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he national parks, nature reserves and wetlands of the semi-

arid wheatbelt of Western Australia, with their rich diversity of

flora and fauna, are the backdrop for this research to improve

the management of natural resources in the 21st century.

The project combines the latest ideas in computer science at the

University of Nottingham with the pioneering ambitions of forward-

thinking Australian environmental planners at the Department for

Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) of the Western Australian Government.

The research has created new survey tools and intelligent data

software to inform decision-making at government level in the field

of sustainable development and environmental policy planning.

The research question is how to combine quantitative information

such as species diversity, salinity, etc. with the actual (qualitative)

values that stakeholders such as residents, farmers, and industry

attach to a wide variety of biological assets in Western Australia -

thus enabling tailored environmental management which delivers on

human value expectations. This is a complicated problem to solve, as

two different types of information need to be brought together, while

allowing for the uncertainty inherent in each dataset.

To answer this research question, a series of novel techniques

for the collection of uncertain information has been developed,

including new survey tools for human data acquisition which enable

the efficient capture of participant opinion and uncertainty around a

given response.

The information is subsequently aggregated through newly

developed algorithms which are designed to combine both

quantitative and qualitative information while producing human-

interpretable outputs, including sensitivity and cost-benefit analyses

which account for data uncertainty and support comprehensive and

informed decision making.

Dr Christian Wagner, computer scientist in Horizon and project lead,

says: “Being able to aggregate these different information sources

in a coherent way to enable informed decision making is vital both

in order for the decisions to be appropriate to the specific context

as well as to maintain due transparency in the decision process. We

need to solve the problem of how to maximise the use of available

conservation funds and human resources through combining

innovative data collection and analysis techniques to accurately

reflect the quantitative data available as well as the subjective views

of stakeholders.”

Currently, the resulting system has been deployed as a cloud-

based service and is applied and evaluated in the context of the

environmental management of several wetland conservation sites

across Western Australia. These wetlands, managed by DPaW,

are recognised worldwide for their ecological importance and are

under immense pressure from climate change and surrounding land

use. Thus, a comprehensive strategy transparently integrating the

available information and priorities is urgently needed.

Dr Michael Smith, from the Western Australian Department of

Parks and Wildlife added: “We hope that our work will allow nature

conservation managers to better understand and account for the

actual values that humans derive from our natural environment.

This is important because good management should be driven by

the values that are important to people, it gives local stakeholders

ownership of the process and helps to create transparency for

people to understand why and how conservation is occurring.”

Beyond this project, the outcomes will help to inform complex

decision-making more generally. Dr Wagner continues: “This

project has the potential to inform policy making in environmental

conservation all over the world. Further, decisions ranging from

town-planning to the construction of new power plants and

transport infrastructure generally require consultation with a wide

variety of groups, including local and regional stakeholders as

well as incorporating information from various sources including

surveys, impact studies and sensor measurements.” It is hoped

the approach will ultimately be adopted by government and non-

government organisations alike, and be applicable to a diverse range

of management applications, including town planning and natural

resource management.

In October 2014, the team behind this EPSRC funded project

was awarded an EPSRC Impact Accelerator grant which builds

on the research already undertaken, as well as specific funding

from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to look

at comprehensive decision support in the context of infrastructure

development and flood prevention in and around the Thames

Estuary, UK. This work is conducted together with the Thames

Estuary Partnership (TEP) and DPaW.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Christian Wagner


Towards data-driven environmental policy design