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Move Over Lorax, There’s A New Tree Crusader In Town

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please!” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax.

It may sound a little strange, but trees play a crucial role in creating a healthy urban environment by improving air quality, reducing energy costs for homeowners, and even enhancing property values. But with tight budgets and resources, it’s hard for cities to keep track of the thousands of trees that reside within a community. Cities don’t have a Lorax who is willing to speak for the trees.

But don’t fret. Turns out, technology has created a digital Lorax, and it’s called OpenTreeMap.

Founded five years ago on a grant from the USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research Grant Program, OpenTreeMap helps cities track information about urban street trees by enabling both city staff and the general public to get involved. OpenTreeMap essentially gives a city the ability to crowdsource tree information. Pretty cool!

Robert Cheetham, CEO of Azavea and one of the founders of OpenTreeMap, told me on GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview how this app helps residents and the city keep trees safe.

So far OpenTreeMap is in more than a dozen cities across the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. But Cheetham noted that while having a tree inventory is awesome, the real power comes from turning the tree data into more than just dots on a map.

“Putting dots on the map raises the So What question?”, said Cheetham. “We have taken that tree data and applied the iTree protocols developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. iTree allows people to assess the eco-system services value of a street tree. So provided we have a species and a diameter breast height for a tree, we are able to assess its value from a carbon sequestration perspective, from a storm water infiltration perspective, from an air quality and energy saving perspective.”

The iTree protocol provides a mechanism so a user can get the eco-system services value of not only that one tree, but also all of the trees in a neighborhood or city.

“We are currently working on adding more to the protocol, so people can prioritize and simulate the future growth of the urban forest,” said Cheetham. “Imagine if you are a community planner and you want to plant additional trees, you want to make your case to the community, you can digitally plant several trees along one street and then you can simulate it 5, 10, 15, 25 years down the road. You can see what the eco-systems services added will be to the neighborhood. This feature isn’t rolled out yet, but will be soon.”

Here’s a bit more about OpenTreeMap:

  • It’s available both as web application and as an Android or IOS application.
  • The web application has the most complete functionality; the mobile versions are really designed for people doing editing and for people contributing to their community’s tree map from out in the world.
  • OpenTreeMap is free for users but you have to create an account. Once you have an account, you’re able to edit individual information about the trees and search and find information about trees that has already been entered.
  • The online application also enables you to generate maps based on searches. You can say, for example: show me all of the red maples in my city.
  • OpenTreeMap version 2.0 is available as a cloud application. It’ss a subscription service that a city or a non-profit organization can set up for their city.
  • OpenTreeMap was designed to be available as open source software on GitHub. Ashville, NC downloaded the code off of GitHub on their own.

The app has been incredibly successful. “The most surprising thing is the degree to which the public is interested, knowledgeable and able to do this kind of inventory work,” said Cheetham. “They are committed to improving the data in their communities. We have seen everything from schoolteachers who want to get their students involved to people who are members of tree tender groups.”

But just because the app is currently successful doesn’t mean OpenTreeMap is done. “We are working right now on making the tree data gathering process feel more like a game,” said Cheetham. “We also want to get schools more involved and integrate the maps into their curriculum.”

If you enjoyed our GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview, you can find more interviews under keyword “Emily’s Corner.”

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