Managing sensitive land effectively and promoting biodiversity plays an increasingly important role in protecting our climate, environment, and society. To this end, planning authorities and environmental asset management organisations have a significant role in ensuring that development proposals do not infringe on or cause harm to environments and wildlife, whilst also ensuring people can develop, farm, and enjoy the natural world sustainably. Today, innovations in AI and data science can dramatically improve the speed and quality of planning decisions, helping us to protect, harness and responsibly develop land assets in smarter, greener and more economically viable ways.
The ability to support development without the loss of biodiversity and damage to sensitive land is both environmentally and socially imperative.
Biodiversity loss, which is both a cause and an effect of climate change, is happening at an alarming rate. According to the most recent WWF report in 2020, there has been a 68% drop in global mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations since 1970. Cited as one of the most significant reasons for the destruction of biodiversity has been changes in land use, including deforestation, the existence of intensive mono-culture, and urbanisation.
Furthermore, there is widespread evidence that the promotion of Green Health – which is people’s engagement with green space and nature – has invaluable physical, mental, and societal wellbeing benefits.
Today, the organisations mainly responsible for protecting species and environmentally sensitive land are planning and land management authorities. They make decisions on how and what land can be developed and to what extent. They have the increasingly challenging task of identifying, collecting, and managing huge swathes of information relating to complex planning applications as well as vitally sensitive land and biodiversity data to make efficient, effective and informed decisions on approvals for sustainable land development. However, currently this data and information is locked-up in silos and embedded in unstructured documents, making it difficult to provide environmental experts within authorities with access to the information that they need when they need it.
Planning decisions must consider all aspects of delicate ecosystems in the process of ensuring sustainable development but this is made challenging due to the diversity of wildlife and plant species in any given area. Planning authorities must also make these decisions on land use whilst ensuring they are timely, consistent, and fair, and create precedent for future decisions affecting similar applications.
Ensuring that these factors are taken into consideration for each application requires the collation and analysis of huge amounts of data, often derived from disparate sources, whether that be land use surveys, conservation data, or development case management information.
Crucially, this data is typically not integrated, it is unstructured and in different formats (including deeds and historical registers) making it very difficult for planning officers to search easily and effectively for the information they need from regulatory data, guidance, and case history to make timely and informed decisions. They also need to have all the information to hand about the specific environmental sensitivities of any given area, such as whether a proposed area is a breeding ground for migratory birds or whether it contains rare flora and fauna.
At Informed Solutions we’ve observed these challenges working with NatureScot, the lead public body responsible for advising Scottish Government Ministers on all matters relating to Scotland’s natural heritage. They have a specific responsibility for; promoting the sustainable use of that natural heritage; promoting sustainable economic growth; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping Scotland to adapt to climate change.
Our collaboration with NatureScot has revolved around a Civtech Challenge to develop an innovative first-of-its-kind, cloud-native AI-powered digital planning platform, recently launched as InformedDECISION©. This SaaS platform integrates and leverages advances in digital service design, mapping, data analytics, earth observation (satellite) imagery, and AI capabilities to enable environmental experts at NatureScot to process and answer complex land management questions relating to development in Scotland’s rural areas.
The platform takes advantage of our expertise in AI, analytics, and data unification, combining innovative technologies including Natural Language Processing, Named Entity Recognition, and Location Intelligence to provide rich, targeted information on environmentally sensitive areas to land managers and planning decision makers as well as to the developers applying for planning permission.
This platform now enables planning officers at NatureScot to more efficiently and effectively make decisions on land use, development and protection. Having broken down data silos and bringing structure to data, planning officers also benefit from AI assisting them in providing them with relevant data based on previous case management scenarios. This has resulted in time savings of up to 50% across the planning lifecycle.
Furthermore, not only can officers make decisions on applications, but prospective applicants can use the platform to understand the potential impact their plans might have on local biodiversity before submitting applications. The use of data science in this regard enables better, more consistent decision making by focussing experts time on high value, complex planning applications by providing better, faster access to information, as well as through eliminating unnecessary applications.
We can see this innovative platform as an important example of how the merging of data unification and emerging technologies can generate value for planning authorities, citizens, and our environment. This same technology can be applied to other markets wherever organisations are obliged to manage, understand, and make sense of ever- increasing volumes and complexity of data for health, safety, or security related responsibilities.
In developing InformedDECISION©, our capability to unify and extract value from existing data sources without the need to upgrade the underlying systems or take a copy of the data dramatically reduces disruption of existing workflows, minimises impact on infrastructure, and ensures that benefits can be realised very quickly. In hospital environments this could be applied to help triage patients more safely and quickly for example and make decisions on their care with greater levels of speed and accuracy.
The public sector has a hugely influential role to play in helping us all shape a sustainable future for our economy, society, and our environment. At Informed Solutions, our purpose is to create economic and social value by helping to build a more inclusive, fair, and safe society through ethical use of technology and data, and by investing in digital skills. This purpose drives our commitment to helping make our world a cleaner, greener, safer, more inclusive, and smarter place.
Through InformedDECISION©, we are excited by seeing how the power of data better use is helping protect biodiversity and sensitive land and how it is showcasing the art of the possible when it comes to how data science can extract insights that better inform decision making for some of our most pressing challenges we face today.