Forestry is a complex industry. It’s not only about turning a profit but ensuring the ability to meet both economic and ecological pressures. From mandated regulations to supply and demand, to the local flora and fauna and soil makeup, there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account, and lots of people involved in the process from start to finish.
Forestry is also one of the top ten manufacturing employers in 42 states, with an annual payroll of $51 billion. That figure counts only those people directly engaged in the industry, not the many more who indirectly make their living from forest management and forest products. Forest management is also a complex science, with many factors that need to be accounted for. In order to run smoothly, the industry requires a better understanding of all information, no matter when or where it is collected.
This is often a challenge for companies, associations and governments alike. Work takes place both at a desk as well as in the field, so not only can problems arise at the source of data collection, but late in the process as well. From meeting with stakeholders to communicating with landowners – the entire work flow chain from the forest to the mills can often be daunting. To compound that, the industry is constantly changing with new ecological requirements and mandates, so what has traditionally worked in the past may not be a viable solution any longer.
It’s no surprise that software programs have helped the forest industry meet their goals and manage their regulations, with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software being at the heart. GIS has numerous benefits, such as making advanced calculations and visualization of geographic data, as well as simple on site data collection that has allowed foresters to make better decisions in more efficient ways. That technological progress forward, away from the old pen and paper, is continuing to happen with a shift from desktop based systems to web and mobile based GIS services, with Esri’s ArcGIS Online (AGO), web-based GIS leading the charge.
Web based GIS services give staff more options to work with, and allows them to immediately report what they see from within the field, eliminating the need to be tied down to a specific workstation. This has huge implications for the future of the forestry industry, and has already yielded amazing results – from increased collaboration between staff and private land holders, to improving harvest site identification.
Here are 5 reasons why web-based GIS is no longer an option in 2016:
1 – Data Collection
The first benefit of web GIS is it enables digital data collection. Pen and paper is no longer the only means to document data in the field. Though pen and paper worked well in the industry for decades, it’s clear that there were many obstacles and problems that arose because of their limitations. From data that is too complex to fully measure while being on site, to tasks that weren’t accurately documented, pen and paper has gone the way of the dodo, replaced with digital data collection using phones and tablets.
Digital data collection has already seen numerous advantages for everyone involved in the process. It improves convenience for forest management staff working in the field by providing accurate maps to work with, as well as streamlines workflows throughout the entire process. Going one step further, foresters are also able to save and analyze data collected on site, and in a disconnected environment, collected data will sync with either AGO hosted data or internally hosted data once an internet connection is available.
In the past, this kind of analysis would require multiple steps, potentially spanning several days. From collection to processing and analysis, forest managers have a lot to keep track of. Now these processes have been made more efficient, and the analysis that can be done with GIS data has broadened the horizon for what is possible. Foresters now have easy access to perform common workflows as well as log, and analyze data in the field. Everything is connected, so double entry and multiple sources of data are no longer a problem. This leads to the second benefit of using web-based GIS.
2 – Cloud Computing
The next amazing reason why web GIS is changing the game for the forestry industry is the introduction of cloud computing. Cloud computing can refer to both privately hosted cloud environments or publicly hosted environments. Both approaches securely allow data to be available to anyone within an organization, as well as for easy scalability and flexibility. Cloud-based programs and services such as AGO, allow the added security of custom user roles and permissions. Whether they are behind a desk, or deep in the woods, everyone within an organization has access to collaborate on data based on their individual user roles and permissions. Even field staff working in remote locations without internet, are able to download everything they need in the morning while at the office, then easily upload all their data when they return in the evening. This helps reduce conflicting data, and ensure one source of truth, as well as saves time on cumbersome manual data entry back at the office. Furthermore, as long as an internet connection is available, collaboration between the field and office can happen in real time.
Cloud computing also allows field staff to have the latest reports and analysis of their site, gives supervisors access to the latest data, and improves decision making all around. Whether it’s a local office or at a state/provincial level, the data, workflows and processes are the same which saves time and improves accuracy. Cloud computing also means that data is secure, and backed up 24/7, with protection from losing data due to server malfunctions.
3 – Improved Communication
We already know that cloud computing improves accuracy of workflows and data, but it also improves communication at all levels. From Forest Land Managers and Timber Harvesters, to Stakeholders and Board Members. Everyone now has a direct line to the data they need in order to make informed decisions.
This starts at the ground level, and the simplicity of web GIS software allows people who aren’t technically inclined to interact with maps, and become more collaborative and engaged. Rather than the single point data entry methods of the past, staff are now able to use high resolution aerial photographs to view and edit information. This means detailed local maps with critical information can be easily created and shared to all those who want or need to know. This is a huge leap from the past when maps may or may not be created, may or may not be current, and may only be available to those who work in the office.
By sharing information and making it readily available to anyone, foresters are able to readily make recommendations to landowners and other stakeholders on how they should manage their resources, manage harvest locations and timber sales, calculate routing costs, and more.
4 – Harvest Location Identification
There are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account when identifying harvest locations. From information about the soil, water, and road infrastructure, to wildlife population and land ownership. Using web-based GIS, forestry staff are now able to more effectively identify and/or manage harvest locations and visualize their data in ways that will lead to better decision-making and increased time savings.
With web-based GIS, foresters can also see historical data that will allow them to plan for the present and in to the future. Furthermore, with all this information being shared and tracked in real time, it is much easier to analyze and identify the best harvest locations to make shareholders happy, as well as to work with the local environment. Since ideal forestry land is often-times not owned by the timber companies directly, web-based GIS makes it easier to find and contact the landowners of ideal timber sites. It can also help ensure environmental considerations are accounted for by readily communicating sensitive areas to foresters.
Members of the Algonquin Forestry Authority (AFA) in Canada have used their web-based GIS to track how the forest is growing, regenerating, and responding to various treatments. It’s also helped them plan for sustainable management and to document the whole process. They go on to say that “the task is simply too complex to perform in a paper environment.”
5 – Reporting
All the data points in the world don’t mean anything unless you are able to process and understand it. Not only do web-based GIS systems make data collection, processing and visualization easier for everyone involved, but reporting becomes easier as well. For example, with a real-time view of day-to-day operations using Esri’s AGO Dashboards, it is easier to view information that will allow foresters and managers to stay on track to meet and achieve industry as well as company standards.
Having a better understanding of the data foresters are working with improves the entire chain, from start to finish and allows for the most eligible harvest sites to be identified, plantings and treatments to be easily managed, timber harvests planned, day to day progress tracked, and most importantly visibility and communication maintained throughout the entire process. Although much of this data was available in the past, web GIS software such as Esri’s ArcGIS Online (AGO), now makes it all readily available, manageable and usable.
Improved Sustainability, Better Decision-making, Higher Profits
The benefits of web-based GIS are clear, and things are only getting better. From data entry, communications, site planning, and accountability, the entire forestry industry is making amazing strides by adopting web-based GIS technology. The best part is, GIS software is continuing to improve and continuing to make advancements in the ever-changing forestry industry. Click here to find out more about Esri’s Forestry GIS, or contact North Point Geographic Solutions for a free consultation to see if web GIS is right for your company.
Tell us in the comments below how your company is using web GIS, or if you are in the forestry industry and are not using web GIS, what are some of the challenges you regularly experience and wish to overcome?