Tree diagrams as important tool in human approach to big data

Big data may seem like a recent phenomenon but for centuries tree diagrams have helped people make sense of new influxes of data:

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge catalogs a stunning diversity of illustrations and graphics that rely on arboreal models for representing information. It’s a visual metaphor that’s found across cultures throughout history–a data viz tool that has outlived empires and endured huge upheavals in the arts and sciences…

For the first several hundred years at least, the use of the tree metaphor is largely literal. A graphic from 1552 classifies parts of the Code of Justinian–a hugely important collection of a thousand years of Roman legal thought–as a trunk with a dense tangle of leafless branches. An illustration from Liber Floridus, one of the best-known encyclopedias from the Middle Ages, lays out virtues as fronds of a palm. In the early going, classifying philosophical knowledge and delineating the moral world were frequent use cases. In nearly every case, foliage abounds…

At some point in the 18th or 19th century, the tree model made the leap to abstraction. This led to much more sophisticated visuals, including complex organization charts and dense genealogies. One especially influential example arrived with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859…

While the impulse to visualize is more alive today than ever, our increasingly technological society may be outgrowing this enduring representational model. “Trees are facing this paradigm shift,” Lima says. “The tree, as a representational hierarchy, cannot accommodate things like the web and Wikipedia–things with linkage. The network is replacing the tree as the new visual metaphor.” In fact, the idea to do a collection solely on trees was born during Lima’s research on his first book–a collection of visualizations based on the staggering complexity of networks.

A few quick thoughts:

1. We talk a lot now about being in a visual age (why can’t audio clips go viral?) yet humans have a long history of utilizing visuals to help them understand the world.

2. We’ve seen big leaps forward in data dissemination in the past – think the invention of writing, the printing press, the telegraph, etc. The leap forward to the Internet may seem quite monumental but such shifts have been tackled before.

3. Designing infographics took skill in the past just as it does today. The tree is a widely understood symbol that lends itself to certain kinds of data. Throw in some color and flair and it can work well. Yet, it can also be done poorly and detract from its ability to convey information quickly.

The difference in tree cover between poorer and wealthier neighborhoods

One recent newspaper analysis and a new academic study both agree: tree cover differs between richer and poorer urban neighborhoods.

Last month, the Washington Post conducted its own study of the city’s tree canopy, with some findings that may not surprise anyone who lives in the capital: Lower-income neighborhoods were substantially less likely to have trees, with the city’s densest greenery clustered west of the 16th Street Northwest fault line that divides some of Washington’s wealthiest neighborhoods from the rest of town. Tree density in Washington, in short, provides a kind of proxy for wealth (and if you’ve spent time in Washington, you also know that wealth is a proxy for race).

Lest other cities scoff at Washington’s arbor-inequality, research just published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives confirms that a very similar pattern appears all across the country. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley looked at 63,436 census block groups from across the country covering 304 metropolitan areas and more than 81 million people. And they identified those blocks most at risk in extreme heat waves thanks to the lack of tree cover or the presence of too much asphalt (or impervious surfaces). Both of these factors have been shown to exacerbate the urban heat island effect, raising surface temperatures, suggesting that people who live in these neighborhoods may be at the highest heat risk as temperatures warm with climate change.

According to the findings, blacks were 52 percent more likely than whites to live in such neighborhoods, Asians 32 percent more likely, and Hispanics 21 percent more likely (controlling for factors that explain variation in tree growth, like climate and rainfall).

“It’s in the same range of elevated risk that we see for a number of environmental concerns,” says Bill Jesdale, one of the authors, referring to similar findings in the environmental justice literature that show minorities living in communities with greater exposure to traffic, pollution and other environmental hazards. “Often, unfortunately, you see relative risks that are quite a bit higher than that.”

Interesting findings. Trees might seem rather basic, even in cities, until such differences are pointed out.

So, what is behind these differences in tree cover? Are cities planting fewer trees in poorer neighborhoods? Do poorer neighborhoods tend to have fewer parks, fewer tree-lined streets, and more manufacturing and industrial facilities? Do the residents of wealthier neighborhoods make sure that their neighborhoods have more trees? Is this primarily about trees themselves or is this just part of a larger package of fewer amenities in poorer neighborhoods?

Based on these findings, I wonder if we’ll see more people advocate for trees in poorer neighborhoods. Who could be against trees and more greenery, particularly if it is an issue of justice and inequality?

Attempts to make cellphone towers look like trees may or may not work

Cellphone towers are ubiquitous parts of the modern landscape. Trying to make them look like trees…can be interesting.

South African photographer Dillon Marsh‘s compact photo series (all 12 Invasive Species images featured here) is a meditation on the weird, and small, variations of design in tree cellphone towers.

“In certain cases the disguised towers might not be noticed,” says Marsh. “But then an undisguised tower might not have been noticed either.”

An important chapter in the history of tree-shaped cellphone towers was written in South Africa. In the mid-’90s, Ivo Branislav Lazic (who worked for a telecommunications service company called Brolaz Projects) and his colleague Aubrey Trevor Thomas were commissioned by Vodacom to solve the visual pollution problem cellphones presented.

Lazic and Thomas came up with the world’s first palm tree cellphone tower. The Palm Pole Tower, made from non-toxic plastics, was installed in Cape Town in 1996…

Meanwhile, in the American Southwest, fledgling company Larson Camouflage was responding to similar style-sensitive network companies. Larson makes scores of different “trees” but it kicked everything off in 1992 with a naturalistic pine that concealed a disagreeable cell tower in Denver, Colorado. To dress up a cell tower in plastic foliage can cost up to $150,000, four times the cost of a naked mast. Marsh is skeptical about the need for high-tech camouflage.

My first thoughts in seeing these South Africa pictures is that the camouflage doesn’t look too bad. However, the towers/trees are simply too tall and don’t blend into the landscape. This is not a matter of bad design; the tower is taller than everything else.

This gets at a bigger question: why does this infrastructure have to be covered in the first place? We want cell phones but we don’t want to see the technology that it requires? I’m reminded of this sometimes when traveling into neighborhoods in Chicago. In many of these places, there is a tangle of electrical lines, alleys, and poles (street lights, signs, police cameras, traffic lights, etc.). Compared to the Loop or suburban neighborhoods which are more spread out or places where electric lines are buried, this can look ugly. But, it is part of city life and would be quite expensive to eliminate.

This doesn’t mean we have to settle for ugly cell phone towers. But, the alternatives may not be so great either.

Suburban tree ordinance helps fight off McMansions, preserve “suburban quality of life”

Many suburban residents may not pay much attention to tree ordinances in their community. However, a recent debate about the ordinance in Oyster Bay, New York reveals some interesting motivations for such ordinances:

Amendments to the code of the Town of Oyster Bay were discussed at the Tuesday, Aug. 14, town board meeting. They included regulations pertaining to the growing of bamboo on both residential and commercial property (see article on page 10), storm water management and erosion and sediment control, and the removal of trees on private property…

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto opened the hearing by explaining the town’s decision that the law as stated was burdensome and needed balance. He said, “Trees are probably the most visible symbols of our suburban quality of life.” The supervisor explained the law was intended to protect the tree population but that when it was instituted they didn’t hear the other side of the story. Now the board members are hearing from residents who are saying, “Who are you to come into my backyard and say I can’t remove a tree.” He said homeowners viewed it as a loss of their individual rights and called it “government intrusion.” After listening to many speakers who seemed to understand his views, he said, “It’s a question of balance.” Mr. Venditto said it was the homeowner dealing with trees on their private property that were the ones the repeal of the ordinance would benefit.

Still the possibility of repealing a tree ordinance reminds people of why they wanted one in the first place. Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) was the first to speak. She reminded the audience that, “The initial tree ordinance was passed in 1973 following the total destruction of a 15-acre parcel of land in Woodbury which was bull dozed by a developer, Sidney Kalvar, who was denied an application for zoning on the property.  Hundreds of trees were just leveled and a barren piece of land replaced the natural growth which was there.”

In 2007, an amendment to the town’s 1973 tree ordinance was adopted as a result of the work of Save the Jewel By the Bay which was working to protect the hamlet of Oyster Bay from an onslaught of “McMansions.” The town added to the tree ordinance as well as adopting several zoning ordinances to prevent McMansions; both ordinances were adopted townwide.

Trees clearly have environmental benefits. Yet, they also serve as status symbols. Two things struck me here:

  1. Regulations about trees are tied to fighting McMansions. A common image of the construction of McMansions includes a developer/builder coming in with teams of bulldozers, flattening the landscape, and then mass producing unnecessarily large and ugly houses. Of course, this is not that different of a process from other suburban construction going back to the early days of mass produced housing in places like Levittown. My question: can McMansions be made more acceptable if the developer/builder work more with the existing landscape and retain many of the trees? Put another way, can’t communities simply tell McMansion builders that they must retain or plant a certain number of trees? It doesn’t seem to me that McMansions and trees necessarily have to be antithetical to each other.
  2. Trees denote a “suburban quality of life.” Suburban streets are often depicted with broad, leafy trees spanning over the roadway. I recall reading how the creators of The Wonder Years wanted this sort of suburban image and found it in Culver City, California. Yet, one can find this is many urban neighborhoods. So perhaps it is more about the number of trees. Urban streetscapes are often limited to having trees in the space between the sidewalk and street and sidewalk and building. Or, perhaps it is about trees plus a little green space around the trees which is also tougher to find in cities. I wonder how much having older and/or more trees on a property increases the property value of suburban homes. Neighborhoods with few or shorter trees tends to indicate that the neighborhood is newer but is there a price reduction because of this? How much of the character of an older neighborhood is tied to the trees? Is having plenty of older trees an indication of the community being older and monied?

A final note: the article mentions that two residents say that in order to be known as a “Tree City USA” community, a municipality must have a tree ordinance on the books. I was not aware of this and have wondered what it took to get such a designation and sign along the roadway.