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Nottingham-Australia collaboration on environmental conservation of the future

The 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 new research to improve the management of natural resources in the 21st century.

The project will combine the latest ideas in computer science at The University of Nottingham with the pioneering ambitions of forward-thinking Australian environmental planners.

Researchers from the University's Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute are working with the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to create new software tools and processes to create a new environmental planning framework called Value-Plan.

Specifically, the goal of the research project is to acquire accurate information on the values people like farmers, industry professionals and conservationists attach to a wide variety of biological assets in Australia and incorporate this into a new environmental planning approach.

The new survey tools and intelligent data software to be researched and developed will inform decision-making at government level in the field of sustainable development and environmental policy planning. It is hoped the approach will ultimately be adopted by government and non-government organisations alike, and could be applicable to a diverse range of management applications, including town planning and natural resource management.

The system will be trialled over the next two years in two conservation areas of Western Australia, and initial work has already begun at the Lake Warden Natural Diversity Recovery Catchment near Esperance.

Dr Christian Wagner, computer scientist from the University's Horizon Institute, has just returned from a research trip to Western Australia. He said:

"This project has the potential to inform policy making in environmental conservation all over the world. For example, 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.

"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."

Dr Michael Smith, from the Western Australian Dept of Environment and Conservation 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. This important project will also contribute to a collaborative venture the department has with the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre."

The research will delve into cutting edge computer science with four main goals:

  • The design of new survey methods that capture stakeholder views on the human values of different biological assets. Stakeholders include local conservation and industry groups, professional scientists and natural resource managers. It will accommodate uncertainty in stakeholder opinions by providing for example an 'interval on a scale' rating option.

  • The integration of the survey tools in an online website based in part on existing software components developed by Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute.

  • Researchers will develop algorithms to aggregate the (often) existing quantitative data with collected qualitative stakeholder input. As part of this, initial aggregation across multiple stakeholder opinions and multiple sources of quantitative information will be investigated and suitable tools will be developed. An overall, interpretable model of the value-based model will be designed to support policy design and data-driven decision-making.

  • The new computer-based framework will be used and evaluated in the two conservation areas managed by DEC. The results will be made available specifically to global stakeholders (e.g. policy makers) in particular in the UK as well as published at international conferences, science fairs and journals.

Contact: Emma Rayner
University of Nottingham

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