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  1. Airborne remote sensing offers unprecedented opportunities to efficiently monitor vegetation, but methods to delineate and classify individual plant species using the collected data are still actively being developed and improved. The Integrating Data science with Trees and Remote Sensing (IDTReeS) plant identification competition openly invited scientists to create and compare individual tree mapping methods. Participants were tasked with training taxon identification algorithms based on two sites, to then transfer their methods to a third unseen site, using field-based plant observations in combination with airborne remote sensing image data products from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). These data were captured by a high resolution digital camera sensitive to red, green, blue (RGB) light, hyperspectral imaging spectrometer spanning the visible to shortwave infrared wavelengths, and lidar systems to capture the spectral and structural properties of vegetation. As participants in the IDTReeS competition, we developed a two-stage deep learning approach to integrate NEON remote sensing data from all three sensors and classify individual plant species and genera. The first stage was a convolutional neural network that generates taxon probabilities from RGB images, and the second stage was a fusion neural network that “learns” how to combine these probabilities with hyperspectral and lidar data. Our two-stage approach leverages the ability of neural networks to flexibly and automatically extract descriptive features from complex image data with high dimensionality. Our method achieved an overall classification accuracy of 0.51 based on the training set, and 0.32 based on the test set which contained data from an unseen site with unknown taxa classes. Although transferability of classification algorithms to unseen sites with unknown species and genus classes proved to be a challenging task, developing methods with openly available NEON data that will be collected in a standardized format for 30 years allows for continual improvements and major gains for members of the computational ecology community. We outline promising directions related to data preparation and processing techniques for further investigation, and provide our code to contribute to open reproducible science efforts. 
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  2. Abstract

    It is a critical time to reflect on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) science to date as well as envision what research can be done right now with NEON (and other) data and what training is needed to enable a diverse user community. NEON became fully operational in May 2019 and has pivoted from planning and construction to operation and maintenance. In this overview, the history of and foundational thinking around NEON are discussed. A framework of open science is described with a discussion of how NEON can be situated as part of a larger data constellation—across existing networks and different suites of ecological measurements and sensors. Next, a synthesis of early NEON science, based on >100 existing publications, funded proposal efforts, and emergent science at the very first NEON Science Summit (hosted by Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in October 2019) is provided. Key questions that the ecology community will address with NEON data in the next 10 yr are outlined, from understanding drivers of biodiversity across spatial and temporal scales to defining complex feedback mechanisms in human–environmental systems. Last, the essential elements needed to engage and support a diverse and inclusive NEON user community are highlighted: training resources and tools that are openly available, funding for broad community engagement initiatives, and a mechanism to share and advertise those opportunities. NEON users require both the skills to work with NEON data and the ecological or environmental science domain knowledge to understand and interpret them. This paper synthesizes early directions in the community’s use of NEON data, and opportunities for the next 10 yr of NEON operations in emergent science themes, open science best practices, education and training, and community building.

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