The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a website, the “Digital Coast,” that hosts a variety of tools, data sets, and training sessions useful for coastal management. New RFF research estimates the economic value of uses of the site and finds sizable benefits.
How valuable are the products, such as data and models, that governments make available to their citizens and institutions? The answer to this question is particularly relevant for maximizing the value of limited public funds. Our new report looks at one government offering, in particular—the Digital Coast website from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—and assesses the extent to which offerings from the site create value for its users.
The Digital Coast is an online platform that provides 70 tools, 2,536 data sets, and 181 training sessions in coastal management that can be used by individuals, community groups, localities, and more. The available data sets and tools are diverse and include tools for climate adaptation, coastal conservation, short-term monitoring, and many other applications.
Because the products are available for free on the website, however, it is difficult to assess their value to users and society at large. We worked with NOAA to estimate the societal value that the Digital Coast platform provides through what is formally termed a value of information study. This approach estimates value by comparing the outcomes in two scenarios: one in which the information provided by the Digital Coast is available, and the other in which that information is not available. Because Digital Coast products are widely used across many applications, estimating the societal value of the entire platform would be nearly impossible. As such, our report provides details about some of the website’s offerings and highlights two case studies to illustrate the benefits that specific aspects of the platform provide to its users and society.
One of our case studies focuses on the use of two popular Digital Coast tools in Jackson County, Mississippi. Members of the Jackson County Utility Authority (JCUA) used two Digital Coast tools—the Sea Level Rise Viewer and the Coastal Flood Exposure Mapper—in a preliminary analysis to identify sites for a new combined wastewater treatment plant that would be at low risk of storm surge and sea level rise in the coming decades. The JCUA decided to relocate and combine three of the county’s wastewater treatment plants after incurring severe damage at several local plants during Hurricane Katrina and in anticipation of worsening future conditions due to climate change.
To estimate the benefits derived from the JCUA use of Digital Coast products, we compare two scenarios in our case study analysis: the actual one in which the JCUA has access to the information provided by the Digital Coast, and a hypothetical one in which it does not. Based on several interviews with the JCUA team, we found that the use of the free and easily accessible Digital Coast products enabled the JCUA to speed up the public outreach and analytical planning necessary for relocating and consolidating the plants. The new combined plant is expected to be operational by 2030—which, based on our interview conversations, is estimated to be about one to two years earlier than it would have been in the alternate scenario without the use of these Digital Coast products. Thus, we work from the premise that the existing plants would have remained in their current locations until 2031 or 2032 for the scenario in which Digital Coast tools are not available to JCUA.
Why is a faster process valuable? The sooner the plants can be relocated or consolidated, the less expected damage from storm surge. Thus, we quantify the benefits of using these Digital Coast products in terms of the additional expected cost of storm surge damages incurred by the plants had they remained in their current locations for those additional one to two years, until 2031 or 2032. We use information about real damages to the plants during prior hurricanes to create a functional relationship between storm surge and expected damages to the plants. Then, we estimate the number and severity of storms and corresponding storm surges that the plants could have confronted during those additional years based on the historical record of storms in the area. We also make additional assumptions from the literature about how sea levels would rise and storms would become increasingly frequent and intense along the Jackson, Mississippi, coastline due to climate change.
We conclude from our analysis of this case study that the estimated benefits of using the Digital Coast products in this one-time application—which accelerated the relocation of wastewater treatment plants in Jackson county—total $1.1 million to $2.2 million (2014$) in avoided expected damages to the plants from storm surge during hurricanes.
We discuss a second case study in detail in the report. For that case study, we estimate the value of some of the Digital Coast website’s training sessions, based on similar offerings sold in the market. We find that the in-person training sessions offered by the Digital Coast yield societal benefits of approximately $1.8 million to $9.7 million annually.
Collectively, our analysis and case studies make clear that the Digital Coast site offers considerable demonstrated value to the public across its variety of programs. As the impacts of climate change intensify, too, these coastal management tools could prove even more beneficial to individuals, communities, and municipalities in the years ahead.