With the database, I can show [administrators] where problems are, why costs might be higher on certain scenarios, how many trees we have, how many have been planted, or how many have been removed. They have a full picture.
How Mapping Trees Is Helping to Preserve Institutional Memory at the University of North Alabama
• Paul D. Graham, a geographic information system (GIS) Facilities Information manager at University of North Alabama, employs the latest Esri technologies for campus vegetation and grounds management.
• By leveraging geospatial technology, Graham aspires to create institutional memory across all campus operations and implement his system for maintenance operations.
• Products featured are ArcGIS Dashboards, ArcGIS Field Maps, ArcGIS Pro, and ArcGIS Online.
While universities nationwide vary in size and offerings, many higher education administrators face similar challenges, such as the ability to have accurate data for decision-making, an in-depth understanding of campus operations and associated costs, and a strategy for creating institutional memory or organizational knowledge as staff changeover occurs. These challenges, among others, need to be addressed to continue providing students with exceptional education experiences.
One institution has risen to meet these challenges through the creation of its unique arboriculture management database powered by a geographic information system (GIS). The University of North Alabama (UNA), located in Florence, Alabama, consists of 58 buildings and 147 acres of campus grounds and serves 8,000 students. It is no secret that campus appearance can play a vital role in student attraction and retention. As the oldest university in the state of Alabama, maintaining engaging and comfortable grounds for students and faculty is at the heart of UNA and its Facilities Administration and Planning Department.
A key aspect of campus maintenance involves vegetation management, including the campus trees, a passion of Paul D. Graham, GIS Facilities Information manager at UNA and International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist.
Graham has spent over a decade at UNA cultivating the campus's rich urban forest of 79 species, 1,487 trees, and 42.79 acres of turf. Through his work, Graham has used geospatial technologies to revolutionize university vegetation management.
"I'm all about attacking a problem with as much information as I can. That way, I just come out with a better decision," Graham said. "I wanted people to get in the habit of using maps for information and decision-making."
The Roots of UNA’s Vegetation Management System
Graham's interest in mapping for urban forestry dates back to 1998, while working with paper maps to complete a tree assessment for the City of Lompoc Urban Forestry department in California, and again during a research project at University of California, Davis (UC Davis), in 2005, where he had difficulty identifying the right tree among a group from city and research project maps.
"A part of working in urban forestry is working with clots of trees that are geographically close to one another, and mistakes can happen," Graham said. "Arborists deal with the geographic context all the time; we just don't think in a geographic context. But having a database with a geographical representation of the specimen can help us triangulate the specimen and prevent mistakes."
Graham's interest in a geospatial application brought him to Florence, Alabama, as an urban forester to help the city complete its survey of 37,000 trees, which included UNA campus trees. Wanting to grow his understanding of GIS, Graham worked for UNA as a grounds superintendent and created the first digital map of the campus. Graham built off both datasets while completing his master's thesis at UNA by quantifying the carbon sequestration—a method of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere via a process of capturing and storing it—of the campus's trees.
In his current role, Graham used those datasets and his thesis again, as well as the i-Tree database (for analyzing tree value and attribute data) and STRATUM (Street Tree Resource Assessment Tool for Urban Forest Managers), to create a grounds database in ArcGIS Online.
"Landscapes are always in a state of flux, and as an arborist, you need to know where you are in that state of change," Graham said. "The idea was to create a database with relational datasets. It could be visualized and account for data that wouldn't change such as species and location, data that might change such as zoning or planning, and data that will change such as the height and other biometrics."
The UNA Arboriculture Management Field Map functions as that dynamic management database with a 2D map of buildings, roads, crosswalks, parking lots, and other campus features, as well as iconography representing trees, plant species, and turf. Users can click on a tree icon and pull all the data associated with it such as biometrics, history of planting or removal, risk analysis, and measurements. Images are also attached to the tree for comparison so stressed or diseased trees can be tracked. Additionally, UNA's alumni organization launched a program honoring deceased individuals with trees planted in their honor. The new plantings are added to the map and include information that appears on the physical plaque attached to each on campus.
"Historically, the university has seen vegetation management as something to look at once or twice a year for pruning and removal," Graham said. "With the database, I can show them where problems are, why costs might be higher on certain scenarios, how many trees we have, how many have been planted, or how many have been removed. They have a full picture."
Going a step further, Graham integrated the thesis data to highlight the utility of UNA's urban forest. Utilizing ArcGIS Dashboards—a web app that allows data to be visualized as charts, gauges, and maps of people, services, and assets in real time—the relational datasets are visually broken down into quick graphs such as top species on campus, carbon emissions in metric tons, carbon sequestration dollar value, and amount of excess surface water prevented.
To get buy-in, Graham worked closely with his staff in the database's development, ensuring that naming conventions, processes, reporting standards, and terminologies matched what staff already were using. In this way, Graham hopes to preserve institutional memory and create a historical record of campus vegetation.
"I can tell you how many trees we've removed in the last 10 years, how many trees we pruned and when, how many trees we planted—all of that," Graham said. "By having [staff] supply their information and processes for the database, we don't lose that information when they leave. We can continue to build on it when it passes to the next person."
GIS Database Provides a Comprehensive View of Campus Vegetation Management
Using ArcGIS Field Maps—an all-in-one app that uses data-driven maps to help with data collection and editing—Graham's department digitally documents planting, pruning, removal, fertilization, and disease/pest management for the database. Presented using ArcGIS Dashboards, the database is also Graham's primary communication tool to administrators showcasing year-to-year costs, planning updates, problems, previous history, what a tree may look like moving forward, and any other data requested
"We use the database to, one, show administrators what our campus has and the current value of our urban forest, and two, what our problems are in a spatial context," Graham said.
Whether it is used for showcasing a tree that yielded a costly removal but had high risk due to student foot traffic or timing the removal of vegetation for building construction, the map serves to provide the context of what Graham and his team do. The added emissions, runoff, and carbon sequestration values provide for untraditional return on investment (ROI) and highlight the utility of an urban forest. All are essential components that administrators need as they plan and budget sustainable urban campuses.
"We are in the process of demonstrating to the administrators and directors the values of the maps," said Graham. "What we have now is good, and there is acknowledgment that the data is valid and great for operational purposes, but this is just a starting point as we figure out other ways this technology can be used for the campus."
In turning to the future, Graham is exploring other avenues to expand UNA's use of ArcGIS Enterprise—a complete GIS that allows users to create, manage, map, analyze, and share geospatial information. Graham has spent the last two years pulling computer-aided design (CAD) files of the campus buildings and updating them to his system. He is also working with the university's computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) vendor to update the systems and transition to an online format that can integrate with GIS to create a digital twin of the UNA campus.
Graham's goal is to create a work management system that uses ArcGIS technologies. In particular, he wants to update his CMMS with ArcGIS Indoors—a complete indoor mapping system for building management—and relational CAD data to map all campus facilities. This would enable maintenance staff to pinpoint a location of a facility asset that needs repairs such as an air-conditioning unit. In this case, the system would generate a maintenance request and record the repair to maintain a history. He hopes the same process could apply to maintaining irrigation systems or plumbing.
The idea is that the CMMS would also provide a location element to prioritize work requests to reduce time and costs. Moreover, the historical data in the system would allow staff to see patterns quickly and solve problems. This is just one of the many examples that Graham feels a geospatial database can do for university operations.
"I would like this to become a solution for others. There is an opportunity to use this as a jumping-off point," Graham said. "Where do you want to go with it? That's the real question. From my perspective, the framework can pretty much be used for whatever you want. Let your creativity go from there."
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