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How 3 Jurisdictions Are Using Tech to Bolster the Health of Trees in Their Communities

Civic innovators find diverse applications for using technology to care for street trees.

by / June 23, 2017

I’m beautiful / I’m nasty / and I’m coming to kill your ash tree.

So goes the infectious refrain of a hip-hop YouTube video that was created by a collaboration between the Denver Botanic Gardens, a nonprofit media group and Jonny 5 of the Flobots, the artists behind 2007 hit single Handlebars. Why, you may wonder, would these three seemingly disparate entities come together to create a song about murderous threats to ash trees?

Well, as it turns out this video is just one of many efforts taking place across the country as municipal governments and related groups seek to use tech to bolster the health of trees in their communities. While Denver made a catchy, informative and fun bit of potentially viral marketing aimed at raising awareness, work elsewhere is taking different approaches. What they all have in common, however, is they are trying to find new ways to save trees and keep our city spaces greener.

The Denver effort is arguably the most accessible. The video is a blast, with Jonny 5 dressing as an emerald ash borer (an insect that poses a mortal threat to trees) and terrorizing a community, specifically its trees and by extension its people. This video has so far been viewed more than 3,000 times, a high number considering it's ultimately about tree maladies.

The idea to create it came while officials with the Denver Botanic Gardens were considering an exhibit on their grounds to spread awareness about the threat that emerald ash borers posed to local trees. During meetings about this, they found themselves referring to the bug by its abbreviation, EAB, and someone jokingly said, “down with EAB,” but in the cadence of the famous Naughty By Nature lyric, “down with O.P.P.”

They joked that they should make a hip-hop video about this. Then it stopped being a joke, and they actually did it, said Jen Tobias, associate director of exhibitions with the Denver Botanic Gardens. By creating the video, they used tech to generate content they could share across many digital mediums, thereby likely reaching more people than would have seen a physical exhibit at the gardens, as well as populations who don’t generally visit the site.

“We’re definitely pleased with the attention it’s gotten,” Tobias said. “When we were discussing the exhibit, we were trying to think of something that would make it fun and interesting. Invasive tree beetles are not the most sexy content for an exhibition. We were trying to think of something to make it a little more fun, and to spread the word more effectively.”

They then began collaborating with the Open Media Foundation, which works to tell nonprofits’ stories across different mediums, and Jonny 5 of the Flobots, who are local to Denver and involved in activism. Soon the video was born.

Rachel Murray, interpretation and evaluation director at Denver Botanic Gardens, said they have had requests for the video from other jurisdictions, because the emerald ash borer is not native or limited to Colorado.

“It’s been really successful for something that maybe an exhibition would not be engaging for,” Murray said, “and I definitely think this kind of content can have a really far reach, especially when it’s kind of fun and funny and something that people want to share.”

Denver isn’t the only city with agencies working to preserve its trees. In Washington, D.C., the local government recently unveiled a new app aimed primarily at showing residents the locations of young trees in need of watering.

Since the 1800s, Washington has laid claim to the moniker “city of trees,” which also means it has a large and experienced urban forestry division, something smaller cities in recent economic times are said to lack. Earl Eutsler, associate director of the urban forestry division, said there is real civic pride in the nation’s capital about its trees, and often citizens want to help.

Helping, however, can be dangerous, especially when it comes to pruning trees. But there are safer ways to help, and the new platform, dubbed the DC Tree Watering App, seeks to foster public awareness about this and also provide open data about which young trees are in need of a drink.

“There can at times be challenges making sure we engage the public as fully as possible in what we’re doing, and in getting them involved and having them help,” Eutsler said. “The easiest, lowest-cost way for the public to help is to help water newly planted trees. They’re the most vulnerable trees in the population, and it’s the lowest barrier to entry in terms of engaging with their own trees, but a lot of people aren’t aware of how to do it and which trees need the help.”

The public can now download the app that developers built, and they can use it to find thirsty trees. They can also log their own data about when they last watered a tree, so other volunteer arborists can view when a tree was last cared for.

The idea is twofold: first seeking to keep young trees healthy, and second aiming to get the public vested in what the forestry division does, opening up a new channel between citizens and the department’s staff.

The app launched in early June and has so far been viewed more than 2,000 times. Eutsler said that as the summer goes on, he’ll use it to identify which parts of the city are best for using an app to engage the population and which parts of the city need a different method of communication.

Eutsler and his cohort can also update the map in real time, showing the city when and where a new tree is being planted. But perhaps the most accessible feature is a story map. The brainchild of staff arborist John O’Neil, it highlights about 55 different species of street trees, so people can use their phones to learn all about the unique varieties of vegetation in front of their homes all throughout the city. The map even notes when a type of tree has been featured in prominent literature and things like that.

To demonstrate the city’s commitment to its young trees even further, the app launched with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser symbolically watering a tree.

The future of tech innovation is rosy as well. In fact, a group of engineers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is working to build software that would allow municipal governments to more efficiently catalog and identify every last tree within their jurisdictions.

This effort is led by Pietro Perona, Caltech’s Allen E. Puckett professor of electrical engineering, who previously developed an app that can identify about 550 species of birds. Perona’s expertise is taking human expertise and translating it for machines, which can then be used by those who lack the knowledge to identify things, things like trees and birds.

Perona and the graduate students he works with have built technology that can use Google Earth and Google Street View to identify and count urban trees. They are, however, still trying to figure out how best to scale that technology and to navigate the procurement process with local governments.

Perona said that as city governments grappled with economic challenges, long-standing urban forestry divisions are often shrunk in favor of hiring subcontractors, which may effectively prune or water trees, but don’t wield the same extensive and institutional expertise that in-house arborists might. This technology, however, could provide municipal governments with some of what they’ve lost.

“The technology we produce is filling a gap,” Perona said.

Their technology could also one day make it easier for cities to share open data about their trees with the public. The only thing currently stopping them is economics.

“Our dream would be that we could give all this information for free to all the towns,” Perona said.

For more information about the tech Perona and company have developed, government agencies are encouraged to email David Hall at

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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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