Transparent Tahoe: 10+ Years Protecting & Improving the Basin
August 21, 2015
“Where did the money go? What do you have to show for it? How does this program benefit me?”
Questions from Joe Public and Funder Jane used to send Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) staffers on perpetual data mining missions that were laborious and time-consuming. And yet, as administrators of the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP), the Agency is responsible for reporting program accomplishments and answering these questions.
As of August 2015, TRPA is happy to announce that these data mining missions are permanently canceled. Instead of climbing file cabinet mountains, abseiling database caverns, and slogging spreadsheet bogs, anyone with internet access can, in a few clicks, get answers to these and many other questions using the new Lake-Saving Project Tracker (eip.laketahoeinfo.org).
The main thing the Tracker tracks is project information — descriptions, location, implementers, funders, timelines, cost estimate, reported expenditures, reported accomplishments, and before & after photos. Today it contains over 600 EIP projects, about 300 of which are active. Project implementers update their projects annually – it takes only 10-15 minutes to complete it thanks to a streamlined wizard. Key to this process is entering the annual accomplishments, leveraging a discrete set of 33 practical performance measures that TRPA had previous developed with help from Environmental Incentives.
But the cool thing that the Tracker enables is automated summaries and visualizations and of these projects, which help stakeholders, funders, and citizens gauge the effectiveness of the EIP. A helpful place to start is the Project Map, which visitors can quickly filter to a subset of projects or policy areas. Visitors can also view current status and results by Focus Area, Action Priority, Funding Sector, Funding Source, Watershed, and Performance Measure. In addition to answering questions like those above, it can answer trickier questions like, “Which counties had the most erosion control projects and how much did they cost?” or “How many acres of sensitive land have been protected over the past 5 years, broken down by type of protection?”
The Tracker is the region’s most comprehensive attempt at creating an online system to help manage the EIP and report on its accomplishments. In mid-2014 TRPA and other EIP partner agencies, thanks to funding from U.S. EPA, hired Sitka Technology Group and Environmental Incentives to take a second run at it. After a couple weeks of evaluation of existing tools and processes, they started building a new web-based tool. Using a lightweight, highly iterative software development process, Sitka delivered a rudimentary tool that TRPA staffers could use right away in order to start the laborious process of reviewing and cleaning project records. Over time the Tracker has evolved to support more users, processes, and answer a wider range of questions.
In December 2014, EIP participants and project implementers started using a new feature that streamlined the process for updating their projects. “Everyone over here who is using the tool LOVES it and is finding it really easy to use and useful,” reported Elizabeth Kingsland of Nevada Division of State Lands (NDSL).
“Anytime we can communicate information with graphics is great, it really helps tell the story. Great work!” says Jeanne McNamara of TRPA.
Now, the TRPA, Sitka, and EI team are working to add more support for local transportation projects and to integrate the Tracker into a larger Lake Tahoe Information exchange. The EI and Sitka team are also engaging other regional partnerships to develop performance management and reporting platforms to improve conservation investments. Stay tuned!
(Blog post originally published on What we’re thinking, Sitka Technology Group, 16 Aug. 2015.)