Interactive knowledge system for family enterprise forestry
SkogForsk, Uppsala, Sweden.
Modern forestry places severe demands on the private forest-owner. The decisions that must be reached are complicated and must cover not only ecological but also economic and technical considerations. There are also a number of different laws that affects forestry and logging, both directly and indirectly. One can hardly expect such a wide range of competence in private forest-owners. The need for qualified support adapted to the target group is, thus, greater than ever.
One form of support is a knowledge system. Expert advice is presented to the user in a pedagogical manner, mainly in order to function as support in decision-making. “Knowledge Systems for Forest-owners” is a development and cooperative project between the Swedish forest-owner movement, the forest management organisation, the Forestry and Agricultural Research Council and SkogForsk (Forest Research Institute of Sweden).
The vision is to collect old, well-tried, knowledge and new research information in order to coordinate current facts and information concerning management and economy in the relevant sectors. The approach used is characterised by simple and easily understood advice, and the forest-owner can rapidly find answers to why and how the forest should be managed, and how the different inputs, or lack of inputs, will affect the development and economy of the stand. The interactive parts are an important component, where the user can transfer his/her knowledge into practical inputs, or enter data on his/her forest and thereby obtain management recommendations adapted to specific situations.
Modern forestry places severe demands upon the private forest-owner. The decisions that must be reached are complicated and must include not only to ecological but also to economic and technical considerations.
Forest management includes numerous complex decisions. Depending upon the natural conditions and the previous management the opportunities vary, and with them the various management alternatives. There is no universal solution; there are no easy answers.
During the establishment and juvenile phases of a stand, decisions are reached that will affect the forest for decades to come. The decisions made will therefore have major economic consequences. In addition, the forest-owner must be capable of reaching decisions compatible with legislation relating to consideration to nature. The forest-owner should also be aware of what laws that influence forestry and the practical work concerning logging.
Knowledge is important, but the lack of knowledge among forest-owners is sometimes considerable. Even if they have the knowledge required it is important that it is handled correctly. There is a major problem in making the collective knowledge available to all those who need it, when they need it.
During recent years the development of the Internet has exploded and it has become a new public medium and a channel where a large number of people can be rapidly and easily reached. The web can now be used in effective dissemination of knowledge.
Valuable knowledge, of professional and specialist nature, can be released and spread. In this way, we can approach SkogForsk’s vision of knowledge dissemination: that every decision-maker in each individual situation shall have access to decision-making support that helps the task at hand and improves its quality. The technology used for this has been called a knowledge system.
A knowledge system provides assistance and support in decision-making – often in the shape of a computer program – that contains expert knowledge within a subject area. The knowledge is presented to the user in a pedagogic manner, mainly in order to function as support in decision-making.
Knowledge systems can be used, for example, to:
Some systems can accumulate knowledge in the form of experiences and, with time, often become more knowledgeable than their creators as the system is supplied with data from several experts. Research has shown that an effect of building knowledge systems is that participating experts have often developed into better experts having completed a project. For the first time, they might have seen their knowledge in a structured presentation, and identified gaps in knowledge, etc.
Within the field of medicine there are several knowledge system than can assist doctors and laboratory staff to diagnose symptoms, pathological changes and illnesses.
In some systems the doctors can reject the conclusions of the system and “criticise” the system by entering their own diagnosis and stating how their conclusions have been reached. As a result, there are medical knowledge systems that reach their “own” conclusions on the basis of fairly inadequate in-data since the system has built up a base of experience founded on problem descriptions and solutions.
It should be emphasised that considerable advances have been made in medicine in this sector, but nonetheless the systems are used mainly in research and education. The answers given by the system still only provide support for a diagnosis, mainly because responsibility for a patient cannot be transferred to the system.
When are knowledge systems needed in forestry? They are needed when the benefits exceed the costs, i.e., when the correct decision is important for the completion of the process with regard to quality and/or time.
Today, there are only a few examples of knowledge systems in forestry. However, in some cases instruction manuals have been transferred onto CDs or placed on the Internet.
Systems that search for breakdowns in forest machines are being developed. From there, the step to being able to obtain concrete advice on repairing the breakdowns will probably take a couple of years more.
Managing a forest generally requires qualified knowledge within widely different subjects. We cannot expect the individual private forest-owner to have such a wide competence. The need for qualified, target group adapted support is greater than ever.
A subject area that is suitable for knowledge systems is forest management, where questions concerning choice of method and the time to introduce different measures must be decided. One such knowledge system for forest-owners is being developed in a project between the Swedish forest-owner movement, the forest management organisations, the research council for forestry and agriculture, and SkogForsk. The system is similar to a manual where facts and information concerning different forest management inputs are compiled and supplemented with interactive extension and practical exercises. The intention has been to improve the efficiency of disseminating information and results produced by applied research to the individual forest-owners.
Figure 1: The knowledge system explains why cleaning in important. The system also enables the user to test his/her own stand and get practical advice.
As another part of SkogForsks systems for decision-making you find one system about different laws that directly or indirectly affects forestry, and one about rule concerning safety and the practical work around felling and logging timber, etc.
The Swedish forest-owner
Individual forest-owners are an important group in Swedish forestry. About 50% of the country’s forestland is privately owned and today there are almost 350 000 Swedish forest-owners. The average forest-owner is a 51-year-old man, but in pace with urbanisation this group has changed from formerly mainly consisting of rural inhabitants to a situation today where it consists of a very heterogeneous group with representatives of varying professions, backgrounds, academic knowledge, age and gender. Consequently, it is difficult to use campaigns and other information inputs to reach this large and varying group with different opportunities, needs and interests.
In July 2001 the number of Swedes surfing the net amounted to 4,4 million persons, i.e., 61,7 % of the population between the age of 12 and 79 years. However, to get a more correct picture of the forest-owners in Sweden we should look at the activity in the 35-79 year-old age group. In this case, the share of Internet users was 49% Many forest-owners report that they never use the Internet in their forestry activities. On the other hand, the Internet is used relatively often in searching for information.
During December 1999 the first module in the knowledge system was evaluated. The results of this evaluation show that most people considered that the Internet was a very good channel for spreading information on forest management. Those who were doubtful, or had no opinion, were mainly people who had little skill in using the Internet.
The intention is to create an IT-based channel for information and extension advice dealing with forest laws, work safety, management and economy in privately owned forestry enterprises. Here, the forest-owners will be able to find answers to all the problems they may encounter during the different phases of the forest’s development. The natural conditions of the forest stand, its history and status, as well as the long-term and short-term intentions of the owner should be weighed together in a diagnostic part of the system that requires good in-data and that will result in support in decision-making.
Figure 2: The forest-owner has entered data on a pine stand. The advice given is to thin and to reduce the ground area from 28 to 21. The user can also see that this means a reduction in the number of stems to about 800-1000/ha.
Today there are systems for management of broad-leaf forests, cleaning and thinning. There are plans for an additional module for final felling and reforestation. As a first step in the work with the last management system SkogForsk has developed a system for choosing the proper plant material.
The possibility for interactive operations distinguishes manual from on-site extension advice:
However, forestry is not an exact science and it is important that the user does not experience the system’s recommendations as being universally applicable; at the same time the user must feel confident that the system’s recommendations are reliable. This is a fairly difficult pedagogical problem.
The user is not only provided with support in decision-making, but also with knowledge. As a result of the design of the system the user can obtain an explanation of how the conclusion was reached at the end of a consultation. One example is the possibility to vary different in-data in the interactive parts of the knowledge system and observe the variations in results. The system thereby provides the user with the possibility to see and understand relationships between different factors and thus the user can form his/her own opinion of the relevance of the recommendations.
It is also important that there are several levels of knowledge in a knowledge system – we must be able to get quick results but also be able to understand the theory behind the interface, e.g., research reports and other compilations.
The base of the system is found in static HTML pages that are supplemented with database functions. The technical level has been adapted to the user’s conditions, which generally means poor links and weak computers.
The interactive parts are designed around imaginary situations where the system states how the forest should be managed in the different cases. Using the data supplied by the user the suitable alternative answers are collected from the database.
Editing and up dating of the texts and illustrations in the static pages is done directly in the source code using Macromedia Dreamweaver.
The system’s glossary, enquiry function and knowledge test are linked to an Access database. Maintenance of these functions is made easier through a simple web interface. This administration tool can then be used to arrange the different chapters and courses as required. For example, the chapters on the forest-owner’s own activities in the different courses can be compiled into a new course.
The results of evaluations show that the knowledge system is experienced as being simple, informative, interesting and engaging. The design is well adapted to the user’s needs and level of knowledge, and most people consider that they will return for similar services in the future.
Sweden is a country with considerable geographic variations as regards forest production. Thus, it would be desirable to adapt the information to the different parts of the country. Increased features of interactivity and problem-based learning should also be aimed at in subsequent modules.
The original ambition to reach all forest-owners is today regarded as unreasonable and no longer desirable. Instead, emphasis is concentrated on the younger forest-owners where the Internet functions as a natural channel of information, and also the other forest-owners with a certain amount of Internet awareness and interest, e.g., the increasing number of people who no longer live on their forest or farm properties. In addition, the target group has been widened to include also other people who influence management of the forests.
This is only the start of the development of support for decision-making. In SkogForsk’s vision everybody in every decision-making situation will be able to obtain advice on how to do their work in the best possible way. Regardless of whether you are going to build a road, plant a clear-cut or repair a machine you will not have to wonder how to do it, or even worse, make mistakes costing money.
For land-dependent industries such as forestry, where numerous different people with different levels of competence face similar problems, it should be profitable to cooperate around the creation of a knowledge system. Naturally, it will also cost money to design a complete system for forestry, and it will take time too. Instead, we will probably see a number of pioneer projects growing together via the web into a functioning form of providing support for decision-making in all possible situations.
Evaluations of earlier knowledge system projects for “Broad-leaf Forest Management” and “Cleaning” show that the web is the obvious channel for spreading both theoretical and practical information on forest management.
This advisory service is found on SkogForsk’s home page, www.skogforsk.se. It is open to everybody and is without charge. The advantage of offering information via the Internet is that the information is available to everybody and at times that suit the user. In addition, the system is easily updated when new research results arrive or when the need arises.
Learning should become even more engaging, and thus also more effective, since the forest-owner can test the theory behind his/her own situations in practice through interactive exercises. Web-based knowledge systems also offer the opportunity to get information “on demand”, i.e., when and if the user asks for it.
In comparison with distribution on, for example, CD or DVD, the web-based system offers better access and the system is easier to up-date. If necessary, web-based knowledge can be burnt onto a disc and distributed. On the other hand, the knowledge must be distributed by disc if large numbers of animations, film sequences, etc. are used. The slow transfer speeds of the web imply large limitations but the problem can be reduced if the user downloads entire, or parts of, programs into an executive file.
Today, it is easy to integrate databases and web technology. This makes it simpler to build knowledge systems. In addition, the market is promoting development of decision-making support and interactive education using web technology. These systems are often classed as knowledge systems.
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