It seems like an age since #LondonTreeWeek happened (it was 27/5/17 – 04/06/17), but the ideas that came out of the Trees and Technology mini-conference on 2nd June at the beautiful Convocation Hall still resonate.
A great line-up of speakers delivered a series of presentations covering a wide range of topics from data visualisation, mapping trees, engaging people with trees through consumer apps and using IoT technology to monitor trees. The event was expertly chaired by Stuart Dainton, Head of Innovation at the Woodland Trust, and the speakers were:
- Ourselves – Steve and Paul from TreeTalk (this was effectively the Beta launch of our platform)
- Katrina Ramsey (Senior Policy and Programmes Officer, Environment Team) and Anna Gibson (GIS Specialist) from the Greater London Authority spoke about the challenges of developing the GLA’s London Street Tree Map
- Conor Nugent from Curio.xyz spoke about the importance of user experience in developing apps to engage people with the natural world
- Simon Edwards and Stephen Middleton from TiCL.me talked about making it easy for people to publish super-local information including tree-trails in parks.
- Richard Lanyon-Hogg delivered an overview of Internet of Things technology, and the possibilities of applying this to develop Internet of Trees (IoTr) networks for cheap and adaptable environmental monitoring
The speaker presentations were wide-ranging, but all fascinating, and can be viewed and downloaded here:
Key themes emerged through the afternoon around the problems of collecting, standardising and analysing data; the potential technology has to offer in the role of engaging people with trees; and the sheer volume of work underway with trees, particularly urban trees. But perhaps the key message was that we must avoid the inclination to dismiss technology as being against the natural world, but instead embrace the direction of travel and all that technology can offer to enthuse and engage people with nature on their doorsteps.
Let’s pick these themes up in a bit more detail…
Though quite a dry subject, data is the bedrock to any technological based interaction with trees.
Both TreeTalk and Curio use tree data released by the GLA. The data is derived from the local authorities who maintain their own data collection and management regimes, the data is provided to the GLA in a manner that makes it relatively easy to deal with by including standardised English species names, GPS locations and so on. However the data is incomplete and in some cases inconsistent. It was interesting to share information about the challenges faced by the GLA and how TreeTalk and Curio are both dealing with the available data and planning on augmenting it.
Curio gave examples of how data is provided in other parts of the world and how it might be standardised (in some cities they have exact details down even to the source nursery!).
We described our work with TreeTalk cleaning up species names, mapping from 2771 species in the GLA set down to just over 500 master species.
It became apparent that it would be very useful to share methodology around database structure, species mapping between Latin and common names, and between English and other languages, and to work towards an agreed standard in naming. It was suggested that further data should be included in the dataset around tree age and condition and also a record made of the data collection methodology, particularly when it comes to location data.
All speakers agreed that making the best user experience of the technologies discussed should be a key focus if end users are to be engaged, and hopefully, enthused by the information available. Curio and TiCL both highlighted how easy their applications are for end users to interact with, TiCL can be used on a hyper-local level by bodies such as ‘Friends of’ groups, and a demonstration of how anybody can easily enter data and create a trail based on tree locations with “one goal … to get the person to the tree!” Curio outlined how their user interface and experience had been key to the development of their application with the idea that to engage users they need to add features that compete with other entertainment applications. So, the Curio app is packed with gamification features and also allows users to enter data to augment the existing datasets. TreeTalk meanwhile, is exploring how to highlight interesting trees to its users, through explaining and highlighting rarity, through colour, and by generating trails to the most intriguing.
Ignore Tech at Your Peril
Technology has become a key part of our daily lives and it is clear it is becoming inseparable from our own evolution. Young people see it as the default way to find out about their world. Logically then, the natural world and trees especially are becoming the subject of tech advances allowing for better and deeper engagement and understanding. It is clear then that we, the developers of technology, must be vigilant when it comes to the motivations for this inexorable co-evolutionary journey. Richard Lanyon-Hogg demonstrated that IoTr sensors could monitor many environmental factors including temperature, electrical conductivity, humidity and dozens more, these could also be enhanced with images and video. Once IoTr sensors are rolled out, even on a small scale, vast amounts of data will be generated, and it is this data that has potential to provide new insights and knowledge, which in turn will further highlight the fascinating lives of trees.
This ‘Build it and they will come’ approach is familiar in the tech world, but environmental scientists are more used to an approach where a need is identified which can be helped by a specific technical solution. If the scientific and academic worlds are to freely access and share data that can be, and no doubt soon will be, harvested from the natural world for the greater good of humanity rather than for the benefit of the shareholders of global tech companies, then it is essential that we embrace the great technological leaps forward we are on the cusp of, and support the endeavours that were presented at this event. It is great to see this Open Data approach being adopted by Katrina and her team at the GLA, and indeed, across government in the UK.
A Way Forward?
We believe that the audience and the speakers were very excited by the community that emerged on the 2nd June, and it seems appropriate that we continue to develop shared aims. Perhaps the first of these would be to look at how we can all contribute to a shared standard for categorising and storing tree data, and we will publish a further post suggesting how this might be structured and what we would hope to achieve.
All in all, it was a very exciting day, and we hope that it is the start of many future collaborations to engage people with trees using technology.
Paul Wood & Steve Pocock, TreeTalk, June 2017