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Choice of a classification algorithm is generally based upon a number of factors, among which are availability of software, ease of use, and performance, measured here by overall classification accuracy. The maximum likelihood (ML) procedure is, for many users, the algorithm of choice because of its ready availability and the fact that it does not require an extended training process. Artificial neural networks (ANNs) are now widely used by researchers, but their operational applications are hindered by the need for the user to specify the configuration of the network architecture and to provide values for a number of parameters, both of which affect performance. The ANN also requires an extended training phase.
In the past few years, the use of decision trees (DTs) to classify remotely sensed data has increased. Proponents of the method claim that it has a number of advantages over the ML and ANN algorithms. The DT is computationally fast, make no statistical assumptions, and can handle data that are represented on different measurement scales. Software to implement DTs is readily available over the Internet. Pruning of DTs can make them smaller and more easily interpretable, while the use of boosting techniques can improve performance.
In this study, separate test and training data sets from two different geographical areas and two different sensors—multispectral Landsat ETM+ and hyperspectral DAIS—are used to evaluate the performance of univariate and multivariate DTs for land cover classification. Factors considered are: the effects of variations in training data set size and of the dimensionality of the feature space, together with the impact of boosting, attribute selection measures, and pruning. The level of classification accuracy achieved by the DT is compared to results from back-propagating ANN and the ML classifiers. Our results indicate that the performance of the univariate DT is acceptably good in comparison with that of other classifiers, except with high-dimensional data. Classification accuracy increases linearly with training data set size to a limit of 300 pixels per class in this case. Multivariate DTs do not appear to perform better than univariate DTs. While boosting produces an increase in classification accuracy of between 3% and 6%, the use of attribute selection methods does not appear to be justified in terms of accuracy increases. However, neither the univariate DT nor the multivariate DT performed as well as the ANN or ML classifiers with high-dimensional data.