SeattleTreeMap.org: Mapping Trees for the Birds that Live in Them

SeattleTreeMap bannerA few weeks ago, I was on the phone with Brian Windrope, the Executive Director of the Seattle Audubon Society. We were talking about one of the newest additions to the OpenTreeMap community, the Seattle Audubon’s new SeattleTreeMap.org site, when Brian stopped me. “Woah! I just saw a hummingbird outside my window!” he said.

Whether you’re a migrating hummingbird or an urban tree, spring is a busy time of year. Tree root systems shuttle water and nutrients up to the longest branches, and flowering trees like the beautiful Kwanzan Cherry blossom with spectacular color to greet the longer, sunny days.

As the trees are awakening, so too are urban foresters. This March saw the launch of two large OpenTreeMap instances ready to serve foresters and citizen scientists in two west coast US cities: TreePeople’s TreeMapLA.org, one of the first maps on our new OpenTreeMap.org cloud platform, and the Seattle Audubon’s SeattleTreeMap.org, the latest site to take advantage of the OpenTreeMap project’s open source code.

SeattleTreeMap.org has been a long time in the making, thanks to the support of the Seattle Audubon and the volunteer software development work of Alan Humphrey, a member of the Seattle Audubon himself. I’ve gotten to know Alan a little bit over the months through his invaluable contributions to the OpenTreeMap-user mailing list. The work he’s done to get SeattleTreeMap.org up and running with a whole host of new features is quite impressive – everything from server side “tree dot” clustering to re-writing much of OTM1’s JavaScript in the new Dart language. Alan and the Seattle Audubon completed and launched SeattleTreeMap.org entirely without Azavea’s involvement. That’s the mark of a thriving open source software project!

While SeattleTreeMap.org is interesting on the software level, the real story here is how the map fits into the Seattle Audubon Society’s hollistic nature conservation strategy. The Seattle Audubon was founded in 1916 and is the oldest environmental organization in the State of Washington. With a long history of achievements in conservation, more recently the Seattle Audubon has come to recognize the dominance of urban environmental issues within the growing Seattle metropolitan area. “When you look at it from the point of view of climate change, birds themselves…water retention and so on…there is a range of issues from a lack of [urban tree] canopy,” said Brian. “We came to recognize that, and really wanted to show some leadership.”

Birds and trees in harmony in urban Seattle - by Flickr user rutlo

Birds and trees in harmony in urban Seattle – by Flickr user rutlo

SeattleTreeMap.org is part of the Seattle Audubon’s larger “Canopy Connections” project, designed to document, map and improve Seattle’s urban forest habitat. One objective of the Tree Map and the Canopy Connections project is educational. “[Many people are] not aware of the role of the urban canopy for all sorts of health reasons…and so there’s an educational purpose,” Brian said. “[Our hope is to] get people to know about, care about, and therefore act on that information.”

In 2007, The City of Seattle set a goal for 30% canopy cover by 2037. In 2011, Seattle Audubon conducted a study of the city’s current tree canopy cover and found it had hovered around 23% since 2007. Brian hopes the tree map will draw attention to the need to improve urban canopy, and also function as a tool the Seattle Audubon and other partners in the City can use for conservation, planning tree planting, and conducting further advocacy. “The Tree Map is a tool we can use to get people to pressure the City to take seriously their own established goal of restoring the urban canopy,” he said.

Growing the urban tree canopy and planning how best to do so is not a challenge unique to Seattle. Many groups struggle with prioritizing tree plantings in order to achieve the optimal ecological, economic, and social results. We’re investigating solutions to that challenge as part of our Urban Forest Modeling work that uses Azavea’s GeoTrellis toolkit. Over the next year, we plan to integrate heat maps, forecast models, and other tools into OpenTreeMap to assist users in exploring ideal places to plant trees.

While many urban forestry organizations are new to OpenTreeMap’s collaborative model of working with volunteers to collect data about the environment, citizen science is a well-established activity among the birding community. While the Seattle Audubon participates in the national Audubon Society’s famous Christmas Bird Count survey, it also conducts its own year-long surveys like the Puget Sound Seabird Survey and Neighborhood Bird Project. “The greatest benefit of this sort of citizen science is that data is spread out over the course of the year, so you get to see the trends across the seasons and you just have a lot more eyes looking many more days,” said Brian.

For the Puget Sound Seabird Survey, Seattle Audubon volunteers go out every month to locations around Puget Sound to count rare, migratory seabirds. Through the survey, said Brian, “we’re able to collect important baseline data on what we have. People have anecdotal stories left and right, ‘Oh, we used to see many more Grebes, oh, we used to see many more of this,’ but the State hasn’t done any systematic work on population surveys, and we’re filling that niche by working directly with our volunteers.”

Seabirds are not directly related to the Tree Map, but Brian is emphatic that it’s all a piece of a whole. “We’re Audubon: no one else is about birds the way we’re about birds,” said Brian, “But it would be silly to think of birds outside the context of everything else that they’re connected with.”

Among the Audubon Society, there’s a common expression that Brian brought up during our conversation: “Where birds thrive, people prosper.” I would agree, and add that trees are a crucial component of any such environment. There’s also something similar to be said about the necessary connection between an open source software project and its community. It’s tremendously exciting to see SeattleTreeMap.org take flight and demonstrate each one of these relationships!

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