March 8, 2007

Open source tree tracker debuts in San Francisco

Author: Tina Gasperson

In urban San Francisco, the public works department and nonprofit organizations work together to preserve and expand tree life as part of that city's efforts to create sustainability. The city today unveiled a new Web portal and open source application that will help those agencies, and the general public, keep tabs on a growing urban forest.

Citizens and sponsoring agencies in San Francisco have to apply for a planting permit to install new trees in common areas and on roadsides in residential areas, and for a removal permit to take out any tree, living or dead. This permitting system helps the public works' Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF) keep track of how many trees exist, what kind they are, and who is responsible for caring for them. To make things more complicated, a private nonprofit agency called Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) is also planting urban trees and maintaining them, as well as helping residents obtain tree permits. While FUF's assistance in planting and caring for trees was welcomed by BUF, it meant both agencies had to coordinate their activities. Without an automated method, BUF and FUF found it difficult to avoid confusion about the origin of many urban trees and who was responsible for them. Since the public works department was already familiar with geospatial mapping technologies, BUF asked for help from the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO) and the Mapguide Open Source community.

Charlie Crocker, senior product manager for Autodesk, one of the sponsors of OSGEO, says Mapguide open source was an "obvious tool" to create a solution for urban tree identification. "In the past, BUF had its own not-very-well-maintained database and paper maps," he says. "FUF did too." Since neither agency had a large amount of money to invest in a new system, a reasonably priced open source application seemed a good choice. It helped that Autodesk wanted to display its commitment to both green development and open source geospatial technology by donating manpower and money for the project. "We provided some funding for the consulting needed to get the application up and running," Crocker says.

The final product is a Web portal that displays live San Francisco map grids, searchable by address, tree species, or planting date, with the location of all identified urban trees overlaid. Green or blue dots on the map represent trees planted by BUF or FUF. With a couple of clicks you can see the species, date planted, and other information as the database is updated.

As more trees are accounted for, the information contained in the tree database will grow. "The goal is to have every tree accounted for," Crocker says. "That hasn't happened yet. One idea we have is to get inner city youth with GPS units to go out and survey neighborhoods." The general public can also provide updates, he says. "If a resident uses FUF to plant two trees on their property, and they see that only one is listed, they could go in and add a tree. Or if one of the trees died, they could remove it from the database."

When FUF goes to a neighborhood with a goal of planting a certain number of trees, it can now enter planned tree locations into the database so that BUF and the general public can see where the trees will be. Tree planters can zoom in on the grid, print out a map with street addresses, and use the information to help them put trees in the right places.

Crocker says that the new urban forest application is open source. "Any city that wants to manage its urban forest can download it and load it up," he says. "It's just a matter of managing the data. If you understand databases, all you have to do is make sure the mapping fields are consistent. The cool thing is that as this thing rolls out, more cities will start to use it and we're going to see that great feedback. FUF and BUF will start seeing bug fixes and code improvements."

The Urban Forest application code will be available for download from OSGEO's Web site within the next several weeks, according to a spokesperson for the foundation.

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