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USGS provides critical earth science to a broad cross-section of the U.S., from the individual to state and federal resource managers to congressional leaders and the White House. To ensure that these data are made available in an accessible, understandable, and actionable way, USGS researchers use social science methods to meet stakeholder needs.

A new study from USGS researchers at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, the Kansas Water Science Center, and the Water Resources Mission Area applies social science methods to streamline how stakeholders nationwide access and utilize the water data that USGS collects, synthesizes, and releases to the public.

The USGS Water Resource Mission Area (WMA) works with its partners to monitor, assess, conduct targeted research, and deliver information on a wide range of water resources and conditions. One way the WMA delivers data to the public is through the National Water Information System (NWIS), an open-access web interface that shares water resource data collected from 1.9 million sites nationwide and in the U.S. territories.  

In this study, researchers wanted to better understand the needs of stakeholders for a new WMA program, Integrated Water Availability Assessments (IWAAs). The goals of IWAAs are to provide nationally and regionally consistent assessments of water for human and ecologic needs by identifying factors that limit water availability across space and time. 

Map of the United States showing the regions and river basins that formed the focus groups of the study
A map of the United States showing the participating regions and river basins that formed the focus groups of the study.

Similar to how a mobile-device manufacturer might enlist a group of product testers to learn which features on a new device meet (or don’t meet) user needs, USGS social scientists use what’s known as user-centered design to learn how stakeholders—private citizens, non-profit organizations, Tribal entities, or state and federal resource managers—use, interpret, share, and interact with USGS data.

“Gathering information from these stakeholders and including them on every part of this process is really a two-way street,” said USGS contractor Amanda Stoltz, a co-author of the study. “With user-centered design, we can ensure that any products or decision-support tools that USGS produces will address the needs of the intended user.” 

User-centered design is generally separated into three steps: discover, design, and development. For this study, researchers focused on the discover step, identifying potential users of the IWAAs data platform by engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders across the nation. 

"Looking at the specialized water resource management groups we identified for this study, we found that many water managers face various obstacles to accessing data, such as insufficient technological infrastructures or low data literacy,” said USGS Geographer Diana Restrepo-Osorio, lead author of the study. “By focusing our efforts on these small, specialized groups of end users, we can find the nuance and details that we're looking for when trying to tailor the types of products and data-delivery systems that USGS produces.” 

This sort of in-depth censusing of user groups takes considerable time and effort, particularly when considering the nationwide scale of the IWAAs program. 

“It's a lot easier for us to understand our stakeholders more deeply at a regional scale, where we can have longer-term relationships and more in-depth conversations with people about what they need and understand their problems a little better,” said USGS Research Social Scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer, a co-author of the study. “This study is unique in that we integrate user-centered design in the development of a nationwide USGS program. To achieve in this effort more broadly across the USGS, to truly provide actionable science to stakeholders, social science within the agency will need more support behind it.” 

In the study, the authors note that identifying which IWAAs stakeholders to include in the next step of user-centered design—development—is essential as the program moves forward with usability and prototype testing of initial modeling products. These findings will allow future research to focus on user testing with the appropriate group and ensure that the IWAAs platform meets user needs.

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