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The Forest Data Dilemma

Thanks to companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, the modern company is familiar with terms such as “The Cloud” and “Big Data”.  With new analytical tools and faster processing capabilities, companies are rethinking their business processes to take advantage of massive amounts of public and private data that are available?

But what does this mean for companies in the forest industry?  Should we consider collecting more data from forest operations to aid decision making?  What is at stake if we ignore investments in technology and resources to collect and analyze data?

Sources of Forest Data

Forest data can come from many sources including operational, financial, or biological activities.  Data can also come from timber inventories and remote sensing activities provided by drones, Lidar, or satellite and aerial photography.  Regardless of the type of data we are collecting, the overall goal is to extract information to support decision making.  Without this final step, data is meaningless.

The data collected by a company is closely tied to its operating procedures.  Data can exist in business forms, photographs, documents and spreadsheets associated with normal day-to-day operations.  It can be more difficult to extract data from these sources, but they should not be overlooked.

Collecting and maintaining data requires hardware, software and human input, all of which can be very costly to an organization.  Small to medium-sized companies may struggle with maintaining resources to continually manage large amounts of data.  There has to be some tradeoff between how much data a firm needs, and the resources it has available to process it.  Managers should identify the right mix of data relative to cost for their organization, and periodically evaluate whether the organization is benefiting from the data collected.

Data Collection Opportunities

With advances in technology, and decreasing data storage cost, it is good for companies to periodically evaluate data collection procedures to determine if they are adequate. Companies now have the ability to collect data at nearly every level of the forest and timber operation.

Business Transactions: Data about business transactions and personnel (accounting, finance, and operations) are maintained using advanced software systems and databases.
Land and Timber Resources: Data about the physical land and timber resources are maintained through inventory software, maps, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
Harvest Operations: Data about harvest operations are available through load books and delivery tickets. In addition, data is also available via the harvesting equipment using location-based software apps, on-board computers and advanced telematic software.
Silvicultural Activities: Data about Silvicultural activities are available through GPS enabled devices, drones, equipment (i.e.; helicopters, skidders, and tractors), and post-application reports.
Environmental Factors: Data about the natural environment are available through remote sensing applications, weather stations, and soil, water and tree monitoring equipment.

The amount of data available to the forest enterprise can quickly overwhelm. The more data available, the more it will cost to store and analyze. So what’s the right amount of data, and how do we prioritize where we focus our data collection effort?

See this article to get more info on the complexities of implementing data-driven business strategies.

What is the Potential Impact of Better Data Processes?

Simply put, data has the potential to impact change!

The forest industry is constantly on guard with problems related to trucking, personnel, supply-chain inefficiencies, logging and supplier capacity, and new regulations. Forest managers are faced with tough decisions daily as they attempt to adjust to the “new norms” of our industry. The seasoned forester has seen these issues resurface time and again throughout their career. Data may not provide solutions to these problems outright, but at least it provides a step in the right direction to know what is or isn’t working.

Science tells us that we use Analogical Reasoning to help make sense of unfamiliar situations. The principal idea is that we draw from our past experiences and compare those experiences to a new situation. Great decision makers are either lucky, or they’re instinctively good at this. But, more often than not our intuitions fail us, and we are easily biased toward our past experiences (e.g. “recall bias”). This is where good data and analytical techniques have the advantage. Data Analysts use statistical methods to find patterns in data, and accurately translate them into objective, unbiased information. Insights from data can be used to improve process efficiencies, products and services, and ultimately the bottom-line of a business.

New ideas are emerging around topics like digital forestry, evidence-based forestry, and smart forestry, which involve technology and systematic-processes to help manage forests. Zou, Jing, Chen, Lu and Song (2019) suggested that “Smart forestry can make forest management digital, perceptual, interconnected, and intelligent. The forestry data is the basis for the operation of the intelligent forestry system, which can assist forestry decision-making through the analysis and mining of forestry data.” (Source).

In my opinion, there are at least two opposing attitudes against incorporating more data and technology in forestry; skepticism and fear of change. We owe it to our industry to consider ideas beyond our past experiences and update our thinking of what could be operationally and economically superior. This will require investments in tools and training, or hiring employees in areas such as Statistical Inference, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence. I’m not suggesting that we collect data on everything, nor that we all become Data Scientists. But quite the opposite, I believe the industry will be better off if we learn to extract the right information from the forest, possibly using data that’s already available to us.

Another potential downside is that we often overlook what we don’t know. As former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once stated “There are known knowns.”, and “There are known unknowns.” It’s the unknowns that can be the most detrimental to our industry, and finding gaps in our current knowledge can be a tremendous gain. Data can help reveal these gaps.

Final Thoughts

Lastly, I believe cooperatives, companies, and professional organizations should be willing to share more non-sensitive forestry data within the industry. If we are going to solve the tough issues that we face, we have to take a collaborative approach and be more willing to open the access to some of this data.

The good news is that there are numerous technology solutions and data science methods available that can help Foresters with data collection and processing. In the next post, I hope to show some hands-on examples of how Foresters can use data and technology to help make better decisions.

Categories: Data Analytics

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