NYC TreesCount! Data Jam: A Day of Civic Voluntreeism

| Briana Vecchione, MSFT NY Civic Tech Fellow

Event photos via Flickr user Noneck — Copyright Creative Commons Attribution

This text is adapted from a Medium post by Briana Vecchione. Find the original article here.

Earlier this month, we sponsored the NYC Parks TreesCount! Data Jam for the 2016 National Day of Civic Hacking. Hosted out of Civic Hall and organized by BetaNYC, the event prompted the city’s civic technology, data, and design communities to to make sense of New York’s latest and most spatially accurate urban forest dataset. The census mapped 530,000 trees, including the entirety of Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island (That’s 80% of all NYC streets!). Some goals and challenges revolved around quantifying how NYC’s forest has changed over time, understanding how the census can be correlated with local economic and environmental indicators, increasing civic stewardship/education, and improving its current and future health.

The day kicked off with intros by Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, alongside various officials from NYC parks, Microsoft, Jackson Heights Beautification Group, Gowanus Canal Conservancy, NYC Urban Field Station, and Datapolitan. After an introduction and Q&A about data formatting and attributes, it was time to hack! The event offered two tracks: a six hour workshop on CartoDB usage or the more traditional team-organized hackathon challenge route. NYC Parks represented in full force, complete with a morning brainstorm to categorize attendees’ thoughts, guide direction, and build teams based on similar interests. Staffers included volunteer mappers, community stakeholders, tree stewards, data scientists, and platform experts who helped to provide context and technical support every step of the way.

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Morning facilitation led by NYC Parks staff, volunteers, & Microsoft’s Matt Stempeck

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After playing around a bit with the data, our team decided to tackle the second proposed challenge:

‘How can we visualize Street Tree Census Data to improve our understanding of the urban forest and help educate New Yorkers?’

We saw an opportunity to map NYC’s urban harvest and decided to further investigate. By visualizing the coordinates of tree species which produced elements known to be edible, we were able to generate a quick map which educates the community about their natural available resources. Our final product? “Flavor Notes of New York”:

DISCLAIMER: We do not ensure safety or advise the consumption of trees listed here and are not responsible for effects you may incur by doing so

Our demo also included a front-end interface which allowed you to search by species and current location. This was actually a pivot from our original kitschy idea, which was mapping all of the the Big Apple’s apple trees. Unbelievably enough, we found that the 2015 census had no recorded apple trees in the dataset (???), so we were forced to settle for the mapping of trees harvesting plums, cherries, chestnuts, and the like.

Not pictured: Ethan Garrison of Varick Media Management
We didn’t win 🙁 but the smiles say it all: I’ve never had more fun or laughed so hard at a hackathon. The day-long duration was the perfect length of time for participants to build a civic tool without getting too grouchy or sleep-deprived, and the event ended up producing 23 incredibly innovative projects. Some standout submissions included mapping the impact of trees on localized weather, benchmarking 311 request costs, and app matching for trees in need through social media integration. To see the total list of project winners, see the link below:

Going forward, NYC Parks has stated that they continue to engage with civic hackers and stakeholders to pursue further development and long-term project incubation. In total, there were 196 total participants, 5 community groups, 7 children in onsite daycare, and 5 project winners. Feel free to explore the data yourself to contribute to the ongoing efforts of building a more equitable urban forest. We’d also like to extend a huge thank you to NYC Parks for their distinct enthusiasm to and vibrant involvement with the local civic hacking community. It’s incredibly rare to have a government department willing to spend the weekend utilizing the skills of its inhabitants, and as tree-loving New Yorkers, we appreciate it.

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