Accounting for training data error in machine learning applied to Earth observations

This is a Preprint and has not been peer reviewed. The published version of this Preprint is available:


Download Preprint


Arthur Elmes , Hamed Alemohammad, Ryan Avery, Kelly Caylor, Ronald Eastman, Lewis Fishgold, Mark A. Friedl, Robert Gilmore Pontius, Meha Jain, Divyani Kohli


Remote sensing, or Earth Observation (EO), is increasingly used to understand Earth system dynamics and create continuous and categorical maps of biophysical properties and land cover, especially based on recent advances in machine learning (ML). ML models typically require large, spatially explicit training datasets to make accurate predictions. Training data (TD) are typically generated by digitizing polygons on high spatial-resolution imagery, by collecting in situ data, or by using pre-existing datasets. TD are often assumed to accurately represent the truth, but in practice almost always have error, stemming from (1) sample design, and (2) sample collection errors. The latter is particularly relevant for image-interpreted TD, an increasingly commonly used method due to its practicality and the increasing training sample size requirements of modern ML algorithms. TD errors can cause substantial errors in the maps created using ML algorithms, which may impact map use and interpretation. Despite these potential errors and their real-world consequences for map-based decisions, TD error is often not accounted for or reported in EO research. Here we review the current practices for collecting and handling TD. We identify the sources of TD error, and illustrate their impacts using several case studies representing different EO applications (infrastructure mapping, global surface flux estimates, and agricultural monitoring), and provide guidelines for minimizing and accounting for TD errors. To harmonize terminology, we distinguish TD from three other classes of data that should be used to create and assess ML models: training reference data, used to assess the quality of TD during data generation; validation data, used to iteratively improve models; and map reference data, used only for final accuracy assessment. We focus primarily on TD, but our advice is generally applicable to all four classes, and we ground our review in established best practices for map accuracy assessment literature. EO researchers should start by determining the tolerable levels of map error and appropriate error metrics. Next, TD error should be minimized during sample design by choosing a representative spatio-temporal collection strategy, by using spatially and temporally relevant imagery and ancillary data sources during TD creation, and by selecting a set of legend definitions supported by the data. Furthermore, TD error can be minimized during the collection of individual samples by using consensus-based collection strategies, by directly comparing interpreted training observations against expert-generated training reference data to derive TD error metrics, and by providing image interpreters with thorough application-specific training. We strongly advise that TD error is incorporated in model outputs, either directly in bias and variance estimates or, at a minimum, by documenting the sources and implications of error. TD should be fully documented and made available via an open TD repository, allowing others to replicate and assess its use. To guide researchers in this process, we propose three tiers of TD error accounting standards. Finally, we advise researchers to clearly communicate the magnitude and impacts of TD error on map outputs, with specific consideration given to the likely map audience.



Earth Sciences, Engineering, Environmental Monitoring, Environmental Sciences, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


machine learning, Earth Observation, error propagation, map accuracy, training data


Published: 2019-08-29 21:35

Last Updated: 2020-04-01 19:21

Older Versions

GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 2.1

Add a Comment

You must log in to post a comment.


There are no comments or no comments have been made public for this article.