profound to think about. Your point about different stakeholders coming together builds nicely on the articles about undisciplinarity and postdisciplinarity. Report cards seem like a wonderful tool for fostering such collaboration, as well as connecting with the public. Report cards are universally understood, and finally scientists are disseminating research in these formats that are very user-friendly.

  • Matthew Wilfong 4 years ago

    Really good overview of integrated assessment and how useful and informative the process and final product can be in assessing ecological health. I am really interested in seeing how the newer Chesapeake Bay report card handles the cultural aspects and the score or grade the Bay receives.

    I think your one point about transparency and uncertainty is a difficult subject. While it is undoubtedly true that scientists should own up to uncertainty in the data, models, etc. to a some of the general public, uncertainty is immediately viewed as being not credible. I think it is mostly a "lost-in-translation" concept, but nonetheless "uncertainty" opens the idea to the general public that the science shouldn't be trusted.

  • Tan Zou 4 years ago

    Good job, Brendan! I like your Q&A section, which is easy for the readers to find and read questions they are interested. I think the report card is useful not only for policymakers but also researchers, especially early-career scholars. These report cards usually have valuable and comprehensive data open to the public, and their methods and results are written in a way easy to understand. Anyone interested in a research topic can use them to start a study quickly, and their results and feedbacks can be used to improve the report card.

  • Natalie 4 years ago

    Nice, easy to read blog. I especially like the focus on the role of uncertainty and having honest and transparent communications. I think having report cards for Louisiana's coast would be very powerful although it makes me question the uncertainty in setting thresholds for indicators. The future without action is wrought with uncertainty and we know in Louisiana, we will never have the coast of the future so we are not trying to achieve some historical benchmark, but something new and different in the future. A much added challenge to this methodology being applied to extremely dynamic systems.

  • Emily Nastase 4 years ago

    Loved your intro, Brendan! I think a huge part of what makes report cards such powerful tools is that bit about how people are embarrassed or accountable for a bad grade in their basin.
    Personally, I'm really excited that report cards are incorporating cultural and economic indicators. These things are equally important to ecological concerns (as I think we've all learned/discussed during this class).

  • Morgan Ross 4 years ago

    Brendan, great post. I especially liked the Q&A section because of the concise, direct answers.
    I think the Report Card is a valuable tool that can help influence better management practices as well as communicate the reality of ecological systems to a broad community base.
    In my research project, I will be collaborating with IAN on an integrated assessment and it was nice to have this class as a background for future research.

  • Alexander Sahi 4 years ago

    Score cards seem to be a useful tool for ecological work, but I am less sure about how to use them within the social sciences. It will be interesting to see how future score cards use cultural indicators in conjunction with ecological ones in order to gain a more holistic score. As mentioned in the blog, this work may be currently underway with areas like the Chesapeake Bay. This will be critical in bringing more perspectives into what the score card should be comprised of and the values associated with it.

  • Shannon Hood 4 years ago

    I love that you start out talking about the feeling of being graded and bringing a report card home. The concept of being graded is so integrated in American culture that it makes this approach highly relatable. i think that's a big strength of the approach; right off the bat, people can very easily grasp the purpose. I agree with you that a big takeaway from this lecture was the need for open, transparent communication. As indicators or data collection methods change over time, those alterations must be communicated. Such openness is a major strength of this approach.

  • Srishti Vishwakarma 4 years ago

    Honesty and transparency plays a crucial role to show the reality. It is an important part of integrated assessment which needs to be addressed very carefully. Hence, report cards is an essential component in the integrated assessment.
    Brendan, I really liked the Q&A part of your blog. Those are indicating the major questions addressed in the class.

    Nice job!

  • Jessie Todd 4 years ago

    I think this was really well written and enjoyable to read! I like how you state that the report cards are a "way to connect natural systems with human systems" because that is so true. That's what makes them such great tools to work with because they bring those two together into something relatable that everyone can understand. I think your graphics really aid what your saying, even the picture of the hand went well with the words in your blog.

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