Risky business: Can decision support systems narrow the odds on making better choices?

Some decisions are so simple that we don’t even know we are making them. Others, such as deciding the appropriate course of action to prevent, detect and control pests, weeds and diseases, are time-consuming and complex. That’s why AHDB is collaborating in a pan-European project to put robust decision support systems (DSS) at your fingertips. Emily Pope, Senior Knowledge Transfer Manager, explains.

In June 2019, an ambitious EU-funded project got underway. Working with 27 partners from 12 European countries, IPM Decisions aims to review DSS, uses insights into how farmers and agronomists make decisions and will make robust DSS available through a free-to-access online platform.

What is a decision support system (DSS)?

Any system/tool designed to help people make more effective decisions. An example includes the AHDB BYDV (Barley yellow dwarf virus) tool. This uses regional temperature data (observed/forecast) and cereal crop emergence/last-spray-date information to help identify crop monitoring periods and the requirement for any subsequent spray.

DSS use

In 2020, workshops revealed that one-third of farmer participants do not use DSS directly. However, agronomists may use tools on their behalf. It was also found that 45% of agronomists use the same tools as their clients, whereas 30% use different tools.

Farmers were also asked to identify the most important features of a DSS. The most critical feature was to make it easy-to-use site-specific information, including being able to locate the farm and access the nearest weather data. The next crucial feature was for the DSS to handle several crops, followed by multiple pests, weeds and diseases.

DSS accuracy

Most agronomists across Europe (62%) think DSS are accurate. However, in the UK, only 20% agree, with the finger pointed at our highly variable weather. But it is important to remember that complete ‘accuracy’ is not the aim of the game. DSS can only pinpoint more-likely scenarios. They are designed to ‘support’ decisions, not make them. The survey results back this up – most farmers (92%) and agronomists (85%) believe that DSS improve their decision-making.

DSS risk

It is critical that DSS help people make better decisions most of the time. According to an earlier AHDB survey, a small number (10%) of respondents said that inadequate estimation of aphids and risk resulted in BYDV symptoms in their crops. However, DSS are unlikely to replace the need for regular crop inspections – the best estimates will always be based on levels observed in actual crops.

The new platform will make it clear which DSS are available and make it easier to select the right ones for specific situations. It will use a traffic-light system to indicate the level of risk and, to make sure you don’t miss anything, will also issue alerts (e.g. via email or text).

However, knowing the level of risk is just one step in the decision-making puzzle. A potentially trickier step is understanding how you and the people around you perceive and respond to risk. We dug into risk attitudes at the workshops too. For example, we asked people if they preferred a 100% chance of winning £1, a 10% chance of winning £10, or something in between. This showed that agronomists are more inclined to take risks, compared with farmers.

Sharing with others

When making joint decisions, it is important to consider attitudes to risk, and the platform outputs can help promote a healthy discussion. Collaboration is at the heart of effective integrated pest management (IPM), whether that’s between a farmer and an agronomist or between neighbouring farms (for landscape-scale interventions). Encouragingly, almost 80% of respondents said they were willing for their data to be used anonymously to create and enhance publicly available risk maps. 

Get involved  

The prototype platform is due out later this year, giving industry the opportunity to test how it could work. If you want to help us improve it over the next three years, please get in touch: emily.pope@ahdb.org.uk 

IPM Decisions (Project 817617) receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. For further information, visit: ipmdecisions.net