GIS Leads Gleaners to Garden of Plenty

18 Sep, 2013 By: Kevin Corbley

Trimble Navigation solutions help San Jose volunteers collect thousands of pounds of backyard produce for families in need.

Food security is a growing social and economic challenge that knows no political boundaries. Even in the United States, an astonishing 18 million households were labeled "food insecure" in 2011 because they lacked the means at some point during the year to feed all of their members. The negative impacts of food insecurity can range from poor academic performance and rising healthcare costs to increased crime and social unrest.

San Jose State University (SJSU) in California has teamed with Trimble Navigation to deploy a high-tech solution that enhances the local community's ability to put fresh food on the tables of families in need. Leveraging a variety of web-based geographic information system (GIS), geospatial, and mobile GPS technologies, the solution makes it easier for local organizations to manage productive forestry and agriculture programs in the urban setting.

"Bringing food production back into our cities and suburbs has significant environmental, economic, and social benefits," said Hilary Nixon, associate professor in the SJSU Department of Urban and Regional Planning. "A healthier community is one of those benefits."

SJSU and the City of San Jose have jointly formed an organization they call CommUniverCity that brings together students, faculty, city staff, and members of the local community to assist nearby neighborhoods in a variety of initiatives. One of these is Garden to Table, which deployed the Trimble Urban Forestry solution to feed the hungry with fruits grown locally in private yards and gardens.

Due to the increased efficiencies achieved by superior data collection and organization, Garden to Table was able to halve the amount of time it took to catalog, organize, and map Central San Jose's fruit trees, leading to more time in the field, and a projected increase of 100 percent more fruit in 2013, or roughly 25,000 pounds. Plans call for all of the fruit being delivered to families within a couple of miles of where it is grown.

Greater consumption of locally grown, healthy foods isn't the only advantage of improved urban forestry, explained Nixon. She believes the same technology used by SJSU and Garden to Table to feed the needy in San Jose can be utilized by local governments to better manage trees in public spaces along residential streets and in city parks, further contributing to a healthier community.

Harvesting Surplus Fruit

The mild climate and generous rainfall in San Jose are ideal for fruit trees, many of which were planted decades ago on residential properties. Now mature, these trees typically yield more citrus and stone fruits than one household can possibly consume, the remainder often rotting on the branches or on the ground. Concerned by the fact that much of the fruit went to waste, an informal group called Neighborhood Fruit Pickers sought permission of property owners to glean the excess for distribution to food banks.

Garden to Table offered to support the Pickers in 2011, seeing an opportunity to leverage the university's GIS resources to make the urban harvesting process more productive, said Zach Lewis, Garden to Table's project coordinator and a graduate student in SJSU's Urban Planning Department.

"We started mapping the fruit trees with pen and paper, walking the streets and collecting data — address, tree type, productivity, and size," said Lewis. "Then I would geocode the data and drop it into the GIS ... that was incredibly time and labor intensive."

Although the City of San Jose shared up-to-date parcel layers from its GIS for the university to use in its own ArcGIS system, the field data collection proved to be a flaw in overall efficiency. Not only was field work time consuming, mistakes were being made both in inconsistent data collection and in the entry of field notes into the GIS back on campus. These notes included hand-written location coordinates for each tree captured in the field with a simple handheld GPS unit.

Despite these issues, Lewis and fellow volunteers mapped 930 trees on private properties within a mile radius of campus in the first year. Personnel time in the field and at the keyboard totaled more than 300 hours. Although the mapping and subsequent GIS analysis helped improve efficiency of the harvests, Lewis and Nixon saw potential in further automating the process.

With close ties to SJSU, Trimble developed a three-part solution with a mobile GIS for data collection, a back-office application for geospatial data analysis, and a tree canopy monitoring segment for long-term planning.

More Efficient Tree Mapping

To create an integrated solution, participants contacted Cengea, a Trimble company in Vancouver, Canada, which offers a data management and visualization package specifically for forestry. This solution, called Cengea Forest, needed only minor customization to provide both mobile field and back-office analysis functionality for Garden to Table. The solution was up and running in less than two weeks.

Cengea Urban Forest displays Garden to Table fruit tree locations on a parcel base map layer.

"The mobile client application ran on handheld Trimble Juno SB GPS data collectors," said Patrick Lefebvre, Cengea manager of customer solutions. "Field crews were guided by a simple menu system that helped them record and inventory trees in the study area that could be harvested ... accurately recording GPS location and key attributes such as species, size, and productivity."

Training the volunteers to use the mobile data collectors took just a few minutes because the attribute menus were mostly point-and-click. These sessions focused on educating the crews to correctly identify San Jose's nearly two dozen species of fruit trees, each named in the pull-down menu. The need to jot down location coordinates for each tree was eliminated — the mobile GIS application on the Juno automatically recorded those points as feature attributes. Collected data was uploaded by Wi-Fi into the back-office piece of the application.

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About the Author: Kevin Corbley

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