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Data science in the forest

Divina Paredes | Nov. 27, 2014
Nigel Brabyn drills in on a key asset of Nelson Forests – its data repository, which is set to grow exponentially as digital tools are used in logging production.

So when he took on his current role, he looked at how to improve the systems.

It was, interestingly, a CIO New Zealand column by Owen McCall titled "The 'I' stands for Information" that prompted him to focus on NFL's other key asset -- information.

McCall transposed the triangle model of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to the four stages on "maturity in better use of information".

In an ascending order, these are:

" I understand historical performance.

" I receive information that allows me to monitor performance and act on exceptions quickly.

" Information enhances my decision making ability today and predicts future business results.

" I receive information that allows me to identify and exploit new opportunities.

"Reading this article, I felt it spoke to me," says Brabyn, who was then in the business performance analyst role for about a month. Applying this insight to Nelson Forests, he states, "What it told me was our forestry industry is extremely good at understanding information to the 9th degree. Forest companies record everything and put them into databases. We did mapping, filled out standard record cards.

"My analogy was the Titanic [ship]," he says. "You are concentrating on your historical information and you are receiving data on it, but it takes a long time for that data to come through.

"You are, actually, looking at chunks of ice float past. You might hear a bump but you don't know what is really happening. You don't know whether you are turning away from risk or into it. By the time you actually turn, it is too late.

"Getting that feedback quickly is important because if you don't, we have people in the forest cutting down trees, they will just keep doing what they are doing. We need to change it, by the time you make the change you are now another six months behind.

"Taking those and getting those core systems in place took two years," he says.

He believes he has reached the second rung of the information hierarchy, and working towards the next rung, which is "information enhances my decision making ability today and predicts future business results".

Catch 22
"The forest is our factory, the forest is our warehouse," says Brabyn. Most of the logs are harvested using mechanised machines. NFL is using a program where after stripping the branches off, the machine would measure the log and program it to cut in areas to provide optimal grade products.

These technologies are used for quality control, but the challenge is how to get back the data in the machine into the office.

"We store huge amounts of data, but the only way we can get it back to the office is through one of these," he says, holding a USB stick.


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