Prescriptive Software: The Future of Land Management

In several posts I’ve alluded to advanced technology which can use big data as the platform (or system inputs) to generate recommendations (or system outputs) for land use which balances environmental and economic goals (or system objectives) by smarter, more efficient use of our natural resources. At Rural System, we believe this technology is prescriptive software but what is “prescriptive software?”

The word prescription is defined as the authoritative recommendation of an action or procedure as remedy or treatment. Typically, this is in response to a specific ailment characterized by certain symptoms diagnosed by an expert. That is precisely how we envision prescriptive software to function although instead of treating medical conditions, our prescriptions treat land use. In other words, prescriptive software can prescribe recommended actions on land either in response to observed problems or as a maintenance regime for long-term health and productivity of the land. That is basic “prescriptive software” and you can try out our demonstration product SoilsmartRx as a hands-on example.

Just as it’s helpful for your doctor to know details about your body and your lifestyle, having a deep understanding of the specific characteristics of the land would mean more precise recommendations. This is where GIS and big data are incorporated into prescriptive software. GIS allows us to “layer” data collected spatially and generate a map with site-specific traits for each parcel of land. Recommendations for possible treatment or activities are then customized to reflect the characteristics of that piece of land.

Prescriptive software is equipped with recommendations which are based on experts to make what is called an “expert-guided system.” So although it is advanced computer technology, it is based on the realistic skills of human experts. The advantage of a comprehensive software program is that the computer is able to consider vast amounts of data, possible activities, and weigh potential outcomes faster and more accurately and at a finer scale than we can as humans. This software is dependent on the input of big data, or huge datasets, from diverse industries and disciplines such as agriculture, the financial market, distribution, climate, etc. which are already actively collected in the United States and around the world.

The resulting prescription would recommend a management plan for each parcel of land within a cluster based on site-specific traits and goals.

Optimal land use in the future will be based on data-driven decisions which are specific for the particular site being managed. Perhaps the first known example of this idea is the Virginia Viticulture Sustainability Investigative Tool which helps landowners choose which grape varieties will be most successful and profitable on their land based on certain site-specific characteristics (soil, sun, rain, etc.). However groundbreaking this software, it is still limited to one activity on the land, growing grapes. Imagine the possibilities of a software program with options for a diversity of activities for comparison. A landowner could consider farming grapes, carrots, trees, cabbage, cows, fish or perhaps non-agricultural activities like recreation space, hunting, storage, retail, food processing, and many more.

The result of smart land use based on site-specific characteristics is increased profit margin on rural lands, diverse activities supporting a well-rounded community, improved livelihoods and an overall rejuvenation of rural areas. In an advanced system including prescriptive software, managers of large regions (clusters of land parcels) can consider improving efficiencies in distribution routes and reducing waste. Because the program is intended to plan for long-term profitability the productivity of the land is a critical consideration. It has been long-accepted that conservative practices which mimic nature result in the highest productivity of land over the long term. Therefore another resulting benefit of prescriptive land management is the conservation and efficient management of natural resources.

Prescriptive software is on the horizon; it’s being built for specific purposes much like the vineyard software. Rural System proposes a vision for prescriptive software that takes our capabilities one step further by allowing us to consider multiple possibilities, predict land use outcomes, prevent mismanagement, and weather fluctuating markets. One way or another, prescriptive software is the future of land management.

There is one concern that I must put to rest before concluding. Some people are wary of such technology and show concern for software replacing current human-occupied positions. It’s important that we understand that since this is an expert-guided system, those experts are critical components for continued success. Prescriptive software programs, like expert-guided systems, are constantly being updated with new data, new discoveries, models and new ideas. Make no mistake, people are essential to land management and they are essential to prescriptive software. Prescriptive software should be viewed as a tool which can make human effort more efficient and effective, much like the tractor or the computer…two revolutionary inventions which were equally praised and villainized in their day.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.


  1. This is an excellent post and one of the most comprehensive and usefully descriptive that is available. I have had great difficulty describing Rural System and what it does. This one by Risa Pesapane I believe helps very much. To those many who have said “I cannot get my mind around it” (Rural System), I beg of you to read this post and then ask questions. Risa has demonstrated that someone “gets it.” Questions and comments will help us overcome the uncertainties.

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