They say that data is the new oil.

But, just like oil, data is worthless unless it is sourced, refined, and distributed. Industries across today’s digitalised economy are implementing systems that will enable them to extract value from this new digital asset. The nature-restoration sector is no different.

The dissemination and analysis of reliable data is fundamental to the scaling of effective environmental markets. It underpins the carbon credits generated by projects, acts as a quantifier of positive environmental impact, and provides crucial insights about project performance. Without impact measurement provided by data, convincing investors, credit buyers, and philanthropists to part with hard-earned cash to fund regeneration would be near impossible.

A few weeks ago, we wrote here about the challenges that NBS project developers and investors are facing when it comes to managing data, specifically related to its collection, processing, and reporting. This week we’re going to build on this theme and look into some of the ways that teams managing natural assets are rising to these data challenges to uncover the value that lies within.

Collecting nature data

Before you can do anything with data, you first need to collect it from the myriad of different sources. These sources can be broadly bucketed into two categories: 1) remote sensing, and 2) ground-truth data. Remote sensing data is inherently tech-enabled so, while there are terabytes of information and innumerable different providers to wrangle at once, collecting remotely sensed doesn’t tend to cause too many issues.

Ground-truth data, on the other hand, is a different story. For starters, it is hugely varied. It can come in the form of property deeds and bank details from a landowner, or it could be gender diversity in local community participation and wildlife population numbers. Most projects on the Cecil platform are collecting well over 50+ different data attributes, and each project can be very different to the next. Add to the mix that teams on the ground are often working in remote places, with limited access to internet, and the challenge becomes a whole lot harder.

5 ways teams are collecting nature data

  1. Pencil and paper

    Old school techniques are still abound in NBS. For example, some teams on the ground use paper forms and pencils to take various readings, before taking a photo of that form with a phone and sending it to the central office for deciphering and processing.

    Pros: simple to use and low cost.
    Cons: very time consuming to aggregate and prone to mistakes.
  2. WhatsApp and emails

    A fast, simple, and popular way to transfer data points like survey results, documents, and photos between field teams, partners, and central offices.

    Pros: simple to use, low cost, and mobile enabled.
    Cons: fragmented, time consuming to aggregate, no clear tracking system.
  3. Spreadsheets

    Field teams fill in templates in spreadsheets and send the spreadsheet back to the central office via email.

    Pros: structured and relatively easy to use.
    Cons: requires laptops and formulae in spreadsheets can be accidentally broken.
  4. Data collection apps

    Some teams are using tools like Fulcrum that help digitise the flow of information between teams through mobile data forms.

    Pros: very structured, easy aggregation, mobile enabled.
    Cons: not designed for the nuances of data for NBS.
  5. Cecil

    Streamlined collection of your natural asset data is key to ensuring project efficiency and quality. Cecil’s remote sensing API integrations and digital data collection forms for teams on the ground, enable the seamless collection of all key project data points. No more digging around spreadsheets, emails, and text messages. Save time and ensure that key information does not get lost in your inbox.

Processing nature data

Once you’ve gathered the data, you then need to figure out what it all means. What is it telling you about the performance of your afforestation project? Which soil carbon projects in your portfolio need urgent attention? Where can your workflows and processes be improved?

To answer these questions, your data needs to be aggregated and analysed so that it can inform better internal decision making and reporting.

3 ways teams are processing nature data

  1. Excel

    Many of the teams we speak to pick through the various emails, spreadsheets, and WhatsApps for all the different data points, and then aggregate these inputs into more spreadsheets. Here they run some calculations, build some charts, create some dashboards.

    It’s easy to understand why Excel is so popular. Few tools are as versatile. You can use it to plan your summer holiday or to run a billion dollar corporate takeover. Almost everyone is familiar with its basic functionality.
    siloed and vulnerable to human error.
  2. Custom built programs e.g. using SQL

    The more tech-savvy teams we’ve spoken to with in-house coding capabilities have built various tools and programs themselves to process their data.

    Pros: flexible and bespoke.
    Cons: requires expensive, specialist expertise to use and maintain.
  3. Cecil

    By aggregating your ground-truth and remote sensing data, you can easily extract insights about your projects and optimise your processes. Your team has a shared, holistic view that enables you to quickly assess the performance of your projects and take necessary action to ensure your portfolio is maintained to the highest standards.

Reporting nature data

Thankfully, investment into nature is finally going mainstream. Institutional capital and large corporate investors are pouring into the space in the race for net-zero. But this new influx of capital brings with it greater reporting expectations. A private investor expecting tangible ROI on a new mangrove project, for example, is going to expect more than an email update once a year. Instead they require streamlined, standardised, and up-to-date information on the project to monitor its performance and improve investment decision making.

Reporting is not just limited to investors. It also includes buyers of carbon credits and biodiversity outcomes, as well as auditors and verification bodies which ensure genuine and accurate impact. Project developers have their plates full providing all this information to these various stakeholders: a process that is vital in the effort to provide the transparency and rigour that our sector is striving for to silence its critics.

4 ways teams are reporting on nature data

  1. Emails

    Some lucky teams with long-term, trusted investors are still able to get away with an email or a phone call to investors to keep them updated.

    Pros: quick and easy.
    Cons: manual, not suitable for many investors and other stakeholders who require more detailed, structured information.  
  2. Powerpoint

    Like Excel, PowerPoint remains a trusted old friend. Teams pull charts and summaries into Powerpoint presentations that they send on to stakeholders.

    Pros: ease of use.
    Cons: very manual and time consuming, limited transparency and opportunities for the recipient to dig deeper.
  3. Design tools like Figma

    We’ve seen some very slick reports created in Figma which are then exported and emailed to stakeholders.

    Pros: flexible and beautiful reports.
    Cons: very manual and time consuming, limited transparency and opportunities for the recipient to dig deeper.
  4. Cecil

    Cecil provides dynamic, real-time dashboards that can be shared with investors, buyers, and auditors to offer insights that are relevant and readily accessible. Your investors may be more interested in seeing the carbon credit forecast, while buyers are excited by videos of biodiversity and social co-benefits. This automated, standardised, and real-time reporting can help drive the trust that will unlock financing for your projects and save precious time for your team.

Finding value in your data, to help others realise value in nature

To unlock the flows of finance into nature, we first need to unlock the flow of high-quality information. This is no mean feat given the army of different players involved in these projects and the variability of the data. But teams are finding resourceful ways to manage these challenges.

Cecil is building end-to-end data infrastructure for teams restoring nature. A single system spanning the collection of crucial ground-truth and remote sensing data, through to reporting project progress to the stakeholders that ultimately hold the keys to greater scale and greater positive impact.

Only by uncovering the value of natural asset data can we fully realise the value of nature itself.

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