Our work with the Ministry for Primary Industries replaced a manual production process with an automated system. New data can now be piped in to recreate each year’s National Exotic Forest Description – this is significantly faster, cheaper and more accurate than building the report from scratch using Word, Excel and InDesign.

About the report

The National Exotic Forest Description (NEFD) details the area of land in plantation forests in defined wood-producing regions in New Zealand, including the species and age of the trees. It is a Tier 1 statistic – these important statistics are recognised as essential for national decision-making and monitoring.

The NEFD information is presented in 24 figures, 20 tables and a high-level commentary, as well as the accompanying data in a downloadable form. While the report is updated with new information each year, the format is largely unchanged. Its compilation and release has been led by MPI since 1985.

Forest owners and managers use the report for business planning, including making decisions about when to harvest and plant trees. It also informs Government policy and meets some of New Zealand’s international reporting obligations, including climate change reporting.

Defining a scope for the project

Our clients at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) were interested in exploring more efficient ways of producing the report. They also had concerns about the manual production process, especially the workload for their analysts, and the opportunity for errors to be introduced.

The report production involves a number of steps. These include collecting data from surveys sent to forest owners and managers, entering, analysing and anonymising the data, and design, lay out and publication of a final document and data tables.

While a number of these steps would benefit from an automated approach, not everything could be done at once. One of our first tasks was therefore to identify which step was most sensible to address initially. Given the stage in the reporting cycle and the time available, we decided to tackle the last step (report production) first.

Changing the wheels on a moving car

Collecting data for the NEFD takes up a good chunk of each year, which leaves only a small window of time to produce the report. One of the challenges in this project was the requirement to change the reporting process during a production cycle, and still deliver a report on time.

An innovative approach was applied. While the 2020 data was being collected and finalised, we developed computer code in R and LaTeX to exactly replicate the words, figures, infographics, and design of the 2019 report. Once this version had been approved by MPI, we applied the same code to the 2020 data to create the new report.

Benefits of a reproducible report

Before this project, late changes to the NEFD had to be made manually after the numbers and text had already been copied into design software. This put pressure on the staff involved and introduced a risk of errors and inconsistencies.

The new coded, reproducible approach allows late changes to be accommodated much more easily, with assurance that they have been incorporated transparently and consistently throughout the report. Besides a PDF to publish online, we created code to create print-ready and Word versions of the report, and data tables formatted to MPI’s in-house style. New images and future changes to the design can also be incorporated in the code simply and easily.

MPI has estimated that the new approach has reduced the time taken to produce the report by 4 weeks, which is a significant saving for the team.

I’d call and they’d respond. We were always able to contact Dragonfly and have a chat about what was going on. I really appreciated that. I’ve managed a lot of contracts and I haven’t had that before.

This project was a good place to start and enabled us to get a win on the table. It has potentially future proofed the report production down the track, which will save even more time in the following years. It’s also reduced our dependence on having senior staff available for the data analysis.

Dragonfly staff were constantly communicating what was needed and whose responsibility it was to do what. I’m notoriously hard to pin down, so they worked with the people I delegated to make the decisions that were needed. We got the report published on time – and it was great!

Kate King
Team Leader
Economic Data and Analysis, Ministry for Primary Industries | Manatū Ahu Matua