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San Francisco Turns To Open Source For Mapping Urban Forest

A Poem Lovely As a Tree...

  • March 30, 2007
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

How can open source software be harnessed to help solve environmental issues? The City of San Francisco is now starting to find that out, by turning to MapGuide Open Source software for use in its "urban forest" initiative.

Earlier this month, during a set of events in honor of Arbor Day, the city launched a new Web site aimed at allowing municipal workers, the general public, and members of a not-for-profit environmental group pitch in on efforts at computerized tracking of San Francisco's trees.

The online San Francisco Urban Forest Mapping System is the upshot of a plan by Mayor Gavin Newsom to add 5,000 more trees a year to the city's sidewalks, said Charlie Crocker, Product Manager, Autodesk.

The new urban forest mapping system uses an application--created with the help of Autodesk and outside consulting firm Online Mapping Solutions--which is based on the "light" open source edition of Autodesk's MapGuide Enterprise.

Urban forest initiatives are now under way in growing numbers of cities, and their goals extend way beyond the obvious aesthetic benefits of trees, according to Crocker.

Research shows that trees carry environmental and even economic advantages, helping to cut down on carbon dioxide levels, prevent soil erosion and water runoff, and increase property values.

"For every dollar spent [on tree planting], you get about two dollars in return," he told LinuxPlanet, referring to results obtained in other cities that performed cost benefit analysis with the use of a software program called STRATUM (Street Resource Tool for Urban Forest Managers). Cities witnessing these kinds of gains include Chicago, IL; Fort Collins, CO; and Modesto, CA.

San Francisco's new online tree mapping system is geared to helping different "stakeholders" in tree planting to collaborate. "The mayor's Green Initiative is getting planned and managed by a dozen different agencies. There's even a 'director of greening,'" Crocker said, in an interview with LinuxPlanet.

"But as in most cities, the public works department has overall responsibility for whatever's in 'the public way', including street signs, striping, and trees."

Aside from the city's Department of Public Works (DPW), the grant-funded organization Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) is also planting trees in San Francisco.

"But up to now, it's been hard to figure out who's in charge of a specific tree," according to Crocker.

The public is viewed as another stakeholder. "If a branch comes down or something like that, people will be able to share information on that," Crocker said.

On the new Web site, you can search for a tree by street, species, planting date, or "organization with responsibility for tree management. You can also get instant access to the care history of a specific tree.

At the moment, the system's database does not include trees in San Francisco's public parks, which are managed by the Parks Department.

But it does include more than 100,000 trees that hold "tree permits" from San Francisco's DPW, he said.

Like MapGuide Enterprise, MapGuide Studio, and several other commercial mapping products from Autodesk, the open source edition of MapGuide uses FDO (feature data object), a GIS data format originally developed by Autodesk.

MapGuide open source developers work with the FDO API, a generic, command-based interface to various existing data source technologies.

To help bring disparate types of GIS data and imagery into a common format, Autodesk decided several years ago to "open source" FDO, so as to help bring disparate sources of satellite imagery and other GIS data into a common format, he said.

"GIS has been sort of like the 'Wild West.' The information has come from lots of different sources--in the military, government, universities, and so on--in many different spatial data formats. Some of these formats have 'stuck,' even though they haven't necessarily been that efficient," according to Crocker.

In the San Francisco implementation, much of the mapping information previously ran in proprietary format in two different databases: Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle.

But open source developers have also been working through MapGuide and OSGeo, the parent project to the MapGuide Open Source project, to provide information from a wide range of data sources in FDO. Autodesk is the main, or "sustaining" sponsor of OSGeo. The company also runs its own Green Initiative.

Although the maps on San Francisco's Web site are easily viewable by everyone, right now, the only people who can contribute data are members of FUF and workers in the DPW's Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF).

Over the next month or so, though, the city plans to let the general public chime in on the effort directly, too.

"You'll be able to send information that will add a tree, or update an existing tree," Crocker told LinuxPlanet.

Also down the road, FUF and San Francisco's DPW expect to share open source code from their system with other cities interested in building their own urban forests.

Another long-range plan is to furnish members of FUF's youth program with wireless handhelds, thereby enabling the young volunteers to file updated information about the status of specific trees directly from the sidewalks of San Francisco.

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