Defining the Open in OpenTreeMap: What Does it Mean for OpenTreeMap to be Open Source?

Volunteers for Asheville GreenWorks at a tree planting event.

Volunteers for Asheville GreenWorks at a tree planting event.

Being an open source software means our source code is available for anyone to use and improve at no cost. Any software engineer whether or not they work at Azavea, the company that makes OpenTreeMap, can help us improve the software or take the code and create a custom tree map. The only requirement is that all changes are made freely available. In contrast, proprietary software has source code that only the original authors can legally copy and update. Because many groups do not have the time or resources required, we created a paid subscription service. In exchange for an annual fee, we host the map for you. We are able to spread out the hosting costs across our entire customer base, which for many makes purchasing a subscription less expensive than setting up and hosting a map.

Our goal is to make communities greener and more sustainable, and doing so is only possible if people around the world have the opportunity to build off the work we’ve done. Allowing software developers outside Azavea to contribute means we’re able to add new features and functionality more quickly than if we relied exclusively on our small but dedicated team of developers. Incorporating features built by people outside the company also ensures we continue to build a product that meets the needs of users worldwide.  

Many municipalities and nonprofit organizations, including the City of Asheville, North Carolina, have used OpenTreeMap code to build their own tree map. By using our code, the city saved time and resources that would have otherwise been spent building a tree mapping application from scratch. While Asheville’s map looks and functions very similarly to maps we host through our subscription service the city does not pay us.

The City of Asheville's tree map can be found at http://ashevilletreemap.org/.

You can access the City of Asheville’s tree at http://ashevilletreemap.org/.

The City of Asheville crowdsourced tree data in order to reduce the costs associated with an inventory and engage citizens in urban forestry efforts. Building an inventory for a city the size of Asheville can strain limited economic resources and be incredibly time consuming if done by the city’s small urban forestry staff. By creating a map the public could update, the city in conjunction with Asheville GreenWorks a local nonprofit, has engaged hundreds of volunteers and collected data on thousands of trees.

Today, the map is primarily managed by Asheville GreenWorks but continues to be maintained by the city’s Information Technology (IT) department. The nonprofit uses the map to fill out the city’s inventory, and track plantings and maintenance. Asheville’s Department of Parks and Recreation also adds data to the map on their new plantings. By collecting tree data in one centralized location, the city is better prepared to create an urban forest management plan. According to Rick Carpenter, the Urban Forest Coordinator for Asheville GreenWorks,

“You need an urban forest inventory analysis to create policy change and you need input and backing from citizens. We could hire a large tree corporation who for a lot of money would complete and analyze our inventory for us, however, this does not create a sense of place or vested interest from the community members. If you want to change policy you need the backing of people in the area and the best way to do that is by using OpenTreeMap.”

Carpenter has noticed that by mapping, volunteers feel a vested interest in the trees they survey and are more likely to support urban forestry initiatives in the future.

In order to receive funding from the city, Asheville GreenWorks must create site plans, planting plans and project proposals. Historically, they have prepared these reports using QGIS and SketchUp, but Asheville GreenWorks plans to begin using OpenTreeMap’s new modeling and prioritization module in the future. This new suite of features will allow them to more easily create deliverables they previously gathered from a variety of different sources.

Asheville GreenWorks engages students of all ages in their planting programs.

Asheville GreenWorks engages students of all ages in their planting programs.

Carpenter has recruited students studying ecology and forestry at local universities to map trees. By engaging students the city gets additional data that helps them better manage their inventory and the students get an introduction to GIS and data collection. Students and other volunteers use a dichotomous key to identify tree species before entering information on the map. Carpenter fact checks random samples of data and has been impressed by the accuracy of the data. Click here for an summary of Asheville GreenWorks’ urban forestry initiatives and the impact they’ve had across the city.

We realize not all cities and organizations have the technical expertise of Asheville. There are many communities with OpenTreeMap subscriptions that want to see additional features added to the software, but do not have the time or resources to contribute code themselves. In cases where we think feature requests from individual customers would have utility for the broader OpenTreeMap community, we are able to cost share on software development. In other words, we discount the cost of building a feature in return for the ability to share that feature across the entire platform. If you are interested in seeing a particular feature built, please reach out.

Since 1973, tens of thousands of volunteers have worked with Asheville GreenWorks to plant trees, clean rivers and improve the environment.

Since the organization’s founding in 1973, tens of thousands of volunteers have worked with Asheville GreenWorks to plant trees, clean rivers and improve the environment.

In addition to bringing collaboration and transparency into our development process, we believe being open source gives us a competitive advantage. For this reason, the same principles that guide our product development help shape our business development efforts. We are committed to building a community of urban forestry practitioners and build a platform for people to share ideas and use those ideas to strengthen their own communities. To receive urban forestry news and product updates consider signing up for our newsletter here, or to have your work featured please get in touch with us directly.

To set up a “production” version of OpenTreeMap, we recommend reviewing our installation guide. If you want to set up OpenTreeMap for development and contribute to the open source project, additional information can be found here. To ask specific questions related to use of OpenTreeMap source code, please join the user group.

Azavea has made a demonstrated commitment to building and contributing to open source software beyond just OpenTreeMap. For a list of tools and libraries, you can check out our GitHub as well as the GeoTrellis, OpenDataPhilly and DistrictBuilder projects.

Read these related posts:
Sign Up

Want to Try OpenTreeMap?

Create an account in less than two minutes and get a one-month free trial of OpenTreeMap Cloud. It's that easy.