Horticultural Cartographer David Strauch adding new plants to the inventory. [Photo: H. Bornhorst]

Campus Inventory and Mapping Project

In 2011 BGM Landscape Services began an ambitious project to inventory all of the plants on campus. This is a critical step towards realizing one of our goals, which is to manage the collection as a botanical garden, in line with pioneer botanist Joseph Rock's original vision for the UH Mānoa campus. We also wanted to take the opportunity of sharing more information about the plants with the campus community, and connected the inventory with an online map which allows users to identify the plants around them, and to search for plants, or kinds of plants, in which they might be interested.

This project has evolved as we've worked on it. Initially incorporating and modeling our map on the Campus Plants Brochure, we came to realize that one of the great virtues of an online presentation format is that it isn't limited by the same constraints as print format, which means we can potentially provide a much greater amount of information about many more plants. We can also link to other sources of information; currently the plant records link to about 20 academic databases or other serious references.

We also saw that the same mapping strategy could easily be applied to other features, such as those of the Cultural Landscape of UH Mānoa. Similar to the plant map, this builds on the Campus Art Brochure, and beyond that includes additional works of art on campus, as well as galleries, libraries, performance spaces, gardens, bookstores, and campus architecture. This map is very much in development; the framework is built, but it will take some time to collect the underlying information.

Using the same technology, we've also built a number of maps which facilitate the daily work at BGM, including maps of work areas for Buildings Services and Landscape Services staff, recycling containers, and construction staging areas. These are collected along with maps from other campus sources on our Mapping Portal. One of our goals throughout this project has been to make the maps extensible and the process transparent, so that it can be used by other people as well — which gives a greater return for the time we've invested in putting it together.

Maps & Mapping

A map is basically made from a set of features which have 1) spatial locations; and 2) attributes. For example, some of the feature sets we map are campus plants, artworks, buildings, and recycling containers. Any system for organizing and managing the spatial and attribute information could be considered a Geographic Information System, or GIS — although some GIS tools can do more things than others.

For the most part we have used free and open-source software (FOSS), or other free software, to build our system, because we wanted a system that anyone could reproduce, even without a big budget. For mapping we use QGIS and a suite of Google tools, especially GoogleEarth and FusionTables. Google tools make it easy to put maps online, but they are fairly simple in terms of geographic analysis. If we were to compare GIS to wordprocessing tools, GoogleEarth would be like a simple text editor; QGIS would be like LibreOffice, a FOSS equivalent to the dominant software; ArcGIS would be like Microsoft Word. Like word processors, different GIS systems tend to use different file formats, but it is easy to translate between them.

Basically, here's how we make a map:

  1. Use GoogleEarth and/or QGIS to create points or shapes for a bunch of features, naming each one with a unique ID number. Export these in a KML file.
  2. Use Calc (or Excel) to create a spreadsheet of attributes for the features, with a column using the same unique IDs. Save this as a CSV or .xls file
  3. Upload the KML and CSV files to GoogleFusion, which will produce a feature map, with a customizable info-window.
We then go one step further and write our own web pages, to add search tools and customize the appearance, but that isn't too tricky either.

Just as we use open source software to make the process available, we also believe in sharing information. In our inventory we've separated information about the species on campus from information about the particular campus plants, so that if anyone on another UH campus wants to set up a similar plant map, they can draw on the same species data if they choose to.

Contributing to the inventory

Since its inception, this project has been built and maintained by two part-time student employees — with invaluable help from BGM staff and others. The plant inventory is still a long ways from completion, and as the project has expanded we add to our to-do list faster than than we scratch things off it. If you would like to help out on the project, please feel free to contact us! We could particularly use help in adding content to the maps, including building histories, archival research on plant histories, or photos of individual campus plants. Pointers from an advanced web wizard would also be helpful!

One of our overall goals has been to facilitate the educational use of the campus landscape. We know that the map has been used by classes in several departments. If anyone would like to incorporate inventory work into you classes please let us know.

Horticulture superprofs Ken Leonhardt and Richard Criley help document
plant identifications and histories in the open nursery. [Photo: D. Strauch]

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