Monday, August 8, 2011

Counting Trees

The City of Richardson has a goal of planting 50,000 trees in its 28 square miles. Impossible? Maybe. Or maybe not. That's a question for another post.

Today, I want to discuss how we'll count all those trees being planted as part of the "Tree the Town" program. 1, 2, 3, ..., 50,000. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, right? Maybe. Or maybe not.

After the jump, how another city is counting its own trees and the many benefits of the effort. Maybe Richardson ought to consider upgrading its own efforts in this area. (Hint to Amir Omar: think of an app as cool as RunKeeper, but for trees.)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a "GreenPlan" with a goal of having 300,000 trees in Philadelphia's 135 square miles by 2015. That's right. Even more ambitious than Richardson's goal of 50,000 trees. How are they doing it?

From the environmental news site "Grist":
"Cataloguing the trees within a city -- tens or even hundreds of thousands of them -- can be a gargantuan and expensive undertaking. Enter PhillyTreeMap. PhillyTreeMap is a web mapping application that solicits citizen input, similar to the successful OpenStreetMap. Robert Cheetham started the project two years ago when he won a government grant for the idea. Since then, PhillyTreeMap has grown to encompass a database of over 144,000 Philadelphia trees and an open source code base which Cheetham and his company, Azavea, are making freely available to other cities."
The key to success of projects like this is crowd-sourcing. Open the database to the public and solicit their involvement in adding trees, updating information about the trees (species, age, condition), maybe even getting the public to adopt trees that need special attention (like the hundreds of newly planted trees in Richardson). Imagine a program where elementary school children inventory the trees at their local schools. They learn to identify trees, to read maps, to use computers, to contribute to a program that benefits their city. Imagine some kind of reality-based game played on your smartphone in a park that depends on you logging the species and locations of trees.

The City of Richardson's "Tree the Town" project allows the public to register their trees. If there's a mapping service that shows all registered trees, I couldn't find it. The City of Richardson also has its separate Tree Inventory project, begun in 2008, before "Tree the Town." But I see no connection between it and "Tree the Town." And I see no public-input facilities for it, so it probably won't scale beyond the park department's ability to maintain the database. My guess is that ability is limited, as the system looks pretty much like it did when I first discovered it a couple of years ago.

The good news is that "Tree the Town" has come a long way since the Richardson initiative was first announced. The program overcame the critics, the skeptics and the just plain unimpressed to expand into the largest tree-planting initiative in the nation, "Tree North Texas". Its goal is to plant 3 million trees in the next ten years. "Tree North Texas" has its own "Tree Tracker", but it looks like it needs some work. (I couldn't zoom, scroll or do much anything else with the map.) It does have a form for the public to submit their own trees, so it might scale. But to fill its database with 3 million trees, it's going to have to come up with an easier way to enter data than one tree at a time. (Perhaps a form where you can just drag and drop multiple trees onto a map. Perhaps a smartphone app so anyone can access the database from the field.)

All these mapping efforts (Richardson's "Tree the Town", "Tree North Texas", PhillyTreeMap) indicate there's interest in this technology, but perhaps we haven't reached the critical mass needed to attract sufficient resources for success. Maybe PhillyTreeMap can change that. It is open source, meaning that others can build on what's been accomplished so far. Growing from Richardson's 50,000 trees to Philadelphia's 300,000 trees to North Texas's 3,000,000 trees requires a big vision. Someone needs to be thinking just as big about the technology needed to support this urban forest.

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