Two Different Interactive Approaches with an Open Dataset

Designers can play a role in shaping our cities

About a year ago, I was interested in knowing more about the type of trees in New York. I admit to being a bit of a tree geek. I love gingkos because they are a living fossil and go back to the time of the dinosaurs, sweetgums for their intense red color in fall, and jacarandas for their bluish-purple flowers. A tree-lined street that forms an arched canopy is a simple, amazing expression of environmental design. I did a bit of research about what kind of data was available and I found that the City of New York performed a “tree census” annually for street trees and made that information available in their Open Data portal.

I decided to download the tree census information to create a visualization that would be graphic, playful, and possibly useful to someone needing to interact with the data. About seven months after I launched my visualization, another interactive designer, Jill Hubley, used the same data set and created a vastly different visualization. These two distinct approaches show how open data can increase public participation in our cities and hopefully nudge our government officials towards better policies, even when it comes to something as benign like the Maple trees in New York City.

I had some initial assumptions about the data. I believed that there would be a good diversity of trees in the city and read that diversity in an urban forest is important in case disease or an insect wipes out one particular species of tree. The Asian Longhorned Beetle, somewhat under control, has recently infested many different types of trees in the New York City area including Maples and Planetrees. Dutch elm disease has wiped out many elm trees worldwide.

As many data scientists and visualization experts will say, the data should speak for itself. I didn’t want to insert my design abstraction too heavily with the data. After several initial sketches, I settled on a segmented bar chart that would interactively link to another form of the data: icons of each tree species. Bands of color would link the bar chart and the icons. The chart is bi-directional. You can interact with the bar chart or the icons.

I envisioned this to be the first iteration of a tool that could help policymakers assess the current situation and help them in their future decisions. A user can successively add or subtract to a cumulative total. If a user wants to see add the maples and oaks in all five boroughs, that can easily be done with 2 clicks and the cumulative totals per borough are displayed.

The first version I designed ended up being the only one I liked. I designed a few other concepts but kept rejecting them and returned to the first. After the design and interaction was thought-out, I then worked with a longtime collaborator of mine on programming this visualization. It was roughly a three week project from start to finish, a relatively short project for me.

I posted the visualization on a few data visualization showcase sites and shared it on Twitter. It immediately received a warm reception from the open data and data visualization communities and was shared frequently. After this initial bout of validation, I submitted it to a few competitions and it did relatively well. Online visitation for this visualization surpassed our client work. The reception I received validated my belief that side projects are as important as any client project because they give us a great space to pursue the ideas that are swirling around in our minds.

Jill’s visualization, NYC Street Trees by Species, uses the same dataset and is a wonderful marriage of utility and beauty. As I explore the piece, I’m mesmerized by the DNA like color patterns that the data produces. Diversity of tree species, or lack thereof, is super easy to spot. Gingkos and Honey Locusts seem evenly distributed in the five boroughs. The Upper East Side seems to have a lot of Callery Pear trees.

Prior to this project, I supported open data as a matter of principle that citizens should have access to government data but I didn’t think it had much relation to me as an interactive designer. After this project, it’s clear that the data allows design practitioners like me and Jill the ability to nudge government officials to make better decisions. We can become design activists if we choose, addressing weightier topics like homelessness, education, or transportation.

I consider this visualization as a warm-up to other visualizations about our cities. I encourage other designers to take an open dataset and make some beautiful, useful visualizations that can engage users and help shape our cities.