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Chapter 48. Forestry information system development


This chapter documents the development of an electronic Forestry Information System (FORIS) which was carried out within FRA 2000. The chapter discusses central concepts and principles, basic technology aspects and prospects for future development. It also describes the procedures used for generating country information for FRA 2000 with the help of FORIS functionality.


The development of an electronic, Web-based Forestry Information System (FORIS) was a significant component of FRA 2000. In 1998 the FAO Forestry Department made an overall initiative to upgrade the communication of global forestry information, and the timing coincided with FRA 2000 requirements to organize, generate and disseminate large volumes of forest and forestry information. Combined efforts by the FRA team and a departmental core group working to enhance the Forestry Department Web site proved fruitful and led to the development of an integrated system, FORIS. Responsibility for FORIS has now shifted away from FRA 2000, and the system is being maintained and further developed for the Forestry Department as a whole. The main user interface for FORIS is the FAO Forestry Department Web site (FAO 2001a; Figure 48-1).

To cater to a wide range of communication needs, the information in FORIS is organized by various criteria, such as country, subject, species, publication and organizational entity. The system architecture allows for presentation of all information items in all of FAO's five official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish). The system is integrated with FAO corporate-level data and systems, e.g. for correct presentation of country names in all languages and for the use of officially reported land area, to conform to corporate standards and reduce the maintenance needs of standard data sets.

This chapter focuses on the information-by-country aspect, as this is the most relevant to FRA 2000. When navigating the FAO Forestry Web site by country (FAO 2001b, Figure 48-2), users will find profiles for all countries which aim at a comprehensive presentation of the forest sector in each country. These country profiles have a standardized structure covering forestry-related subjects, currently under the three general headings Resources, Management, and Products & Trade (Table 48-1). FRA 2000 initiated and developed contents for a number of the subjects under these headings, including geography, forest cover, volume and biomass, forest plantations, trees outside the forest, forest management, protected areas, removals and non-wood forest products - following roughly the thematic studies in Part I of this report. Each of these subjects is further subdivided into several Web pages in the country profiles.

The standardized structure (i.e. the composition of subjects and pages) of the country profiles is continuously improved and expanded. The structure is displayed as a table of contents to the country profile (Figure 48-3) which is dynamically loaded and indicates which sections of the profile are available for the given country in the chosen language.

Figure 48-1. FAO Forestry homepage, from which FORIS contents are reached

Table 48-1. Currently identified categories and subjects in the FAO Forestry country profiles




Forest cover
Trees outside the forest
Volume and biomass


Forest management
Protected areas
Forest services

Products and trade

Industrial wood products
Industrial products trade
Non-wood forest products

Further information

Contacts Institutions

Figure 48-2. Navigation to FAO Forestry country profiles,


The need for a comprehensive information system to support FRA 2000 work was indisputable. Several thousands of source documents have been consulted by a large number of FAO staff members and associates based throughout the world. Data have been extracted from the references for further processing, involving analytical steps requiring thorough documentation. In addition to tabular data, other types of information, e.g. texts, maps and lists of references, have been developed for each country. Large amounts of text have been translated. To enter and maintain these data sets, it was necessary to develop functionality that allowed many users to input data simultaneously. Administrative functions for managing data ownerships and editing privileges were therefore required. Finally, the aspiration to provide full transparency and availability to users and to embark on a continuous improvement of global forestry information beyond FRA 2000 made it necessary to begin an ambitious information system development (FAO 1999b).

It should be noted that UNECE/FAO in Geneva developed a separate database to meet the needs of the FRA 2000 work related to industrialized countries, the Temperate and Boreal Forest Resources Assessment 2000 (TBFRA). This was necessary because the assessment process progressed faster for these countries, and the report contributing to the global assessment was released before FORIS had been established and could support this work. The TBFRA 2000 database has been released on a CD-ROM (UNECE 2001), but data are not currently presented on the Web. Since some country data related to forest area were adjusted after the release of TBFRA 2000, there are some discrepancies between the databases. It is planned that in future assessments UNECE/FAO in Geneva would maintain data directly within FORIS to ensure conformity.

Previous global assessments had also identified the need for information system development, and FRA 1990 established a predecessor to the current FORIS, named the Forest Resources Information System (FAO 1995). As general information technology at the time was less advanced and the user requirements were perhaps less pronounced, the information system work focused more on the internal processing of data and less on broad-scale electronic dissemination to users. The earlier system did not include support for multiple users for data entry. Obviously some tools, especially the World Wide Web, were not available to earlier assessments, and the expectations for providing public access to data were lower. Some features of information management have, however, not changed, including the need to document source data used and processing steps to derive final results. In many cases the current assessment was hindered by difficulties in tracing the background information to estimates in previous assessments. Despite the strides made in making data and information publicly available, a main objective and desired feature of the current information system remains to document the work well for the benefit of future global assessments.

Figure 48-3. Example of an FAO Forestry country profile: summary page for Angola

Since its initiation in the second half of 1998, the system development process has largely followed the work progress of FRA 2000 in what can be characterized as an interactive application development where user needs were identified and prioritized according to the overall FRA 2000 objectives. Early system modules included functions for entering source references and source data, followed by modules for reclassifying national data into global classification schemes and for creating country-wide forest area estimates at reported reference years. Following development of the data processing support, functions for maintenance of texts in several languages were developed. During the second half of 1999, the development of a dynamic Web application was initiated. In January 2000, the FRA 2000 Web application was joined with the Forestry Department Web application in the current forestry country profile approach, which was launched in early 2000.

The next step was to make editing functions available through Web browsers to allow for a more distributed maintenance of the contents. Over the past year the overall system performance has been further enhanced and a number of functions have been added. In January 2001, overall responsibility for FORIS was shifted away from the FRA team and FORIS became in the formal sense a departmental system. Current main objectives include:

Currently, the Web country profiles consist of more than 20 000 published Web pages covering more than 200 countries and in four languages. The country pages are accessed by users outside FAO at a rate of about 1 000 pages per day.


FORIS provides dynamic access to forestry data by country to Web users. Dynamic access means that all contents of the page, including the table of contents, are drawn from database tables and not from static html files. Dynamic presentation brings some major advantages. For example, it makes it possible to develop effective maintenance functions for all types of contents; to use the same original data items for different presentations, thus reducing the risk of unsynchronized reporting; and to restructure presentations by changing the virtual structure rather than having to replace large numbers of static files. Over the long term, perhaps the most significant advantage of a well-structured dynamic system is that the scope of the contents is expandable; new subjects or entire new Web sites, for example, can be included with a relatively small effort.

Data ownership and partnerships

One important principle that FORIS supports is decentralized data ownership for core forest and forestry data. Obviously, forestry expertise and/or local knowledge resides with a wide range of FAO staff and partners depending on the subject and geographic location. From an organizational point of view, these persons (it is noted that a data owner should always be one person) also have technical responsibilities as focal points for a particular subject or a particular region. It seems that the most feasible way to maintain a wide range of forestry information for all countries is to have the system support the existing distribution of subject responsibilities and to provide tools to the respective officers (and to those to whom these officers delegate the hands-on work) for maintaining their information segment. For each page in the country profiles, the currently identified data owner is indicated in the footer, and readers can give feedback to these persons directly (Figure 48-4).

Figure 48-4. Example of footer that appears on all FORIS country profile pages; indicating the data owner and providing a link for giving feedback to this person

Given that a potentially large number of data owners will maintain their information from various parts of the world, the contemporary solution of choice is to carry out information maintenance through a standard web browser (e.g. Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator). With log-in and editing functions provided on Web pages, no extra installations are required on the user's computer (Figure 48-5). This keeps down the cost of software maintenance and makes it possible to decentralize maintenance tasks to anyone with an Internet connection and a standard computer configuration.

While the responsibility and mandate for maintaining a core set of global forestry variables lies with the FAO Forestry Department, there are related and relevant data sets for which it may be efficient to establish a partnership for data sharing, rather than to acquire copies of the data sets and potentially face a duplication of effort in keeping the copies up to date. Current information technology and the Internet facilitates such partnership arrangements.

Two different types of partnerships can be identified:

System implementation

From the above, it becomes clear that the "system" concept is wider than computer hardware and software. The "system" also includes the various information processes involved, which in turn build on the organizational structures, including formal delegation of authority. It is clear that the system owner, in this case FAO through the Forestry Department, has a role to invest discriminately in further system development as well as content development, and to put these investments in the context of the overall activities and role of the department.

Conformity to corporate FAO standards - regarding hardware, software, corporate-level data and procedural aspects - is central to a cost-effective and successful implementation. For hardware, the corporate database and Web servers must be used. Regarding software, all data reside in the corporate Oracle database. The engine to generate dynamic Web pages is based on Java and Java Server Page (jsp) techniques, identified as a corporate standard. Corporate-level data, for example official country names and official areas of countries, are directly accessed and incorporated. By conforming with corporate standards, FORIS benefits from general security procedures, including backup, and also over the long term achieves cost-efficiency.

Figure 48-5. Example of user input screen to FORIS, using a standard Web browser; the selected text (from the summary page for Austria) can be directly modified by the logged-in user, in this case UNECE in Geneva

Assembly of country information and generation of estimates

This section explains how country-specific information for forest area was assembled in FRA 2000, based on existing and available reports and using the functionality in FORIS. FRA 2000 reported on 213 countries and areas. These reporting units are all identified as official geographic units by FAO, which takes into account considerations of a political and practical nature. Several units are not constitutionally independent countries, but their remoteness from the mainland territory of the country motivates an independent presentation. For simplicity, the word "country" refers in the following to any of the 213 reporting units, i.e. it includes also areas that are not officially considered countries.

The assembly of country information followed and implemented the recommendations made by an FAO Expert Consultation on FRA 2000 methodologies, held in March 2000 (FAO 2000). The three most important principles of the approach were:

The main process in assembling country information involves interaction with countries, which is elaborated in Chapter 45. This section describes the subprocess of producing estimates and outputs (Figure 48-6). Each step in the subprocess is supported by functions in FORIS. Note that only estimations for developing countries strictly followed the process. For industrialized countries, the estimates were prepared by the countries themselves, and FAO did not therefore document all steps.

Step 1. Through requests to countries, copies of source documents containing primary data from inventories or surveys were obtained. In this step no distinction as to the quality and relevance of the primary data was made. Instead the goal was to include all known inventories that could be used for country-wide estimates. In several cases, partial inventories were recorded as these were the best data available and as partial data could be combined into country-wide estimates later in the process. The reference citations were entered into FORIS.

Step 2. The collected documents were reviewed with respect to the subject considered - in this case forest area estimates for the country. In this step the the quality of the information contained in each document was evaluated and decisions were made about whether to continue to work with the document. Documents containing secondary data were rejected in favour of primary sources, for example; and some documents were rejected for their use of methodology that does not generate reliable data. The reviews, including comments, were entered into FORIS. In all, more than 1 500 documents were reviewed with respect to forest area estimates for developing countries. Citations for reviewed documents are shown on the FORIS country profile Web pages.

Step 3. Most countries apply their own forest classification, adapted to local conditions and uses but seldom corresponding to the global classifications applied in FRA 2000. As one ambition was to make it possible to trace FRA 2000 estimates back to the source, the national classes and corresponding definitions were typed into FORIS from the source document. The national classifications are shown on the FORIS country profile Web pages.

Step 4. The next step was to enter the source data as given by the source document for each of the national classes. When data were at the subnational unit level, the names of the subnational units were also entered and data for each unit incorporated. These data are displayed on the FORIS country profile Web pages. By including data for subnational units, a higher spatial resolution is reported for national data for many countries in comparison with the global tables where only national totals are reported.

Step 5. To provide results that are comparable among countries, the national classifications had to be reclassified into the global classification scheme developed over past decades for the global assessments. For FRA 2000 reporting purposes, national data were reclassified into global land use classes. Definitions for these classes are given in Appendix 2. In most cases, the reclassification was simply a remapping to a corresponding global class, but sometimes national definitions overlapped with several global classes and the national class had to be split between two or more global classes.

Figure 48-6. Main process for assembly of country information and subprocess for producing estimates and outputs

The reclassifications made for FRA 2000 are displayed on the FORIS country profile Web pages.

Step 6. Using national source data that had been reclassified into the global classes, country-specific area estimates ("states") were created. These states were created for all reference years required for change estimates (see Step 7). For some countries only one state could be created as survey information only existed for one point in time. The most recent and reliable state for each country is shown on the FORIS country profile Web pages, and in the global FRA 2000 tables (Appendix 3, Table 5). A state has the following properties.

Step 7. The final step was to extrapolate the observed states from the reference years to the year 2000 and in the same process to estimate the area change between 1990 and 2000. As quality and availability of information varied greatly among countries, a unique analysis had to be made for each country. Area state 2000 and area change 1990-2000 were estimated for the total forest area, i.e. including closed natural forest, open natural forest and forest plantations together. The standard model was to use the two most recent states and make a linear extrapolation of the area to the year 2000. The slope of the line would then represent the rate of change between 1990 and 2000. This approach worked well when two comparable states were available, with reference years that approximately fit with the 1990s (Figure 48-7).

In some cases, when more than two states were available, a regression was made to determine the rate of area change. The regression was deemed more suitable in cases where it was difficult to select two states for the change estimate.

In cases where only one reliable area state was available, the area change estimate had to rely on ancillary information such as expert judgement, partial inventory data that could be studied over time, and results from samples of the FRA 2000 remote sensing survey falling inside the country.

Each area state 2000 and area change 1990-2000 is shown on the FORIS country profile Web pages, as well as in the FRA 2000 global tables (Appendix 3, Table 4). The country Web page also includes a note on how the extrapolation was made for the country.


Some major steps towards a broad Forestry Information System have been taken with the help of FRA 2000, made possible through extrabudgetary support to the FRA 2000 project. The system has been fully integrated into the Forestry Department Web site, and its development continues on a departmental level.

The information system efforts are closely linked to the overall ambitions set out in the FAO Strategic Framework (FAO 1999a), particularly strategy E which relates to knowledge management, including integrated information systems and assessments. The efforts also reflect the overall strategies of the FAO Forestry Department (FAO 2000).

The functions developed within FORIS provided essential support to the assembly of country information and generation of estimates in FRA 2000 and to the presentation of the results, at

Future development and expansion of FORIS will include many possibilities and challenges for forestry knowledge management and communication. Possibilities include, for example, expanded information partnerships - particularly with member countries, but also with other international initiatives such as the Global Forest Information Service (GFIS); increased support to international processes such as the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF); and involvement of the wider public in knowledge sharing. Challenges include mobilization of resources; committment to maintaining vital global data sets over the long term; and continued efforts to find cost-reducing synergies with other knowledge sharing efforts, inside FAO as well as outside.

Figure 48-7. Example (Mozambique) of extrapolation of forest area to 2000 based on two area states with reference years 1972 and 1991


FAO. 1995. Forest resources assessment 1990. FAO Forestry Paper No. 124. Rome.

FAO. 1999a. The Strategic Framework for FAO 2000-2015. Rome.

FAO. 1999b. Forest Resources Information System - concepts and status report. FRA Working Paper No. 7. Rome.

FAO. 2000a. FAO Strategic Plan for Forestry. Rome.

FAO. 2000b. Proceedings of the FAO Expert Consultation to Review FRA 2000 Methodology for Regional and Global Forest Change Assessment. FRA Working Paper No. 42. Rome.

FAO. 2001a. FAO Forestry homepage.

FAO. 2001b. Forestry country profiles navigation page.

UNECE. 2001. TBFRA 2000 database. Compact disc distributed by the Timber Section of the Trade Division, UNECE, Geneva.

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