Putting data visualisation at the heart of natural capital

2nd March 2018

Professor Richard Tiffin explains how data visualisation can help non-specialists understand the complex links between natural habitats and the services they provide

A core principle of the UK government’s 25-year environment plan is recognising natural habitats have a value, and that by conserving or managing these assets effectively it is possible to enhance the services this land delivers.

The theory suggests that if it were possible to link good management with an uplift in services, then the steward could be rewarded for providing a public good.

Valuing natural assets

Providing a reward for a public good is already happening in Dorset. Wessex Water Authority is concerned about build-up of nutrients in Poole Harbour. As an alternative to investing in a nutrient-stripping plant, at a cost of £6.5m, the authority is working closely with farmers in the water catchment area to tackle the cause of the problem and reduce runoff into the rivers. The farmers are incentivised to grow cover crops that protect the soil and lock in fertility. Everyone benefits, and the reduction in nutrients in the water can be easily measured.

In this scenario, it is possible to put a financial value on land management that is related to a benefit provided to a clearly defined stakeholder group. However this is rarely the case. ‘Natural environment services’ provided by habitats are complex to measure and have different values for different stakeholders.

Even when habitats have a strong economic case, the location of these habitats can affect the value. Woodland near a centre of population has a higher amenity value, while woodland within a watershed can reduce the flood risk downstream.

As an economist, I have some unease about how good a reflection of the true value the existing methodologies provide. A monetary value is a market value, and a market is just a means of creating a consensus over the value of a good. Ultimately, it is the consensus, not the value, that is important.

There are alternatives to creating an artificial market to achieve consensus, and Agrimetrics has been working with Natural England to create a tool for establishing consensus on land use. The idea was to develop a way that big data – all the information relating to a particular place – could be captured and presented so that it is meaningful to non-specialists, such as members of a parish council faced with planning applications.

The tool, Natural Capital Explorer, would put the facts into the hands of the stakeholders so they could see the bigger picture and achieve a consensus over value.

Relating assets to services

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has been working to create logic chains that relate natural capital assets to the services they provide.

Logic chains are processes that show how biodiversity contributes to economic activity and human wellbeing. For example, pollination can be linked to food provision; carbon capture by vegetation or soil can be linked to climate regulation; there is a link between woodland and clean air; and riverine vegetation provides flood and drought mitigation.

However, these logic chains have proved difficult to communicate effectively, and Defra group advisors have struggled to apply them in practice to help the communities that they work with.

A different way of presenting this information was needed to show, simply, an asset and the services it can provide. The discussion and decision could then be around how best to manage that asset to deliver a portfolio of services.

Natural Capital Explorer uses the logic chain and presents the outcomes in a way that allows the adviser to assemble a visual report that they can present to multiple stakeholders as a communication tool to achieve consensus.

Together, we have created a demonstrator that is based on the water quality logic chain. It allows a parish council to compare its natural assets with those of neighbouring parishes and other parts of the country. This comparison would allow the council to see how different management plans affect the services provided. For example, as water meadows provide natural water catchment to reduce flooding, it might be possible to see how flooding had risen in parishes where building had been allowed.

The value of metrics

There is much discussion about the need for metrics in natural capital management.

According to research conducted at the University of Reading, insects are pollinators of more than 80% of crop species in Europe, and the economic value of this pollination to the UK alone is in the region of £690m each year.

If it were possible to say “xm2 of field margin is required for ym2 of crop and this would create an uplift in yield of 10% through insect pollination”, then this would provide a simple rule of thumb that could be used to incentivise the management of marginal land.

However, there are so many variables that this approach is always going to be controversial.

In our discussions with a range of players in the agri-food value chain, we have not perceived a great appetite in having these types of sustainability metrics imposed by regulators.

Our approach is to make it easier for people to do their own analysis. We have focused on creating a data model that describes the world as several concepts. It is then possible to search for data that relates to that concept. For example, if you wanted to know how beef production was related to weather, you could follow a beef animal through its entire lifecycle, connecting it to all the places it has been and the weather for those locations at that time.

The user isn’t interested in a narrow silo of data – they want to understand it in context.

The data in Natural Capital Explorer is already published on a range of different Defra websites, but you can’t contextualise that data. To see how weather, land use and water quality have changed for a particular field over the past 10 years, you would need to refer to multiple data sets, each collected for a specific purpose.

Agrimetrics’ mission is to flip the data-consumption model so it is not directed by the providers of data but instead becomes driven by the users and consumers of data.

Making the vision a reality

Defra and the various stakeholders already hold a significant amount of data; the issue is how to make it accessible so it can be analysed in a meaningful way. Our role is not to be the ‘gold standard’ metric provider, but to ensure that decisions made by others are based on the best information that is available.

Professor Richard Tiffin is chief scientific officer for Agrimetrics, a big-data centre for the agri-food value chain

Image credit: iStock

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