Each year, the Portland City Council designates trees for Heritage Tree status, based on their age, size, type, historical association and/or horticultural value. There are currently 281 such trees, spread throughout the city: from Forest Park in the West Hills, to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town/Chinatown, out to Happy Valley and Powell Butte Nature Park in the east; from St. Johns and North Portland, to Sellwood and Reed College in the south. That's a lot of territory to cover.
PDX Trees is an app for iPhone and iPod Touch devices that makes it easy to find and and enjoy them. With this app, you can:
* Search for nearby trees and see them on a map.
* Tap a pin to see the name and view details for that particular tree.
* Take and upload a photo of a Heritage Tree you're visiting.
* View photos of the tree taken by other tree enthusiasts.
* Email a friend about the tree (includes tree name and location where available)
* Read more about a type of tree from Wikipedia, without leaving the app.
I've had working prototypes of this app on my phone for several weeks now, and as I've wandered around locating these trees, I realized I didn't want to build a simple reference app. Somehow, that didn't seem enough. I wanted this project to be more involved and engaging, to find ways for tree fans to participate and have a reason to visit these trees again and again.
Standing under a Japanese maple on a hot August day, I wondered what it looked like in October, or January. And that's when it hit me: Let's build a collection of images of Portland's Heritage Trees together!
With the first release of the PDX Trees iPhone app, I have two primary goals:
1. To make it easier for citizens and visitors alike to find and enjoy these trees.
2. To build a set of images as a community that shows how Portland’s Heritage Trees change over the seasons and over the years, and to see these trees through each others’ eyes — and cameras.
The app is currently waiting for review in the App Store, and will be available for free worldwide once approved.
NOTE: This is the response for the primary strengths section. I'm placing it here because of formatting.
What are a few of the primary strengths of the design?:
Browsing Trees on Location.
Putting the information in a handheld devices makes it a mobile navigation guide during walks, bike trips and visits to our area. Tree fans can see where they are in relation to nearby trees in real-time.
Simple and uncluttered design.
I've already been through several design iterations, trying to remove as many distractions as possible, and keep the focus on the two primary goals.
Take photos within the app.
While viewing details about a tree, the user can tap the camera icon to take or select a new photo, and the app transparently attaches it to that particular tree. (If no internet connection is available, the image is added to a draft email, which will be sent when connected again.)
Designed for speed.
By storing most of the base information on the phone, searching for trees in an area happens quickly, rather than stalling out because of an unreliable cellular connection. The photos and captions will be changing over time, so those are loaded over the cell network, but they are requested in the background, in advance of their display, when possible.
Photo gathering makes the app participatory.
It's one kind of experience to stand and observe a tree. I wanted a way to get people involved and excited about the project, and to be able to contribute.
Bringing Wikipedia to the Tree.
The link to Wikipedia means more info about each species is accessible within the app. (In the future, I'd like to replace this with more authoritative, locally-produced and locally-relevant information, such as the excellent material in "Trees of Greater Portland" by Phyllis C. Reynolds and Elizabeth F. Dimon.)
Since all the tree data is stored on the phone, you can still search for trees and view the basic information about them, even if you don't have an internet connection. This makes the app work on iPod Touch devices, even without a Wi-Fi connection. (A few catches: there is no access to photos or Wikipedia pages while offline, and you need to visit the region first with a network connection to get the underlying map imagery.)
Images are submitted, shared and flagged through an API that makes the data re-usable among and between sites and client apps. For example, the Heritage Tree Quest app that Simon Walter-Hansen created during the October 3 OpenGov hackathon could request images for a particular tree from my PDX Trees API and present them in the context of his project. He could also accept photos from users of his site and submit them through the API so that users of the iPhone App (and eventually the website and other platforms) could see them. (All submitted images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike license, to make broad re-use possible.)
If the app can not determine the current location of the phone, or it discovers that the device is outside of Portland, the location button automatically returns users to a view of downtown Portland. This facilitates browsing for tourists and those planning to visit Portland, and makes sure that there are always trees when someone opens the app. Once they arrive in Portland, they'll be able to see exactly where they are in relation to the trees around them.