Towards Data-Driven Environmental Policy Design

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Horizon Digital Economy Research


The Western Australian State Government Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) is managing the allocation of environmental conservation resources and funds within priority areas of high conservation significance. A particular challenge in this process, exacerbated by limited resources, is the actual identification of priority biological assets within these conservation areas. In many situations, assets will need to be prioritised by taking into account the generally large number of relevant parameters which include quantitative estimates such as asset irreplaceability as well as stakeholder opinions on relevant values (recreational, aesthetical). These stakeholders include land owners, local residents and local government authorities.
DEC has developed a framework which requires the capture of human values and the quantification of their delivery by biological assets such as species of animals and biological communities. The values are used to rank biological assets as a crucial input to environmental policy, planning and management.

The aim of this project is to deliver a methodology to capture and aggregate multiple heterogeneous data sources and any associated uncertainty in a real world environmental conservation context in order to support data-driven environmental policy design. The project will entail a close collaboration between DEC and the UK Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute where the former contributes their significant expertise and real world involvement in environmental conservation and policy design, and the latter leverages their expertise in data aggregation in a Digital Economy (DE) context where large numbers and types of different information sources are pervasive. The project will focus on two main stages: first, eliciting information (and its uncertainty) about the human value derived by different biological assets; second, modelling the captured qualitative (stakeholder opinions) and existing quantitative (e.g. asset area) data and associated uncertainty.
In doing so, we will develop and evaluate data aggregation algorithms & tools based on Fuzzy Sets and Systems and/or Fuzzy Measures & Fuzzy Integrals. The real-world application of the developed framework by DEC in conservation areas in Western Australia will provide concrete support for environmental policy-making in those areas. The project will also provide unique insights into the capacity of both the developed framework and data-driven policy design in general and in the context of environmental protection in Australia and abroad. The knowledge gained will further inform the potential for data-driven policy design in the DE in other areas where large numbers of stakeholders and information sources are pervasive.

Planned Impact

We believe that this project under the "Research in the Wild" call will lead to significant impact for a variety of stakeholders as summarized below:

Commercial Private sector:
Benefits for the private sector will be generated on two levels: (i) the actual engagement of private sector stakeholder opinions in the decision process for environmental conservation "on the ground" through the developed framework. (ii) The potential for leveraging the developed information capturing & aggregation methodologies towards enabling data-driven policy design in the private sector as well as the creation of new services in the Digital Economy (e.g. app based services that mine public opinion and aggregate it with quantitative data such as location information).

Public sector and policy makers at a national and international level:
The project will have direct impact through invstiagting and demonstrating novel techniques: (i) enabling direct interaction with stakeholders (and capturing their views), (ii) allowing data-driven (informed) policy-design in an environmental context and beyond (in other context such as data protection and user privacy) based on integrating qualitative AND quantitative data. As the project partner DEC is a government department, the project outcomes will be deployed and demonstrated in a real-world policy making context which will support the dissemination of the project outcomes.

General public:
The general public and governmental institutions will benefit directly from our work which explores a data-driven approach to policy making through: (i) enabling the incorporation of quantitative AND qualitative stakeholder information into the policy-making process. (ii) enabling user-driven policies and better distribution of for example conservation funds, maximising the benefit of the available funds according to the priorities expressed by the public.

The development of approaches to capture, aggregate and reason over qualitative and quantitatve data sources will provide new insight into the utility and applicability of computational intelligence techniques for this application, thus helping to shape future research in this area of computer science. Importantly, the general capability of reasoning and modelling accross such heterogeneous sources is expected to be of high interest and utility for research beyond computer science, for example in research fields such as sociology and marketing where the proposed approach will provide a pathway to a deeper understanding of data from and on people which is available and rapidly increasing in the current digital economy.

All the above will directly benefit from the open-source publication of the stakeholder-opinion capturing toolkit which will make the project outcomes accessible to the different stakeholders.

Finally, it is worth noting that the approach to the capturing, modelling and aggregation/interpretation of heterogeneous data sources is applicable in a number of conservation and other contexts, including for example the construction of new power plants for harnessing tidal power and satisfying requirements ranging from the obligation to combat climate change to minimizing changes of wildlife habitats in estuaries as well as the design of policies for data protection and user privacy.


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Description The grant has led to a unique approach which enables the comprehensive capture of qualitative stakeholder opinion in parallel with quantitative data (e.g., water salinity, species diversity) and their subsequent aggregation to transparently and principled fashion inform environmental planning and policy design. Through collaboration with the Department of Parks and Wildlife of the Western Australian government, a unique set of real-world use-cases is being employed to evaluate the approach and ensure real-world viability and usefulness. The work has already led to significant real world impact through its impact on recovery catchment planning and has enabled initial exploration of utility with UK stakeholders (in the Thames Estuary context).
Exploitation Route Currently, a very small EPSRC Impact Accelerator grant and a small NERC grant enable the evaluation of the potential of the devised approach and system to inform planning and policy design in the UK context of the Thames Estuary. Initial workshops with stakeholders incl. the Env. Agency, Thames Water and the London Port Authority have been highly promising and it is expected that a follow-on bid will be submitted to address remaining gaps in the research in order to support infrastructure development and conservation in the Thames Estuary and beyond, throughout the UK and Europe.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink

Communities and Social Services/Policy




Democracy and Justice


Description The findings have been used to crucially inform environmental planning of highly valuable RAMSAR protected wetlands in Western Australia. Specifically, the metholdogies arising from the research have been employed as part of the generation of management plans of catchments in Western Australian, incl. the 2015-2035 Toolibin Lake Catchment Recovery Plan. In addition, the project outputs have been explored for their potential to support planning and policy design in the context of infrastructure development in the UK Thames Estuary.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other
Impact Types Societal

Policy & public services

Description Informed Public Policy and Planning in Western Australia
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or Improved professional practice
Impact The framework directly supports stakeholder-specific improvement of quality-of-life through guiding environmental management. A key challenge of environmental management is the complexity of leveraging limited resources to deliver maximum utility for stakeholders. Traditional methods employ economics-driven measures, i.e. seek to optimise the state of the environment in respect to a monetary valuation of its properties (e.g. clean water, various species, etc.). The framework developed here uses novel ways to capture information directly from local stakeholders directly affected by the management of a the given catchment. These data, which are often complex and uncertain (e.g. discord between stakeholder groups) are integrated with environmental data to provide managers with a a clear and transparent, i.e. explainable-to-stakeholders set of recommendations on which management actions are expected to deliver the maximum increase in stakeholder quality of life, for the level of investment/resource available.
Description Methodology employed in Recovery Plans for Western Australian RAMSAR wetlands
Geographic Reach Australia 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Through enabling comprehensive and transparent (data driven) conservation planning, the project has contributed to the delivery of a management plan which captures stakeholders' expectations and maximizes the delivery of human value based on environmental conservation for the catchments. The Western Australian Government has published the 20 years management plan (November 2017) for the Toolibin wetland ( Toolibin is Ramsar listed as one of about 2200 worldwide wetlands of international importance and contains the following acknowledgement to the project: "We gratefully acknowledge the support and the research-driven methodological innovation contributed by the School of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham, led by Dr Christian Wagner and funded by the UK EPSRC (EP/K012479/1) and NERC (NE/M008401/1). The research conducted and its outputs have been instrumental in both informing key aspects of this management plan and advancing the methodological research underpinning it"
Description From Western Australian Wetlands to the Thames Estuary - deploying and evaluating Data-Driven Environmental Planning in the UK
Amount £17,056 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 04/2015
Description Towards managing risk from climate change through comprehensive, inclusive and resilient UK infrastructure planning
Amount £39,945 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M008401/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 04/2015
Title Fuzzy logic-based model for value-driven environmental management framework 
Description A model based on fuzzy logic has been developed during this project. The data capture/analysis in environmental management is highly complex with large associated uncertainty in both qualitative and quantitative sources. This, compounded by the need for strong system transparency makes a fuzzy logic based model an ideal approach. A database structure is also developed that can hold the captured data and settings for each environmental management context. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The developed model and its underlying database are directly used in the developed Web-based management tool. The computer programs and schema can be used for other management contexts. Currently, their viability for UK deployment is being assessed. 
Description Research collaboration and data exchange between this project and its partners in Western Australia 
Organisation Government of Western Australia
Country Australia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team has developed key algorithms to enable the aggregation of qualitative stakeholder input (preferences, opinions) with quantitative assessments of the local state of conservation areas (e.g., species diversity, salinity, etc.). These algorithms have then been operationalised in an online, browser-based system (running in the cloud) which enabled the Australian partner to enter/modify locally relevant data for different catchments. This in turn was/is used to provide decision support for environmental management decision.
Collaborator Contribution This project is strongly supported by the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) of the Western Australian Government. The contribution by DPaW includes case studies, data exchange, expert time, scientific expertise and event (e.g., workshop) organisation. DPaW has been instrumental in informing the research and importantly, in conducting the evaluation. A series of papers are currently being prepared to publish the joint work. Also, DPaW is using the resulting system as part of upcoming management plans for several RAMSAR protected wetlands in Western Australia, showing the very significant impact of the research.
Impact Outcomes so far: 1- Expert Workshops, Australia, February 2013 2- Experts and Stakeholders Workshop, Australia, April 2014 3- Stakeholders Workshop, Australia, May 2014 4- Multidisciplinary Workshop, Nottingham, UK, November 2014 5- Several papers (2 accepted so far) 6- follow on research potential, which has led to EPSRC Impact Accelerator grant on exploring viability in the Thames Estuary The work is strongly multi-disciplinary, including Computer Science, Biology, Conservation and Management
Start Year 2013
Title Online data analysis tool based for environmental planning 
Description A web-based tool was developed that enables the capture of qualitative and quantitative data and the generation of decision support outputs (e.g., sensitivity analyses) in the context of environmental management. The data analysis was/is used and evaluated by the project partners in Western Australia for real world use cases. Note: access to the tool is currently reserved to project members only. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact The notable impacts resulting from the application of the software is the generation of real-world applicable decision support outputs which directly inform the current draft planning documents for a number of Western Australian recovery catchments. 
Description Press Release 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact A press release to inform about the project, its partners and aims.

The visibility of the project and its work significantly increased, e.g., project team members were asked in public about the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013