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The Internet of Trees

Mapping out a new kind of root cause analysis advances open data to help save the planet

Chairman, Data Governance Council, IBM

Every day, all over the world, methane gas leaks from underground pipes and valves and collects under manholes or escapes into the atmosphere. Humans are in the midst of a methane gas bonanza as new drilling methods and fractured wells are reaching vast new reserves of what is called natural gas to warm our homes, power our televisions, and even run our vehicles.

Many claim that methane, or natural gas, burns cleaner than coal and is the safe alternative fuel to hold back global warming. But methane is 30 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas,1 and gas leaks are so common that almost 8 billion cubic feet of it nationwide escapes into the atmosphere every year.2 These statistics substantially wipe out methane’s advantages compared to coal. Utilities already build in the cost of leaks into gas prices, providing few incentives to control leaky pipes and valves.

A leading cause of gas leaks is trees, whose green leaves soak up CO2 and release oxygen but whose tangling roots wrap around underground pipes and cause fissures and ruptures (see Figure 1). In every city in the world, trees beautify the environment while corrupting sidewalks, streets, and underground pipes. Some trees have deep roots; others have shallow and wide roots. Some build complex subterranean networks under our lawns, spreading to adjacent buildings and empty lots. With so many trees in so many municipalities, significant sums of money are spent to plant them and celebrate their preservation. People take their role for granted without ever considering their real net present value.

Internet of Trees – Figure 1

Figure 1. Subterranean networks of tree roots wreaking havoc on underground gas lines

Populating the Internet of Things

I recently hosted a webinar with the chief information officer (CIO) of Palo Alto, California, about an open data project in which the city was mapping and tagging all of its trees. By recording location latitude and longitude, genus, age, width, height, fruit, and seed, the city is creating an asset inventory of its foliage (see Figure 2). One of the webinar’s call-in participants asked if the city was also assigning universal resource indicators (URIs) to the trees, which solicited a long silence and the question: “What is a URI?”

Internet of Trees – Figure 2

Figure 2. Foliage inventory for the City of Palo Alto resulting from an open data project

The caller was quite incensed that the CIO didn’t know, but the truth is most people have never heard of a URI. Many in IT may be familiar with a universal resource locator (URL), but no one really uses that acronym anymore because it has been replaced by the vernacular link. Known or not, URIs are web links for data, and they allow any data element to have a universal identifier that any web browser can resolve to a thing. The resolution of all these URIs creates the Internet of Things.

Whether or not you have heard of the Internet of Things, many in the media use this term to tell stories about how toasters can talk to refrigerators, which is the kind of media nonsense that irritates IT professionals endlessly. But is an Internet of Trees any less ridiculous? Not in the least.

In fact, an arboreal Internet of Things can be a fundamental enabler for global sustainability. Because a tree with a URI isn’t just a thing; it’s a living entity that changes every year with the environment. It welcomes kids who climb its boughs, birds that live in its branches, and people who experience events beside it. Open data and URIs enable people to add details to trees and streets and lampposts and guardrails and buildings and parks. These details are in a bidirectional relationship of data publishing and use that describes the attributes of peoples’ lives in a complex web, which defines exactly what a city is—life and events, past, present, and future.

Exemplifying a vision for open data

Not far from my home is a street named Middle Neck Road. Halfway up that street is a signpost dedicated to Alicia Patterson, who died in a car crash on that spot in 1981. She was just 19 years old at the time. All across the world, people mark spots where loved ones died in automobile accidents with ribbons and flowers and crosses and stars, which last for a while before being buried under snow, washed away by rain, or forgotten in time. But with a global map of trees and streets, guardrails, and intersections all given URIs, anyone can record these tragic events in open data that persists long past the organic life of flowers.

We all have seen old photographs of how our towns and cities looked 100 years ago. But those photos don’t capture all the people who lived in those cities and the houses they built, the lives they led, the people they knew, the trees they planted, and the things they did. URI mapping and open data, however, offer the possibility for every human being to leave digital records of the lives they led in the towns where they lived. As a result, we will be able to look back and understand the histories of our communities in rich narratives about real people.

And when trees are mapped with URIs, documenting the extent of their roots and the impact of those roots on gas lines can empower cities to hold utilities accountable for cleaning up nasty methane leaks before they destroy the planet. This new kind of root cause analysis can benefit all living creatures.

That kind of analysis also represents my vision for open data and the Internet of Things. It illustrates a rich world described in data, accessible to all, that gives us new insights into our world that we can use to achieve enhanced understanding, communication, and history as well as a better future.

Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

1Study: America’s Natural Gas System Is Leaky and in Need of a Fix,” the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, news release, Stanford University, February 2014.
2The Environmental Scandal That’s Happening Right Beneath Your Feet,” by Phil McKenna, Matter at Medium.com.

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