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Demystifying the process of building urban forestry software

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At OpenTreeMap, we want to expand the role of technology in solving some of the most urgent problems in urban forestry. We’ve started to do that by developing software that makes it easier for communities to collect and manage tree and green infrastructure data, and use existing socio-demographic data to drive planting decisions.

Over the past seven years we have had the opportunity to work with public and private institutions to build software that furthers community forestry efforts. This includes new features for OpenTreeMap as well as custom web and mobile applications like the platform for TreesCount! 2015, New York City’s street tree census. In fact, many of the OpenTreeMap features available today were developed in partnership with past and current customers. The ability to map green infrastructure, add your tree map to an external website, and automatically add a website link to each tree detail page are a few examples of customer-led development.

For people without a strong technical background, the process of working with a software company to develop a web or mobile application can be overwhelming. In an effort to shed light on how an idea can turn into an application, we’ve identified the four most important questions we ask our clients before starting a project.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Before writing a single line of code, we work with our clients to learn more about the problem they are trying to solve through software. For example, do you want to build an application to virtually inventory street trees or do you want to organize tree giveaways and volunteer planting events or do you want to manage tree crews and collect information on maintenance activities? It would be cumbersome and expensive to solve all three of these problems in a single software platform, which is why clearly identifying the problem and project scope is crucial. After all, the problem you want to solve will dictate nearly every decision made throughout the development process.

One of the most common pitfalls we see is the tendency to want to start software development before clearly outlining the scope of a project. If new project goals emerge during development or if a project has too many goals, it can be difficult to measure success. Further, it is critical to differentiate between essential functions of a new application, also known as the minimum viable product (MVP), and those that are not critical to the application’s initial release. Additional features can be added later pending time and resources, but by releasing an MVP you can get feedback from users and understand whether or not you’re on the right track.

One of the biggest challenges our users cited was the ability to quickly update tree records in the field. In response, we developed iOS and Android applications so users could add and update tree records from their phone.

One of the biggest challenges our users cited was the ability to quickly update tree records in the field. In response, we developed iOS and Android applications so users could add and update tree records from their phone.

What existing data or information do you have?

What existing data do you have that you want to incorporate into your application? How does that data help solve your problem? Data can come from a variety of different sources, but before designing a project that hinges on the availability of certain data, you must confirm that the data is available in the right format and at a price that you can afford. Cities and towns have lots of data including spatial files like building parcels, population data, floodplain scenarios and more. And data is not just limited to cities. Nonprofit organizations, universities, homeowners associations and consultants all use data to inform their work. At OpenTreeMap, we’ve worked with communities to map canopy coverage, upload historical planting information and use publicly available socio-demographic data to drive planting decisions.

Who is the intended audience?

Are you the only one that is going to use the software or is the software designed to be used by other people? A software tool used by 10 people is designed very differently than one used by 1,000 people. If you are building an application to solve a problem for another person or group, it is important to consult those people throughout each stage of the project. We consult with users to design applications that are easy to use and make information more accessible.

What is your time frame?

Is the software application designed to exist for a defined period of time or do you want it to exist well into the foreseeable future? A software application designed for long-term use is different than one built for an event or short-term project. Just like car owners take their cars to the mechanic for routine maintenance, software requires ongoing updates in order to ensure it continues to run properly.

Also related to time frame is the project timeline. How long until you need the application? Is the application connected to grant funding? If so, what information do you need to close out the grant? Do you need to be able to report on user data? Does the code need to be open source? Answers to these questions help us accommodate any constraints or additional requirements clients may have.

OpenTreeMap is open source which means our source code is available for anyone to use and improve. Want to set up your own tree map? Find out more here.

OpenTreeMap is open source which means our source code is available for anyone to use and improve. Want to set up your own tree map? Find out more here.

With answers to those four questions, our project managers can work with you to develop a project proposal and pricing estimate. All projects are reviewed by a team of senior software developers who segment project goals into a list of discrete tasks and estimate the time and resources required for completing those tasks. This includes time for designing the application, testing functionality, and incorporating client and user feedback. Throughout project development, project managers work with the client to provide monthly status updates and solicit ongoing feedback to ensure the final product meets client goals.

OpenTreeMap is a product of Azavea, a Philadelphia-based geospatial software company. In addition to building the tree mapping platform, Azavea works with public and private institutions to develop web and mobile applications for organizations working on issues related to the environment. Do you have an idea for an new software application? Not sure how to get started? Drop us a line at opentreemap@azavea.com. We would love to hear from you!

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.

Using Existing Data to Analyze and Plan your Urban Forest

Trees line a city street.

A new tool from OpenTreeMap allows communities to use existing sociodemographic and land-use data to make more informed planting decisions and estimate the future ecosystem benefits of those trees over a 30-year period.

Cities, non-profit organizations and other land-managing institutions face competing priorities when it comes to managing the urban forest. Many organizations want to incorporate data on urban heat island effect, air quality and population density into their planting decisions, but do not have the GIS expertise or data required to do so. With OpenTreeMap’s new modeling and prioritization tools, you can generate heat maps of optimal planting locations that are customized based on your selection criteria, and experiment with digitally planting trees of various species and sizes to model the growth and mortality rates of those trees.

We have included two data sets from the National Land Cover Database (NLCD) on tree canopy and impervious surface as well as additional data on population density, economics, and housing. In order to make the tool accessible to the widest audience, we only used data that is available in the continental U.S., does not have usage restrictions and has a level of geographic accuracy that makes it helpful in making planting decisions.

A screenshot of OpenTreeMap's prioritization tool.

OpenTreeMap allows you to prioritize your planting criterion by selecting custom weights. Shown here is a map created to identify optimal planting sites in Milwaukee based on population density, median household income and percent tree canopy coverage.

Your planting priorities may be dictated by other factors not yet included in the tool, which is why we can upload additional overlays to the map for you. For example, we can upload additional overlays with data on local zoning laws, soil quality, transit information, and funding restrictions. We can also upload higher resolution canopy and impervious surface data should it be available for your city or region.

We will incorporate additional information on health, water, temperature, wildfires and air pollution as it becomes available across the continental U.S. Unfortunately, much of the existing health data, including results from a recent study by the Nature Conservancy on the cooling and filtering effects of trees, is not geographically accurate enough to inform local planting decisions. That is to say data at the citywide or even zip code-level is not specific enough to help inform planting decisions at the neighborhood or street-level.

A screenshot demonstrating OpenTreeMap's modeling tool.

A sample tree-planting and the resulting ecosystem benefits projected over a 30-year period. We provide pre-set mortality rates based on tree species and size, that can be customization in the application.

A sample tree-planting and the resulting ecosystem benefits projected over a 30-year period. We provide pre-set mortality rates based on tree species and size, that can be customization in the application.

Once you’ve identified the optimal planting locations, you can model the outcome of your trees over time. Understanding tree growth and mortality rates can help inform management and allows you to demonstrate the long-term environmental and economic benefits of your tree plantings over a 30-year period.

We are in the final testing stages before making these tools available on the OpenTreeMap platform. Initially, the tool will only be available within the continental U.S., however, we plan to incorporate additional customization options including the ability to upload datasets to support groups outside the U.S.

In addition to OpenTreeMap, there are two other tools you use to help you prioritize plantings: iTree Landscape and the Trees and Health application. The U.S. Forest Service’s iTree Landscape helps you identify specific planting locations using land cover and census demographics, and explore existing canopy and ecosystem benefits. The Trees and Health application organized by Portland State University and the U.S. Forest Service includes data on neighborhood vulnerability as it relates to air quality in fourteen U.S. cities. You can use the application to identify planting locations that impact tree canopy and public health.

For additional information on the new forestry modeling and prioritization tools, we invite you to watch our recent webinar. The slides from this presentation can be found here.

Want to get in touch? We’d love to hear your questions and feedback: opentreemap@azavea.com.

How to Calculate the Environmental and Economic Benefits of your Bioswales and Rain Gardens

Cities are increasingly turning to green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to reduce runoff.

Cities are increasingly turning to green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to reduce runoff, which helps maintain water quality and reduce flooding and erosion.

Stormwater runoff is a major cause of water pollution in cities. When rain falls on roofs, streets and parking lots, the water is not all absorbed into the ground. Instead, stormwater drains through gutters, storm sewers and other collection systems, and is then released into nearby bodies of water. This water often contains pollutants like trash, bacteria, chemicals and heavy metals. And, the quantity of water and speed of flow can cause erosion and flooding, and damage habitat, property and infrastructure.

Cities worldwide are looking to improve water quality and invest in strategies to mitigate stormwater runoff. Historically, cities have managed stormwater through the use of expansive and capital-intensive underground storm sewer systems known as gray infrastructure. However, use of green infrastructure, an approach to water management that protects, restores or mimics the natural water cycle, has become increasingly popular. Unlike gray stormwater infrastructure which is designed to move stormwater away from the built environment as quickly as possible, green infrastructure reduces and treats stormwater at its source. Strategies for incorporating green infrastructure at the site-level include the use of permeable pavements, bioswales, rain gardens, vegetated or “green” roofs, rain barrels, and cisterns.

Bioswale in a parking lot.

The control of stormwater runoff is a major issue in urbanized areas. Bioswales and other green stormwater infrastructure helps reduce runoff. (Source: Rhyne Landscape)

Green infrastructure provides communities with economic, environmental and community benefits yet not all benefits are easily quantified. Understanding the benefits of green infrastructure, and comparing them to their gray infrastructure counterparts requires a common unit of analysis. While it is fairly straightforward to place a monetary value on gray infrastructure, it can be more difficult to do so for green infrastructure. However, looking only at construction and maintenance costs – planning, installation, operation and replacement – ignores the environmental, economic and social benefits green infrastructure provides. In fact, research has found that when you take into account the water quality, air quality, energy and community benefits provided by green infrastructure green approaches are shown to outperform single-purpose gray approaches.

A report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) outlines the benefits of five different types of green infrastructure features. The environmental and social benefits accrue at varying scales based on local factors like climate and population.

This diagram outlines the benefits of five different types of green infrastructure features. The environmental and social benefits accrue at varying scales based on local factors like climate and population. (Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology)

With OpenTreeMap you can calculate ecosystem services for two different types of green infrastructure features: rain gardens and bioswales. Once you denote the area of your rain garden or bioswale on OpenTreeMap, the cloud-based platform automatically calculates the total amount of stormwater diverted. The equation used to calculate stormwater diverted was developed by San Francisco, California-based non-profit organization, Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF). OpenTreeMap then converts the amount of stormwater diverted into dollars saved based on the conversion rates used in the U.S. Forest Services’ iTree application.

Annual stormwater diverted = Annual rainfall x (area of polygon + (square footage of area that drains to the rain garden x runoff coefficient))

The runoff coefficient refers to the percentage of rainfall that hits the drainage area that makes it to the rain garden or bioswale. Some portion of rainwater may runoff too quickly to be absorbed by green infrastructure or may be diverted in some other way. In OpenTreeMap, the default coefficient is 0.85, meaning 85% of the rain that hits the area that drains to the rain garden or bioswale will actually make it to the rain garden or bioswale. This coefficient is an average estimate based on data from Ken Edwards, Ph.D., P.E., owner of LMNO Engineering, however, the exact percentage of runoff varies based largely on the type of material in the drainage area (asphalt, brick, cement etc).

To improve the accuracy of the calculation, map owners can customize the units and number of decimal places for annual rainfall, the area of the green infrastructure feature and the area of the adjacent drainage area.

OpenTreeMap software.

With OpenTreeMap, you can map and manage your green stormwater infrastructure along your trees.

Calculating the ecosystem benefits associated with green infrastructure helps planners calculate the savings green infrastructure provides in terms of stormwater filtration, floodwater storage, clean drinking water and carbon sequestration among other benefits. Shared metrics for quantifying ecosystem benefits are important for tracking the effectiveness of investment in green infrastructure and helps reposition the role of urban green space from an optional amenity to key ingredient for building more sustainable communities.

After Five Years We Completely Changed Our Pricing—Here’s Why.

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Earlier this year, we launched a new “modular pricing” model—the change is significant for several reasons, and it’s worth explaining the observations that led us to totally revamp the way we sell OpenTreeMap. This new direction represents our strong commitment to making OpenTreeMap accessible and affordable for the folks who need it most.

Most Software as a Service (SaaS) companies like OpenTreeMap sell “plans” in monthly or yearly installments. At various points in our history we had between 3-5 plans—each successively more expensive plan came with more capacity for trees and more features. With our most popular plan, customers could upload up to 50,000 trees and could access premium features like our iOS and Android Mobile apps. For many companies, this pricing structure works. It is easy to understand and simple to implement. But at OpenTreeMap, we saw a fundamental problem: urban forestry initiatives can’t simply be boiled down to the number of trees in any given inventory. Every city, non-profit, university and consulting arborist has a different set of priorities and needs. Our pricing model could not accommodate the breadth of applications that our customers found for the software.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 9.03.41 AMTake, for instance, The Greening of Detroit. With a dedicated corps of interns and volunteers, they inventoried nearly 15,000 trees using OpenTreeMap’s mobile apps over the last year alone. The Greening of Detroit continues to be one of the most active and fast-growing tree maps in the country. With our former pricing plan, they had to pay for thousands of additional trees that they had not even mapped. Now, they only pay for the number of trees they need. They’ve been able to reallocate money formerly spent on unused tree capacity to get our Customization module. This way they can customize stewardship activities, user roles, and the mobile app configuration. Now they pay less than they used to and are able to get features previously only available to people with hundreds of thousands of trees.

It’s our sincere hope that the new pricing model will make OpenTreeMap attainable for those groups that have never had access to premium software for collecting, managing, and showcasing urban forest data. It is these groups that benefit most from OpenTreeMap. Small cities with 10,000 street trees and a dedicated group of volunteers now don’t have to pay $40,000 for a basic inventory—they can engage volunteers willing to collect the data instead. And non-profits with hundreds or thousands of trees planted each year can easily report on those plantings to donors and conduct survivability studies with just a few summer interns.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 9.07.48 AMWe’re proud to help clients like Augusta University, who can now afford to use OpenTreeMap to manage an inventory of several thousand trees without breaking their budget and Sustainable JC, who plotted their first several hundred trees in a single weekend. If you aren’t using software to better track and understand what’s happening to your trees, there has never been a better time to try OpenTreeMap. Get started with a 30 day free trial today: www.opentreemap.org/pricing/.

Recorded Webinar: Tracking Your Green Infrastructure

This week we hosted a webinar with TreeKIT on tracking and measuring the impact of green infrastructure with OpenTreeMap. As climates change and more regions face severe heat and drought, tracking green infrastructure is a necessary first step to measuring its impact and identifying the best locations for additional green infrastructure resources. With OpenTreeMap, you can increase public awareness of the value of green infrastructure and promote community stewardship. For users that provide local data and calculations, OpenTreeMap can also measure the money and water your green infrastructure saves each year.

As part of this webinar, we explored how:

  • OpenTreeMap can be used to gather and maintain data related to rain barrels, bioswales and other features
  • To increase public education of the benefits of green infrastructure
  • To promote installation and stewardship of green infrastructure

Click here for more information on the Green Infrastructure module and sign-up for your 30-day free trial today. You’ll find the full webinar recording below. We’ve also made the slides available on Slideshare. You can reach us at opentreemap@azavea.com with any questions. We hope you’ll join us for future webinars.

 

Join us November 11 to discover OpenTreeMap’s new Green Infastructure module

Do you wish you could map more than trees? As climates change and regions face severe heat, drought, and weather events, more organizations are promoting innovative techniques to harvest rain water, prevent stormwater runoff, and conserve water in general. OpenTreeMap can assist with managing those initiatives by tracking the location of bioswales, rain barrels, and other water conservation features.

We hope you’ll join us for a webinar on Wednesday, November 11 from 2-3pm EST to discover the new OpenTreeMap Green Infrastructure module.

Deb Boyer, OpenTreeMap Project Manager, will be joined by Philip Silva, Co-Founder and Co-Director of TreeKIT, to discuss how Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal Conservancy uses OpenTreeMap’s bioswale tracking features to fulfill their mission of increasing environmental stewardship.

During this webinar, you will learn:

  • How OpenTreeMap can be used for gathering and maintaining data related to rain barrels, bioswales, and other features
  • How you can increase public education of the benefits of green infrastructure resources
  • How you can promote installation and stewardship of green infrastructure resources
Space is limited. Click here to register and secure your spot today!

Love and Share Your Trees With Social Media Friends and Followers

Want to tweet about stewardship activities or pruning you just did on the large maple tree outside your office or post a photo on Facebook of the gorgeous oak tree in your backyard, and share the love you have for the trees you care for with your friends and followers on social media?  Now you can!  We are pleased to announce that you can now use Twitter and Facebook to post all your favorite trees to your heart’s delight.  Below is a GIF showing how to use the social media features in OpenTreeMap.

Enjoy and spread the word about your urban forest and all you do to care for it through your favorite social media networks!

Social Media

 

Create a “Favorites” List of Trees

In addition to being able to tweet, use Facebook and Google+ to promote your community engagement and urban forestry programs, you can now create a “Favorites” list of trees.  You can “favorite” a tree on your own tree map or on any public map.  As you mark trees as favorites– by clicking on the star next to the name of a tree on its “Tree Information” page– they are placed in your “Favorites” list.

This will make it easy to quickly navigate to your favorite trees and add stewardship activities or to respond to comments from other people in your community.  You can see the GIF below on how to “favorite” a tree and find your “Favorites” list in your account.

favorite a tree

Upload your Trees into the Cloud for Free

We are happy to announce the newest feature for OpenTreeMap: the Bulk Uploader.  Sign up now and upload your whole inventory into the OpenTreeMap cloud for free and start your community engagement today!

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