European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results
Content archived on 2024-06-18

Harmonised European Land Monitoring

Final Report Summary - HELM (Harmonised European Land Monitoring)

Executive Summary:
The land surface is a decisive factor regarding the state of the environment and human well-being. To manage it well, regularly obtained up do date information on land use and land cover is needed. Land monitoring provides this information through thematic maps based on the interpretation of areal photography, satellite imagery and further sources. These maps aid spatial planning, nature protection, agricultural policy, forestry, water catchment area management etc.

In spite of its importance, land monitoring in Europe is quite inefficient owing to lacking coordination between the national, sub-national, and European levels. Efforts are duplicated and given opportunities for mutual support are not utilised which means a substantial waste of resources.

HELM was a network of authorities concerned with land monitoring across Europe. It has initiated a move to increase the maturity of European land monitoring along five sequential steps: (1) mutual interest in achieving reciprocal knowledge, (2) shared visions and planning for the future, (3) joint activities by taking on tasks collectively, (4) alignment of national systems involving the mutual adaptation of data interpretation methods and of the timing of data gathering, (5) lasting integration and combining data across all administrative levels.

HELM envisioned a coherent European land monitoring system characterised by high quality data and efficient productivity and combining the broad range of specific expertise and resources of relevant authorities in the member states. HELM has recommended that these national stakeholders' work would be supported through targeted centrally supplied measures fulfilling common requirements for raw data and data processing.

Through such a continuous flow of knowledge from the local to the European scale and the other way round, future information needs regarding land use and land cover can be met as an essential basis for managing the land surface in the framework of European sustainable development.
Project Context and Objectives:
HELM has paved the way for a coherent European land monitoring system. The rationale behind this endeavour was that monitoring of Land Use and Land Cover (LULC) and the change of them is one of the most fundamental environmental surveying efforts required to support policy development and effective environmental management. Nevertheless, land monitoring is not well organised across the different administrative levels within Europe and is characterised by inefficiency and the need for the continuous development and use of workarounds to deliver against the most basic needs. HELM has taken the opportunity which Copernicus offers to address many of these issues and move towards increased harmonisation. Many current environmental issues are directly related to the land surface, such as habitats and biodiversity, water catchment area characteristics, and several climate change related matters, including soil degradation and species phenology and distribution. The same is true for many aspects of the human impacts on the natural environment, such as settlements, transport, tourism and industrial infrastructure, soil sealing, agriculture and forestry. The state of the land surface is at the same time a crucial ecological factor, an essential – almost non-renewable – economic resource, and a key societal determinant as it influences the population‘s opportunities for recreation, the structure of rural and urban societies and, not least, a countries sense of identity. Land thus plays a central role in all three factors of sustainable development: Ecology, Economy, Society.

The overall goal of HELM was to initiate a move that makes European land monitoring more productive by increasing the alignment of national and sub-national level land monitoring endeavours and by enabling their integration to an effective European LULC monitoring system. HELM was organised along its Maturity Model for European Land Monitoring which provided the framework for a natural sequence of activities leading to a stepwise harmonisation. The five steps of this model reflect an increasing maturity of European land monitoring with increasingly strong alliance of national systems:
1) Interest – Communication between stakeholders involved in national land monitoring programmes or activities
2) Visions – Joint planning for the future
3) Joint activities – Taking on individual tasks collectively in a spontaneous, not sustained way, national land monitoring systems retain all independence
4) Alignment – Lasting, mutual alignment of national land monitoring systems, integrating a range of tasks, partial reduction of independence accepted
5) Integration – Permanent collaboration across all political levels, aggregation of aligned LULC data is routine, European products directly draw from national efforts
This model encompassed a clear preservation of the distinctiveness of national activities and no attempt to erode their autonomy, but rather a well balanced situation, in which national land monitoring solutions take care of national and sub-national specifics. These national land monitoring systems should all be based on similar or compatible concepts and data models (alignment), and they should provide the technical solution towards a European umbrella with a European data model (integration). A generally accepted consensus in this regard has required participatory processes among the HELM participants.
As it was during the lifetime of the project, it can also be expected that after HELM, not all of Europe will go through these stages at the same time, but countries will move with different pace, some will prefer only a partial involvement, and some will not take part at all. HELM has initiated this move, provided a proof of concept and a roadmap for its participants and others to follow. Completing this move for all situations is beyond the framework of any single project and may become the subject matter of future joint activities by the consortium and further interested parties.
Project Results:
HELM work started with the overview of European land monitoring. It shows what already exists and how we got there. Thereby, the project has produced a European Union (EU) land monitoring activity storyline which covers all major pertinent activities, programmes, projects, and bodies while showing how this topic had evolved over the last two decades. This documentation provides the basis for all other outcomes of HELM as it aligns common knowledge and delineates the activities that should be considered when designing an integrated European land monitoring system.
Furthermore, HELM has investigated societal implications which point at why we want to monitor land to begin with, exposing different – not always compatible – interests that are its major drivers. While some of these interests can be foreign to the primary motivation underlying land monitoring they should not be ignored when aggregation approaches are designed, particularly when considering the impartiality of final data products. Currently, European citizens are hardly involved in designing and using land monitoring outcomes although political implications of the data may have a significant influence on their everyday lives.
Several pioneering activities already apply cross-border cooperation and decentralised approaches thereby taking advantage of multi-national or regional partnerships. Numerous initiatives have already emerged to compare and harmonise land monitoring data in several European countries at their borders, because environmental issues are not confined to one country alone. Moreover, in some countries where a federal system is established bottom-up data aggregation is already practised based on provincial or regional and national datasets. Both cases provide invaluable lessons learnt that can be applied in the design of a pan-European land monitoring system that is based on aggregated national data.

To address current issues in practical land monitoring, HELM has considered best practices in Europe, namely, proven solutions which have already been shown to work in one country, which are transferable to other countries, and which clearly illustrate the added value of professional collaboration. Such practices relate primarily to cost/benefit aspects, data applications and their legislative requirements, comparison of parameters, and the driving forces behind land monitoring systems.
The land monitoring endeavours currently practiced in various countries have evolved independently of each other. The HELM investigation of operational commonalities, gaps, and differences shows that indeed, they differ significantly in several regards yet at the same time they also exhibit many similarities that could provide a sound basis for collaboration.
Considering the similarities in the logic driving land monitoring in various European countries and the technical approaches taken by them, common needs and tasks were articulated in terms of suitable means that either jointly tackle or are supported by a central source. Such common needs involve the acquisition and (pre-) processing of data, human and technical and scientific capacity, including IT, measures to ascertain the quality of derived data products, and broad sharing of experiences and knowledge.

The HELM perspective as to how European land monitoring should be arranged in the future is based upon common strategic views. Both decentralised, i.e. bottom-up, and centralised, i.e. top-down, land monitoring data provision each have clear advantages and disadvantages. A future European integrated land monitoring system would do well to combine the advantages of both approaches so that the needs of users, whether individuals, communities, or nations, are addressed alike in an economically efficient manner.
Emerging from HELM findings is the need for aligned national land monitoring activities where the many different datasets are linked and combined between and across administrative levels while allowing for the freedom of data interpretation needed at the regional and national scales. HELM offers the EAGLE concept (EIONET Action Group on Land Monitoring in Europe, where EIONET stands for European Environment Information and Observation Network) which can be used both to translate between different existing land classification systems and as the basis for designing new ones, thereby providing the foundation to aggregated national data originating in the different European systems in a bottom-up fashion.
HELM envisaged a bilateral flow of data between different agencies involved in European land monitoring activities in that the aggregated national land data production should be supplemented by a central component of the system which delivers future Copernicus products supporting (sub-) national land monitoring.
A major aspect regarding this aggregation of data from various sources can be seen in database merging techniques that encompass not only remote sensing data, but also data from other sources. The overall process consists of the integration of existing data into a production database and, subsequently, their aggregation to harmonised land monitoring data. More importantly, professional database merging techniques support the SEIS (Shared Environmental Information System) principle and they can simplify the process of drawing European datasets from a multitude of national ones.
The need arises to adjust both the spatial and thematic contents of data, as well as time frames defining when such data are gathered in the different countries so that an overall synchronisation is achieved between inter- and intra-national agencies as well as pan-European agencies. There is no one optimal timing for all data gathering campaigns. Such timing depends on the scale of end products because more detailed maps must be updated more often than coarser ones. Timing would also depend on content because some landscape features, such as cities, change more rapidly than others, such as forests.
When redesigning European land monitoring, possible alternative approaches to land monitoring should be considered. Data can be presented as irregular polygons that adhere to certain landscape features (the current incumbent approach) or as regular cells independent of the landscape they describe. Both must still be supplemented by a map legend or description of map contents. Presenting and describing data in square cells that resemble a grid appears to have most potential for becoming the most suitable approach to combine data from separate European countries in order to handle them at the European level.
All these considerations have resulted in HELM novel perspectives for European land monitoring, an overall outlook as to how European land monitoring should be shaped in the future. This development would begin with agreements across European political levels and lead to a reliable and sustainable land monitoring process, in line with INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) and including clear quality assurance procedures. As a precondition for this process, the existing pan-European land monitoring activities will have to develop into, or even be replaced by, a modernised successor that can accommodate all constituents of the HELM roadmap.
Potential Impact:
Potential impact – socioeconomic and wider societal implications

HELM was an important step aimed at improving the urgently needed overall coordination of land monitoring between European countries with the goal of producing better mutual understanding and stronger collaboration between pertinent organisations and individuals,
improved alignment between land monitoring activities of countries represented in the project, and paving the way towards aggregation of national and sub-national land-related data towards pan-European data systems. Consequently, the project was a participatory endeavour based on highly interactive work and focused communication procedures, enabling all parties to be heard, to raise their wishes and concerns, to reflect upon each other, and to create mutually agreed upon outcomes. Compared to the existing Copernicus Earth Observation (EO) system, HELM takes the opportunity to address many of these issues and to move towards increased harmonisation.

HELM has provided a roadmap towards an optimised European Land Monitoring in the framework of Copernicus, and the ultimate impact of the project will be achieved when this roadmap is realised.
The currently negotiated regulation of the European parliament and of the council establishing the Copernicus programme states that
"Copernicus data should maintain coherence with Member States’ spatial reference data and support the development of the infrastructure for spatial information in the Union established by Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 March 2007 establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE). Copernicus should also complement the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) and Union activities in the field of emergency response.“
The HELM roadmap for a future integrated European land monitoring system provides an opportunity to put this statement into action. Drawing pan-European datasets from nationally produced land monitoring data would be the optimal way to ensure that the pan-European datasets are compatible with member states reference data and that data are kept close to their source and used for several purposes, as stipulated by SEIS. Furthermore, the regulation states that
"Copernicus should also make use of the available in situ data provided, namely, by the member states.“
Several member states already include in-situ data in their land monitoring products, this is especially true for aerial photography (which in the Copernicus context is considered in situ), but, to a degree also
to ancillary data. Thus, utilising nationally produced land monitoring data to derive pan-European data from them would be the optimal way to make use of national in situ data.
Obviously, users can most effectively be involved in Copernicus through continuous collaboration, participation, and active involvement in the programme – much more than by merely consulting them through commercial data providers and subsequently delivering ready-made data products to them. Thus, the concept to conduct pan-European land monitoring by combining top-down and bottom-up procedures is in line with the regulations’ statement that
"Copernicus should be user driven, thus requiring the continuous, effective involvement of users, particularly regarding the definition and validation of service requirements.“
The new Copernicus programme, then, as the operational successor of GMES, provides a framework which supports the opportunity to put the HELM concept into action, if the European Commission, as the programme owner, takes the first step to initiate this endeavour. As is shown in this report, harmonising land monitoring across Europe is a long-term process that requires leadership and endurance, and, to that end a well defined joint programme framework. For the near future, Copernicus is well suited to offer such a framework until sufficient results are achieved that justify the establishment of a more specific legal framework such as a thematic strategy that requires operational land monitoring in the member states.
The long-term process of increasing maturity of European land monitoring, as envisaged by HELM and described in this report, is best addressed in a step-wise manner that demonstrates to all stakeholders involved which added values they can generate when they place stronger emphasis on common interests than on individual ones. Aligning national undertakings of any kind is a complex participatory process. The willingness to collaborate and to forgo some independence requires that the benefits are clear for each participant – which is true for the stakeholders in the member states and at European level alike.
Increasing maturity of European land monitoring involves an increasingly strong alliance of national land monitoring systems. Nevertheless, the process must consider the preservation of their distinctiveness and should not attempt to erode their autonomy. The long-term goal thus is to achieve a well balanced situation, in which national land monitoring solutions take care of national and sub-national specifics. These national land monitoring systems would be based on compatible concepts and data models (alignment), and they would provide the technical solution towards a European umbrella (integration). Needless to say that not all of Europe will go through such a process in the same manner, but countries will move in different paces.
In conclusion, whether or not the project has a lasting impact will depend on the degree to which the HELM roadmap will be put into action by the relevant stakeholders. Currently, the situation looks promising in this regard because HELM results have been well received at several occasions, and are being further promoted by the many participants of this project, namely by the beneficiaries and also a range of stakeholders involved.

Main dissemination activities and exploitation of results

HELM was presented and discussed at many events on European, international and national/regional level. The most important ones are listed below.

The ETC SIA is a network of 18 European Organisations (several of which are also represented in HELM). Owing to the ETC SIA being represented in the consortium (especially ETC UMA and ETC UAB) the connection between it and HELM was easily assured. Through this network, HELM results were spread at many occasions. Likewise, the still existing ETC (and its successor to be initiated in January 2015) will ensure that HELM actors collaborate beyond the time frame of the project, and jointly exploit the project results.
A range of HELM partners are also members of the EAGLE, EIONET Action Group on Land Monitoring in Europe ( Thus the two initiatives are naturally linked. Some HELM/EAGLE meetings were conducted back to back. Likewise, the EAGLE will go into the future, and, in a similar fashion as the ETC ensure that HELM participants have another framework to collaborate in and to jointly exploit project results.
Specifically, HELM was link to EAGLE in many ways: Results of Task 4.3 were presented (disseminated) at several meetings: NRC Meeting Copenhagen 18.Oct.2012 (by St. Arnold, B. Kosztra, St. Kleeschulte), final geoland2 Forum Copenhagen 19.Oct.2012 (by G. Banko), German national Copernicus conference Düsseldorf 14.-15.Nov.2012 (St. Arnold, M. Bock). A dedicated session on HELM and EAGLE is planned during the upcoming INSPIRE 2014 meeting. Two EAGLE meetings were held, in conjunction with HELM meetings: EAGLE meeting in Haifa (Israel) – 14-15 March 2013 and EAGLE meeting in Budapest (Hungary)– 17-18 October 2013, and there was an EAGLE workshop within INSPIRE conference in Florence (Italy) - 23 June 2013 at which many HELM partners took part. EAGLE meeting in Malaga (Spain)– 27 November 2013, again with many HELM partners present.
Although it conducted its work within the Copernicus-programme, HELM has also established links to European GEO activities particularly via the involvement of the coordinator in the project BalkanGEONet. E.g. HELM was, among other matters, presented at the Slovenian national GEO programme event on 16 February 2012.
In this regard, the International Symposium for Remote Sensing of the Environment must be mentioned which combines several pertinent programmes and initiatives and is also very important in the framework of GEO. As was planned in the DoW, both in 2011 and in 2013 HELM results were presented during these symposia which provided an important opportunity to discuss the global level of land monitoring with representatives of other projects and actions.
HELM had a topical connection to MS. MONINA (Multi scale monitoring of Natura 2000 habitats) and a link was established. The project coordinator was a member of the advisory board of that project. Also this activity provided an essential framework to disseminate HELM results and to link them to the work of that community.
Likewise, a representative of HLANDATA ( was invited to the first HELM meeting. HLANDATA (Harmonisation of European Land Cover and Land Use Data Bases) produces harmonsided data for test sites in three countries.
HELM was mentioned and discussed during the meeting of the programme DeCOVER-, 18/06/12/-19/06/12, Bonn, and at the National German Copernicus Workshop (Thementage), 14/11/12/-15/11/12, Düsseldorf
HELM was promoted at the 1st Copernicus National User Forum Day ( ,
A HELM presentation was given by Tomas Soukup during 'Space in Horizon 2020' outlook workshop organized by Technology Center AVCR on 21/02/12, Czech Republic
Another HELM presentation was given by Tomas Soukup on Cartographic workshop Slovakia organized by GU AVSR on 11/10/2012, Czech Republic
HELM was presented at the Sentinel 2 symposium, 23-27 April, 2012, Frascati, Italy. A paper was submitted (Haubold, H., Hallin-Pihlatie, L., Soukop, T.: Harmonised Europeean Land Monitoring).
A presentation on HELM was given by H. Haubold at the Dresdener Flächennutzungssymposium 2012 and a 12-page book chapter was written and included in Meinel, G. et al. (eds): Flächennutzungsmonitoring IV. IÖR Schriften 60, 2012, Rhombos
On 12/13 October 2011, a presentation of HELM was held at the EFGS (European Forum for GeoStatistics) conference in Lisbon. This conference introduced the importance of geo-statistics in the decision making process in local, regional, European and Global level. The latest developments and the results of the ESSnet project "GEOSTAT – representing census data in a European population grid” were discussed.
Presentations and promotions of HELM results in Swiss national events: IDA-Fern (remote sensing interest group of federal authorities), SKF (Swiss scientific commission of remote sensing), Copernicus-IKAR (Swiss Copernicus interest group).
TNO promoted the HELM project amongst interested groups with Ministry of Economic affairs, Agriculture and Innovation and Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. Presentation on Land monitoring and HELM for the National Environmental Agency (PBL) in Bilthoven and the National Focal Point (NFP).
Likewise, most project partners presented and promoted HELM results during pertinent national events.
During the EARSEL 5th Land Use & Land Cover Workshop on 27 October 2013 HELM and EAGLE results were presented, and an abstract published: “Managing multi-temporal land cover data using the EAGLE data model”.
A dedicated HELM session was held at the INSPIRE conference (16-20 June 14, Aalborg), and a HELM related presentation at the AGIT (2-4 July, Salzburg, Austria).
As the most important dissemination measure, HELM has produced a printed book (with ISBN number) which is sent to a range of interested parties and can also be downloaded as a PDF-file from the website. The consortium expects this to be an essential measure to ascertain the longevity of the project outcomes.
List of Websites: