News Story

June 17, 2013

"Liking" Trees Takes on a New Meaning

While the planet’s trees outnumber humans roughly 60 to 1, they’re bit players in the burgeoning world of social media; few magnolias or maples have gone viral on YouTube. Lindens, lilacs, and larches aren’t attracting thousands of Twitter followers. Willows and walnuts haven’t garnered many “likes” on Facebook.
   But Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum aims to change that, giving the world’s trees a place alongside more charismatic species—the kittens and panda cubs that have rocketed to prominence via social media. Already recognized as one of the world’s best-documented botanical collections, the Arboretum’s 15,000 trees, shrubs, and woody vines are now making the leap into our hyper-networked world.
   In the process, the Arboretum aims to create arboreal celebrities, as it were, whose roots and canopies extend far beyond its 281 acres in the Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
   “We’re charged, as a University, with sharing, and with making the world at large a more informed place,” says William (Ned) Friedman, the Arboretum’s director and the Arnold professor of organismic and evolutionary biology. Noting that many of the Arboretum’s 250,000 annual visitors speak Russian and Chinese—among many other languages—Friedman says, “We want to interact with 6 billion people, not just 250,000. Social media has the capacity to internationalize us.”

Seeing the forest for the trees
When he became the Arboretum’s director two years ago—joining Harvard after a decade and a half on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder—Friedman faced a steep climb to refashion the institution into the rising social-media star it is today. Working with a small committee of staffers—including George Morris, the Arboretum’s director of information technology, applications programmer Donna Tremonte, and director of science facilitation Faye Rosin—Friedman set out to freshen the Arboretum’s online persona. “It doesn’t exist at the Arboretum if it’s not on our web site,” Friedman recalls telling his colleagues.
   Morris and Tremonte worked to modernize the site and move it to a content management system, allowing a much larger group of Arboretum staffers to post material. A Flickr stream opened the site even more broadly by soliciting photos of “My Arboretum” from visitors. This democratization of content creation quickly lent the Arboretum’s site a needed dose of dynamism—laying the groundwork for an expansion into more freewheeling media, such as Twitter and Facebook.
   The Arboretum’s long and distinguished history gives it a rich trove of information to share with the public: founded in 1872 as the first public arboretum in North America, the Arnold Arboretum is now a leading center for the study of plants and biodiversity. It holds one of the world’s most comprehensive living collections of temperate woody plants, and its herbaria, library, and archives contain more than 1.4 million dried specimens, innumerable rare books, and more than a century of imagery and document-ation of plants and plant collections from around the world.
   But bringing that vast data to the forefront in a compelling, user-friendly, and social-media-savvy way has taken some doing—and remains an ongoing process.

Freeing the data
After the Arboretum’s web presence was updated, the next significant step toward putting its collections at the fingertips of visitors near and far was the launch, in fall 2011, of a desktop web application called Collections Researcher. This tool, linking decades of accumulated data on the Arboretum’s flora with a powerful GIS, or geo-graphic information system, was a leap forward in sharing information with global audiences.
   “We wanted to free all this data from lockdown,” says Friedman, an evolutionary biologist who has researched the origins and early evolution of flowering plants—giving the information reach far beyond the Boston-based libraries and archives where it had remained sequestered for decades.
   Last spring, the Arboretum took another step toward establishing its living collections as a public resource for science, learning, and recreation: building on Collections Researcher with an interactive map and web application dubbed Arnold Arboretum Mobile Interactive Map (MIM). With the launch of this tool, Arboretum visitors can use their mobile devices—whether Android, iPhone, or iPad—to access a suite of tools, maps, and in-depth information on species. MIM allows users to search the collection, locate individual plants, and view seasonal highlights.
   While eagle-eyed observers may notice QR codes and other discreet signs of technology’s creep into the Arboretum, these guideposts are intentionally unobtrusive, Friedman says, so as not to overwhelm visitors or mar their experience of the natural world.
   “Those who want to can use their mobile devices to listen to people talk about a given plant on iTunes,” Friedman says. “Or, using GenBank, they can, if they want, dig deep into genetic analysis of the plants in front of them.”
   Using these tools in conjunction with their social media accounts, “people can create their own archive of experiences here,” Friedman says. “We’re reinvigorating people’s relationships with plants, and…showing that their experience at the Arboretum doesn’t have to end when they go home.”

Mobbing the trees
Taking a cue from flash mobs (spontaneous group dance), the Arboretum’s so-called “Tree Mobs” have used social media to put individual plants in the limelight. Since May, Tree Mobs, a concept hatched by Friedman, has allowed Arboretum devotees—alerted via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail, often on short notice as warranted by fleeting arboreal occurrences—to engage in brief encounters with experts focusing on some facet of the landscape. These 20-minute talks, which draw on the expertise of Arboretum staff as well as scientists from other Boston-area institutions, heighten visitors’ awareness of the environment’s depth and variety, one species at a time.
   As many as 50 people have showed up for each Tree Mob: diehard Arboretum fans, scrubs-clad medical staff from the adjacent Faulkner Hospital or Hebrew Senior Life Center, even unsuspecting visitors who happen upon Tree Mobs in progress. Topics have included the gnarled Sargent’s crabapple tree; the evolutionary modification of shoots to create the sharp thorns of the honey locust; the pollination droplets produced by the female ginkgo to capture airborne pollen from male trees; and how early New England settlers would have produced ships from native trees.
   “It’s all about spontaneity: moving away from the formulaic and liberating us from old patterns,” Friedman says, noting that the Arboretum’s embrace of social media has quadrupled attendance at traditional evening events, such as talks by scientists.

New scholarly relationships
With the unlocking of data that have long resided six miles from Harvard Square, the Arboretum now finds itself connecting with the rest of the University as never before. One new partnership is with metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research and teaching unit interested in examining and expanding networked culture in the arts and humanities. The Arboretum’s partnership with metaLAB brings it into direct contact with three Harvard schools: the Graduate School of Design, which is metaLAB’s physical home; the Law School; and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (the latter two through metaLAB’s academic home in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society).
   The metaLAB’s “Digital Ecologies” project, led by Kyle Parry, a doctoral student in film and visual studies, aims to further enrich the Arboretum’s social-media experience, and to align its digital growth with Harvard’s humanities and scientific collections in Cambridge.
   Together, metaLAB and the Arboretum are examining three ideas for extending the Arboretum’s marriage of trees and technology: first, they hope to help social-media users construct records of their experiences and discoveries at the Arboretum through “digital field notebooks” by documenting and reflecting on their experiences and sharing images with the Arboretum’s Flickr stream; second, they hope—using the sensors already placed inconspicuously on Arboretum trees, shrubs, and vines—to build deep timelines for specific organisms. These would stretch from these organisms’ origins through to the present, and extend forward into a future shaped by climate change; third, they seek ways of melding diverse perceptions of the environment, and of its individual components, into a single, unified whole.
   “At the moment, in networked cultures, trees are not as obviously present,” Parry observes, “but nature and networks can meaningfully coexist, and their relationship needn’t be seen as

Evolving social impact
While Friedman says the Arboretum’s social-media efforts are intended to reach anybody and everybody, he has seen particular engagement among a few specific demographics.
   “Older people have responded well,” he says. “They may not care to see Facebook pictures of the party you attended last night, but the Arboretum’s involvement can show them the value of social media.”
   “We want to allow people to engage with technology,” Friedman continues. “We want them to get excited about how these technologies can enhance their experiences.”
   At the other end of the spectrum, Parry points out, children can be brought to an appreciation and reverence for the natural world through the judicious use of technology and social media. “Technology,” he says, “can make you pay attention.”
   As part of its partnership with the City of Boston, the Arboretum is charged with helping to educate
students in the city’s schools about plants, ecology, and the natural world.  
   “We can use electronics to draw students here,” Friedman says, “to change kids’ connection to nature.”

Leadership for the future
Friedman and Parry say that the increasingly rich, long-term, and fine-grained data now available on the Arboretum’s living collection could also point the way toward a better understanding of one of the most pressing issues of our age: climate change.
   “The Arboretum is a rich repository of environmental data from the past 140 years,” Friedman says—and social-media users could add to this data by noting such annual milestones as leaf-out times and flowering times, or phenology. “It can help explain the likely effects of climate change in the coming years.”
   A major initiative on this front has been launched quite recently: last year, Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University, began an intensive examination of phenology and climate change using the living collections and environmental data from the Arnold Arboretum.
   Over the last two years, Friedman and Tremonte say, the Arboretum has moved from the middle of the social-media pack among its peer arboretums and botanical gardens to the vanguard. The National Arboretum in Washington and the Royal Botanic Garden in London—better known as Kew
Gardens—have both expressed interest in the Arnold Arboretum’s use of information technology to enhance access to data for applications in research and public outreach.
   “Several years ago, the integration of social media and information technology within the botanical community was emerging and immature,” Tremonte says. “Now, they’re looking to us.” Indeed, to keep its efforts accessible to all, the Arboretum has taken care to keep its social-media efforts open-source, and to avoid creating proprietary solutions.
   What else is on the Arboretum’s social media to-do list? Tremonte and Friedman are mulling the possibility of having trees “text” alerts to interested followers when blooming begins. Head-mounted cameras, worn by arborists who scale trees, could add treetop views to the wealth of data in the Arnold Arboretum Mobile Interactive Map.
   Another possibility, Friedman adds, is the formation of communities around individual plants: creating Facebook pages for trees, and allowing visitors to “like” species.
   “Maybe you want to find other people who really like sugar maples, or people who live to see a ginkgo when it’s bright gold,” Friedman says. “This gives people a new opportunity to be active, contributing members of the Arboretum.”
   It’s an approach that could give the Arboretum’s noble trees their rightful place among the other endearing species that have dominated social media to date.

This article originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, the newsletter of the Center for the Environment, in Volume 5, Issue 1. Read the entire issue here.

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