With no official tree census in place, Project Vruksha and Gubbi Labs are leveraging data and crowdsourcing to build tree maps of Bengaluru.
“Just here, we can see eight species of trees — there’s pink tabebuia, rain tree, teak… You can see that bird — parakeet — flying there,” says Vijay Nishanth, pointing out the diversity of life around a street in Jayanagar. “You often see doves, barbets flying around here… With more fruit and flowering trees, you have more birds,” he says.
Nishanth, an urban conservationist is also known as Bengaluru’s ‘Tree Doctor’, believes every tree is valuable. When 17 trees were poisoned for an Apple hoarding in the city earlier this year, he managed to rejuvenate three of them by applying beeswax and orange oil on their trunks. On his smartphone, he shows me before-and-after photos of sidewalks transformed by newly planted trees, and poisoned trees he’s brought back to life.
It’s around 7 am, and we’re waiting for his colleagues from Project Vruksha to show up. Nishanth is the founder of Project Vruksha, a non-profit group tracks every tree and sapling in the neighbourhood.
While the government has spent a great deal of resources on tracking its citizens through Aadhaar — unique identification numbers based on biometric and demographic data of Indian citizens, it hasn’t carried out any official census on trees. What Project Vruksha is attempting is akin to an Aadhaar project for Bengaluru’s trees.
“Our idea is to release a tree terrain of Bengaluru,” says Shariff, technical head and cofounder at Project Vruksha, over a cup of tea and breakfast at a local Udupi restaurant.
Project Vruksha has built Vruksha, an online web app that works on a browser, on which they are building a ward-wise tree map of Bengaluru
“We’re enabling interactivity (on the app) for normal users to register, browse its features; if they want to complain, they can start logging (comments) against a tree” — Shariff, technical head and cofounder at Project Vruksha
The project, which plans to map all the trees in the city on the site, has been stonewalled by Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officials, and funds from the government are not forthcoming. When we first spoke over the phone, Nishanth shared an article which appeared in the local edition of the Indian Express, in which former deputy mayor S Harish alleges that the project, if funded, would have exposed the prevailing corruption in the BBMP. “We’ve been doing this since 2014. We’re pushing the government (for funds), but it is not agreeing. And you saw the article,” he says.
For now, Vruksha’s tree map is relegated to a handful of wards — Pattabhinagara, Jayanagar east, Byrasandra, and Kanakpura Road — in the city. Nishanth says they believe in quality over quantity when it comes to maintaining data. “If you put up more data, it will become stagnant,” he says. Meanwhile, new features are coming up on the platform in a month, which includes a responsive design for wider hardware support.
Meanwhile, at the IISc campus in Bengaluru, Gubbi Labs, a research collective, is trying out a crowdsourced approach to carry out a tree census in Bengaluru. Launched as a part of Neralu, a tree festival held in the city in February this year, the tree mapping app is hosted on Github, a repository for code and open data. At present, the map marks trees in Lalbagh, Indiranagar and Cooke Town neighbourhoods, and has sparse data on a few others. Over 7,000 trees have been mapped on the platform.
“Mapping (of trees) has been tried by a lot of people, including the government, which is supposed to do a tree census, but often the challenge is getting people to go around and map (them),” says Dennis C Joy, resident editor at Gubbi Labs. He estimates it would take a minimum of two people for each of Bengaluru’s 198 wards to map and keep track of trees. As this is too resource-intensive, they’re pursuing the other path. “We’re taking the open source way — where you put it out, and kind of hope that people catch on to it, and start contributing (to the mapping exercise),” he says.
“Mapping (of trees) has been tried by a lot of people, including the government, which is supposed to do a tree census, but often the challenge is getting people to go around and map (them)” — Dennis C Joy, resident editor, Gubbi Labs
Gubbi Labs has an inhouse team of five and a little over a dozen volunteers who are working on the tree mapping project. To supplement their efforts, it is reaching out to schools to help with data collection
While Project Vruksha is taking a top-down approach, Gubbi Labs is taking a bottoms-up approach to tree mapping. “There are mainly two branches — one is the conservation side, and then there is us, who come from the science side,” says Dennis.
Gubbi Labs is just mapping trees and is not into conservation, he explains. “Our objective is just to map trees and collect data. We’re not trying to save trees or anything, as of now. It is to build data, so someone else can use it. Once you have data, there are endless things you can do with it,” he says.
“Our objective is just to map trees and collect data. We’re not trying to save trees or anything, as of now. It is to build data, so someone else can use it. Once you have data, there are endless things you can do with it” — Dennis C Joy
Vruksha’s mapping project is making waves in the mapping and open data community, with positive testimonials from the tech community.
“Vruksha is entirely dedicated to tree mapping. Vijay Nishanth is well known as ‘Tree Doctor’. I have full respect for what they do — we’ve tried collaborating with them a couple of times,” says Varun Hemachandran, founder of Talking Earth. The NGO tracks around 20 environmental datasets to find out how it affects people who live in that area. Talking Earth uses three approaches to mapping trees — volunteers, a combination of remote sensing and 360-degree photography, and through private mapping initiatives.
Hemachandran says Gubbi Labs is doing a bunch of mapping projects, and he doesn’t know much in detail about their current work.
“These were only four of 60 trees they were chopping. But these four trees were massive ones — each had a canopy of an acre, and was about a hundred years old… That’s when we called Gubbi Labs to help us out” — Varun Hemachandran, founder of Talking Earth