Interpretation of convolutional neural networks for acid sulfate soil classification

Amelie Beucher, Christoffer Bøgelund Rasmussen, Mogens H. Greve, Thomas B. Moeslund

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Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) have been originally used for computer vision tasks, such as image classification. While several digital soil mapping studies have been assessing these deep learning algorithms for the prediction of soil properties, their potential for soil classification has not been explored yet. Moreover, the use of deep learning and neural networks in general has often raised concerns because of their presumed low interpretability (i.e., the black box pitfall). However, a recent and fast-developing sub-field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) called explainable AI (XAI) aims to clarify complex models such as CNNs in a systematic and interpretable manner. For example, it is possible to apply model-agnostic interpretation methods to extract interpretations from any machine learning model. In particular, SHAP (SHapley Additive exPlanations) is a method to explain individual predictions: SHAP values represent the contribution of a covariate to the final model predictions. The present study aimed at, first, evaluating the use of CNNs for the classification of potential acid sulfate soils located in the wetland areas of Jutland, Denmark (c. 6,500 km2), and second and most importantly, applying a model-agnostic interpretation method on the resulting CNN model. About 5,900 soil observations and 14 environmental covariates, including a digital elevation model and derived terrain attributes, were utilized as input data. The selected CNN model yielded slightly higher prediction accuracy than the random forest models which were using original or scaled covariates. These results can be explained by the use of a common variable selection method, namely recursive feature elimination, which was based on random forest and thus optimized the selection for this method. Notably, the SHAP method results enabled to clarify the CNN model predictions, in particular through the spatial interpretation of the most important covariates, which constitutes a crucial development for digital soil mapping.

Original languageEnglish
Article number809995
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science, section Environmental Informatics and Remote Sensing
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jan 2022


  • SHAP (SHapley Additive exPlanations)
  • XAI (eXplainable artificial intelligence)
  • acid sulfate soils
  • classification
  • convolutional neural network
  • deep learning
  • interpretability


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