Forestry management gets real-time analytics

Field foresters with a Charlotte, N.C.-based forest management firm used to be dependent on a rudimentary process of paper maps to implement plans and supervise ground activities like harvesting, tree planting and road building.

“It just basically gave a point in time in the future,” recalls Andrew Ferguson, senior vice-president with based American Forest Management (AFM) Inc.

For about six years, AFM’s field foresters had the arduous task of editing the maps and updating other information to reflect progress on the ground, then sending by courier the maps back to the analytics team.

AFM has started deploying out to its 130 field foresters the Collaborative Analytics Platform from Fredericton, N.B.-based analytics software provider Remsoft Inc.

The goal, said Ferguson, was to provide field foresters more real-time data to make decisions on the ground. Rollout is currently in progress following a summer pilot period, but the field foresters who are using the new system are able to get a more holistic view of the forest planning process, he said.

For instance, they can shift activities like harvesting or growing to a later time period if deemed more feasible for operations. “They can move a harvest from three years out to two years out if they need to” while being able to observe the impact of the shift on other values in the overall plan, said Ferguson.

He estimates the time savings across a typical planning cycle is approximately 30 per cent. In the next two years, rollout should be complete, he said.

Besides time savings, an unexpected benefit was the uncovering of data quality issues. Now that field foresters have access to underlying data in the inventory system, they were able to identify and correct inaccurate information.

The problem with analytics today is that tools designed to help with decision making are typically limited to “a few people in the back room,” said Remsoft co-CEO Andrea Feunekes. The roadblock to broader deployment, said Feunekes, is a lack of understanding of the software and lack of funds to train all manner of users.

Feunekes said field experts in domains like forestry are the types of knowledgeable frontline users typically left out of analytics. “A lot of the guys know what’s going on out there but don’t have the time nor the ability to work in an advanced analytics scenario,” she said.

Depending on the requirements of worker roles, Remsoft amalgamates various components including data, graphs and reports into a customized package. For instance, an AFM field forester who works on a geographic information system would benefit from a map-based application upon which he or she can click on a point to drill down further. A worker in a financial institution, on the other hand, would benefit most from a spreadsheet format.

The collaborative aspect contributes to time savings, said Feunekes, because multiple individuals can give input when developing plans and performing scenario analyses. “Each person using it creates essentially an overlay of comments and input that is then fed back to the central modeller who can accept/reject them … and then that gets to the final model,” explained Feunekes.

In the future, AFM will integrate the forest inventory system with a new planning process currently being developed, said Ferguson.

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