How insights into biodiversity have evolved with digital data collection

23rd April 2021

What is the importance of geospatial data? 

Geospatial data defines an intrinsic link of any variable with a specific location, providing important information that allows you to understand the characteristics and qualities of different places and spaces. It helps you solve geographic problems and gain insight about the world. 

How do we get insights into biodiversity from habitat mapping? 

Biodiversity can be defined as the distribution of the variety of species within a given area. In order to create insights into biodiversity we need to map the distribution of habitats that represent areas where those species assemblages can exist due to their ecological niches. From this habitat map, we can derive biodiversity metrics by assessing factors influencing the biodiversity potential such as the quality, or condition, of a habitat and its ability to support a wide range of species, and its connectivity which describes the ability of species to move through connected habitats. This information also informs an assessment of the natural capital of a given area according to the value that habitat represents. Value, in terms of natural capital can be considered in multiple ways.

Why is biodiversity and habitat mapping important? 

Biodiversity mapping has some significant implications for how we run our businesses, our governments and our global behaviours. It can be considered an indicator of the impact that human activities have on the natural environment, and there is a realisation that more needs to done to enhance or retain biodiversity for a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Altering the presence or absence of habitats and subsequently their biodiversity, has knock on implications for other factors which impact our quality of life, such as air quality, food production, and climate change.

Habitat mapping is the basis for understanding the natural capital we have available. It provides a detailed picture of our landscapes and what they contain. It can also help detect changes that are happening to that capital both because of our interactions with the environment and those that occur naturally 

This data can be used to generate actionable intelligence for a variety of decision-makers. It also supports additional analysis such as change detection and environmental impact assessments. These methods can ultimately be used to inform sustainable and responsible development. For example, data collected from habitat mapping can be directly related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically sustainable cities and communities (11), climate action (13), life below water (14) and life on land (15). 

Now, habitat mapping and biodiversity assessments are becoming even more important to the future of commercial and political models. As technology advances and digitisation increases, habitat knowledge is becoming more accessible to organisations. With this support, global entities have the ability to make environmentally conscious and sustainable decisions. 

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How was biodiversity mapping previously performed? 

Mapping the earth is an age-old activity. It began as a purely analogue process, putting pen to paper based on what’s in front of your eyes. Over time physical field studies were performed to build up maps and analysis of what we could access.  

Aerial imagery was the next stage of development. People could use planes to actively fly over land and water taking images and mapping on sight. This allowed access to more areas than before and getting a new perspective on the land. However, this process requires a lot of man hours, is expensive to carry out and still doesn’t unlock global access. 

What kinds of technology exists that can be used for biodiversity mapping? 

The technology driving habitat mapping has greatly evolved from the days of physical mapping. While ground truthing and physical surveys are still used, they aren’t always appropriate, or possible to carry out. There are many examples across the globe where inhospitable regions, dangerous landscapes or political tensions prevent physical data collection. Plus, using these methods alone would be extremely inefficient.

That’s why multiple technologies and data fusion techniques have advanced in response to this challenge and can be used in habitat mapping: 

Satellite imagery and remote sensing: Satellite imagery and remote sensing: Satellites can be used to capture high-quality images from space – with no physical, earthly interaction. Resolutions currently reach around 0.5m which provides extremely good detail and accuracy. This is likely to expand to 0.3m, or even 0.1m, in the near future. Satellites possess a range of capabilities which each have unique advantages over one another allowing a wide choice of data availability for extracting information about habitats and the Earth’s surface and more detailed information about habitats. Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for example can be used to make quantitative assessments of vegetation or crop type, which can feed into biodiversity metrics.

Machine Learning (ML) and automationML models can be scaled according to the data that they are provided. For example, coarse data can segment broader habitats like vegetation, water and so on, whereas higher resolutions of data and mutually beneficial datasets can allow more detailed habitat segmentations to be performed. ML models can ingest any range of data, not just satellite imagery, to help improve model accuracy and derive greater levels of detail. 

The benefits of using remote sensing technology for Biodiversity mapping data collection: 

  • Remote sensing is non-invasive and environmentally sustainable 
  • Resource requirements, including equipment and man-power, are reduced 
  • Mapping and data collection can be performed much quicker 
  • More areas and larger scale areas can be mapped easily 
  • Remote locations can be accessed 
  • Satellite imagery can be captured over geographical and political boundaries 
  • Using remote techniques are less dangerous, as the health and safety element of putting people in the field is removed 
  • Imagery maintains the accuracy and detail necessary to achieve insights 
  • The resolution of imagery is constantly increasing 
  • Software improvements increase the accuracy of georeferencing image data 
  • Multiple spectral bands can be leveraged to see different information and create a more comprehensive picture 

Will analogue data collection processes become obsolete? 

One key challenge of habitat mapping is that boundaries can be subjective. The natural earth doesn’t have defined lines – and quantitative data often isn’t enough to make a definition. So analogue ground truthing will always be needed to solve this problem.   

Ground truthing involves collecting information about local people’s perspectives, governance and cultural priorities into the work of habitat mapping. It uses the knowledge of local ecological experts who understand the area to validate and add to the data captured from satellite imagery. 

This is extremely valuable as total reliance on technology can lead to mistakes, or miss the nuances of qualitative facts. Ground truthing therefore adds intelligence and validity to the work of technology and science. In this sense, human involvement will never be obsolete, because it creates a more comprehensive picture of a given region.

How will biodiversity mapping advance in the next 5 years?  

The technology used in biodiversity mapping will continue to advance over the next few years. Machine learning will become more sophisticated and data quality will improve. This will exponentially speed up the data collection and biodiversity mapping process, making it easier to repeat, quickly detect and changes within the environment and to monitor conservation and protection efforts. 

As satellite technology also continues to advance and develop, imagery will become more detailed and accuracy levels will increase, which will mean the ability to produce habitat maps of increasing detail and value to end-users, with more information contained within habitat maps. 

by 4EI

4EI provide Applied Earth Intelligence and analytics. We gather evidence-based intelligence about the earth, using data collected through sophisticated space assets.

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