UW News

February 20, 2013

Searchable by cell phone or GPS unit, interactive map for arboretum being created

Environmental and Forest Sciences

Since it opened in 1934, the Washington Park Arboretum has been home to thousands of plant collections and species, each with a meticulously kept record and history. A computerized database for record keeping was established in the early 1990s but more than 55 years of the earlier records have remained preserved solely on paper, scribbled on grid maps or recorded in countless handwritten notes.

The University of Washington Botanic Gardens started work last August on a two-year project to  digitize those records and create an interactive geographic information systems map for the entire park. Eventually planners and visitors will be able to go online and pinpoint specific plants and collections within the arboretum, and access all sorts of historical details.

Grid paper with Arboretum Way sketched in, plants noted

Handwritten notes and updates for one of the 100-foot by 100-foot parcels in the 230-acre Washington Park Arboretum.UW Botanic Gardens/U of Washington

“People will be able to find an area in the arboretum, then zoom down and see which plants are there,” says Tracy Mehlin, project manager and information technology librarian at the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture. “It will be really fascinating and educational to have all of that history linked to the plant records, and accessible online to everyone.”

One of the first tasks of the project was to begin surveying and verifying the geospatial coordinates of the 230-acre park, which decades ago was divided into 595 grid squares, each 100 feet by 100 feet. When those grid markers and coordinates are confirmed, they will be used to create a map that supports the geo-referenced database. Two- and three-person teams of students and staff have already been out surveying for the past couple months.

It’s a multitiered project, and Mehlin has been working closely with other partners at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

Sarah Reichard, director of UW Botanic Gardens, is the principal investigator on the grant along with Soo-Hyung Kim, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences. Jim Lutz, a research scientist and engineer with the College of the Environment, has been helping coordinate the student survey crews and GIS mapping. UW information systems engineer David Campbell is working on the searchable database and Web interface.

Map showing Arboretum way and details of where plants are located

The same grid with digitized information and incorporating GIS mapping.UW Botanic Gardens/U of Washington

Others involved are helping with various projects, including digitizing the existing maps, as well as handwritten notes and histories attached to each of the park’s 10,000 “accessions,” plants that are part of the formal collection.  The UW Botanic Gardens owns and manages the collection in the arboretum which is a City of Seattle park.

When completed, the searchable database will be a boon for environmental research, park management and visitors, Reichard said.

“The idea is that eventually you’d be able to get the coordinates of a particular collection, like our magnolias, and locate them on your cell phone or GPS unit,” she said. “We can start putting together virtual tours, and visitors can go from plant to plant.”

Awarded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the grant is expected to run through August 2014.