Main authors: M. L. Madsen, R. K. Laursen, L.K. Thostrup, L. Tendler, J. R. Williams, I. Wright, P. Schipper, K. Verloop, G. Clements, M. Hoogendoorn, F. Nicholson, J. Brandt, D. Doody, L. Farrow, G. Velthof
FAIRWAYiS Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Madsen, M. L. et al. (2021) Development of a decision support framework. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 5.4 18 pp


In this section of FAIRWAYiS we build on »Survey and review of existing decision support tools, »Evaluation of decision support tools and »Assessments of costs and benefits using decision support tools to develop a framework enabling users to select decision support tools most suited to their needs.

Contents table
1. Aims
2. Preparatory work to develop the decision support framework
3. Methodology

1. Aims

Decision support tools (DSTs) can provide advice and support training and communication strategies in order to establish common awareness of diffuse pollution from nitrates and pesticides of vulnerable drinking water resources among their users.

There is a wide range of exising nitrate and pesticide management DSTs that have been developed for different types of agriculture and in different regions and countries. Because these tools oftern have a high degree of practical relevance, we considered restricting the framework only to tools used by farmers and farm advisors. However, it was decided that it would also be helpful to include tools suitable for other actors (such as catchment scientists, policy makers and tool developers) in order to provide awareness of different approaches and to aid further tool development and functionality.

2. Preparatory work to develop the decision support framework

In »Survey and review of existing decision support tools we describe the literature survey and review a long list of the existing DSTs used by farmers, farm advisers, water managers and policy makers for water, nutrient and pesticide management in the FAIRWAY partner countries and elsewhere in Europe. In most cases, the tools used in FAIRWAY's case studies and were of high practical relevance.

As a part of the evaluation we considered trade-offs with other environmental issues, such as ammonia (NH3) emissions to air, soil fertility and biodiversity. Most DSTs for nutrients are not restricted to drinking water resources and estimate nutrient loads or give information about how to improve nutrient use efficiency from applications of organic materials and manufactured fertilisers in order to minimise nutrient losses to ground and surface waters. Most pesticide tools are not restricted to drinking water resources either and also do not estimate pesticide loads or give information about how to reduce pesticide loads to surface waters.

From the long list, a short list selection of a set of 36 DSTs (see »Decision support tool short list) that could be further assessed for their potential suitability for managing nitrate and pesticide losses to water within the case study catchments of the FAIRWAY project. A set of information sheets that summarised the operation and outputs of the tools were produced to provide an easily accessible source of key information on DST capabilities.

A subset of the DSTs was demonstrated to a group of project partners and Multi Actor Programme (MAP) leaders at a workshop on the 17th of April 2018 at ADAS, Boxworth, UK. Videos of the presentations about the DSTs were made for dissemination to the other project partners. Additionally, a 'distribution key' was developed based on specified characteristics of each DST in the subset: water source (groundwater or surface water), contaminant (nitrate or pesticides), and the target user (e.g. to support regional policy makers or sustainable farm management). Moreover, DSTs were categorized based on their functionality (i.e. evaluation of current practices, strategic advice farm management and implementation of mitigation measures) and operational management (i.e. climate smart, innovations for equipment, IT-apps, instructions/rules for sustainable application).

Based on this information the case study leaders initially selected the DSTs they intended to demonstrate and/or test in their case study (»Evaluation of decision support tools). Twelve DSTs were tested in nine of the Fairway case study sites located across different EU countries. For instance, the Danish “Mark Online” was tested in the Lower Saxony case study. In this case the objective was to identify how fertilizer planning, documentation and control are undertaken in different countries and how the DSTs for that purpose are designed. “Mark Online” has similarities to “Düngeplanung” which is already used in Germany and was a useful comparator DST.

Note: To see a comprehensive report on this testing in German language go to:

DSTs for pesticide management including “Plant Protection Online” (DK), “SIRIS” (FR) and the “Environmental Yardstick” (NL) were also compared and evaluated. Differences were identified, such as national range of pesticides and levels of accepted dosages. The comparisons allowed valuable shared knowledge between countries. A number of DSTs were tested in alternative contexts which showed that many countries have developed similar DSTs to address similar problems. The testing and evaluation were useful in identifying how existing DSTs in different case study areas could be updated and improved. Furthermore, in a few cases where no equivalent DST existed, the testing assessed the potential for a DST to be used in that country and to draw on the ideas presented.

The comparison also provided examples of how fertilizer/pesticide management works in other countries, as the tools reflected the national legislation and related implementation of the country of origin of the respective tool. Farmers were very interested in knowing if their management practices were in line with regulations set by other countries. The comparisons allowed them to identify if their own management was worse/better/in line with what happens elsewhere in the EU.

The process of testing DSTs led to a set of criteria for a successful DST (»Assessments of costs and benefits using decision support tools). The criteria to be fulfilled by a DST are about accessibility, user-friendliness, functionality and the quality of the output from the DST. The criteria can serve as basis for assessment and comparisons of DSTs.

In this section of FAIRWAYiS, all information gathered has been organised in such a way that it allows users quick and easy access. An online DST selector has been designed which summarises basic information on the tools and provides several quick search options to identify DSTs of potential interest. Furthermore, this framework can establish more and better application of DSTs, inspire developers to improve existing DSTs and enhance exchange between scientists and farm advisors in further development of DSTs.

fairway square w50 Decision Support Framework:

3. Methodology 

The Decision Support Framework was developed in five phases.

3.1 Selection of technical solution.

At the beginning of this task, considerations were taken to find a technical solution that could meet project requirements. A decision tree model was discussed, but it was decided that it was not possible to identify the normative hierarchy of the importance of different aspects of the DSTs in this model. Furthermore, the decision tree model was too slow to meet criteria of user friendliness. Instead, it was decided that the framework should be constructed as a large grid with an algorithm that automatically gives an outcome when the user has answered some questions and selected different selection criteria. The framework was based on an excel sheet with a simple layout. It was a premise that the framework should be easy and quick to handle, and that it should provide a good overview for the user after just some clicks. The system needed to be easily updated as tools become redundant or when new and updated tools are introduced. In addition, there needed to be a hosting platform that might continue after the end of the FAIRWAY project.

3.2 Identification of target groups

Due to the complexity and the site-specific limitations of different national anchoring, it was decided to increase the target group of the DST framework users to:

  • Farmers
  • Farm advisors
  • Catchment managers
  • Policy makers
  • Researchers
  • DST developers

The framework provided a catalogue of DSTs that could be used by developers to build new or improve existing tools.

3.3 Prototype testing

Tests of first versions of the framework were conducted by FAIRWAY project members and a feedback process tuned the basic functionalities in the framework. It was decided that the framework should include an open-source element, so that future DSTs can be integrated to ensure a dynamic platform that can sustain its relevance after the end of the FAIRWAY. The future perspectives also led to the choice of the partner CLM as a host for the framework since they could offer a more future-proof platform than the project website.

Once the prototype of the framework had been produced, it was clear that the framework had to be split between “tools for pesticide management” and “tools for nutrient management” with two separate filter solutions. This was a logical consequence caused by the technical complexity of the two different datasets. In addition, as the target groups focus was likely to be different, it was reasonable that the comparison between DSTs would be clearer for end users if the datasets were kept separate in the framework functionality and user interface.

3.4 Securing input data

Following construction of the framework a process for quality assurance and updating of the original information sheets was conducted. The information sheets compiled in »Decision support tool short list were reviewed by the study area partners and in special cases examined in cooperation with the DST owners. In addition to the DST information sheets we asked DST providers for additional information, covering information on DST maintenance, updates, ease of use, time requirement, data and network requirements to run the tool and additional demonstration material (interface, output, etc.). This process ensured the data in the grid behind the final version of the DST framework, allowed comparative functionality and were in accordance with the current development of the individual DSTs.

3.5 Applying and finishing the DST framework

After the quality assurance process, the validated data of the information sheets was incorporated in an updated version of the DST framework. The updated version was tested and validated by case study partners and the updated version of the DST framework was launched at the end of May 2021.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see

» References


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