Multiplying Memories While Discovering Trees in Bogotá
Written by: Maria Isabel Magaña
How we used data about trees to create memories, promote transparency and include citizens in storytelling in Bogotá, Colombia.
Keywords: data journalism, citizenship, transparency, open government, multimodal storytelling, trees
Bogotá holds almost 16% of the population of Colombia in just 1.775 km². You get the idea, it’s crowded, it’s furious. But it’s also a green city, surrounded by mountains and many different trees planted. Most of the times, trees go unnoticed by its citizens in the midst of their daily life. Or at least that’s what happened to the members of our data team except for one of our coders, who loves trees and can’t walk down the street without noticing them. She knows all the species and the facts about them. Her love for nature in the midst of the chaos of the city is what got us thinking: has anybody, ever, talked about the trees that are planted all over town?
And that simple question was the catalyst for so many others: What do we know about them? Who is in charge of taking care of them? Are they really useful to clean the city’s pollution? Do we need more trees in the city? Is it true that only the rich neighborhoods have tall trees? Are there any historical trees in town?
We began our investigation aiming to do two different things: Firstly, to connect the citizens with the green giants they see everyday; and secondly, to understand the reality of the city’s tree planting and conservation plans.1
To do so, we analyzed the urban census of tree planting in Bogotá that the Botanical Garden conducted in 2007, the only set of information available, and which is updated every month. The Botanical Garden refused to give us the full data even after we submitted multiple freedom of information requests filled with legal arguments. Their position was simple: The data was already available in their DataViz portal. Our argument: You can only download 10,000 entries and the database is made up of 1.2 million entries. It’s public data, just give it to us! Their answer: We won’t give it to you but we will improve our app so you can download 50,000 entries.
Our solution? Reach out to other organizations that had helped the Botanical Garden collect the data. One of those entities was Ideca, which collects all the information related to the city’s cadastre. They gave us the whole data set in no time. We, obviously, decided to publish it so that everyone can access it (call it our little revenge against opacity). The Botanical Garden realized this and stopped any further conversation with us, and we decided not to continue a legal battle.
In addition, we included public data from the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá and the National Census, to cross-reference information that we could analyze in relation to trees. Finally, we conducted interviews with environmental experts and forestry engineers that allowed us to understand the challenges the city faces. They had done so much work and so many investigations analyzing not only the reality of tree planting schemes, but also the history behind the trees in the city. And most of this work was largely unnoticed by authorities, journalists and many others.
The final product was an eight-piece data project that showed the reality of the tree planting plans of the city. It mapped every single tree—with information about its height, species and benefits for the city—debunked many myths around tree planting, and told the stories of some of the city’s historical trees. We used Leaflet and SoundCloud for the interactive elements. The design was implemented by our talented group of coders. We also used StoryMapJS to allow users to explore the historic trees of the city.
We decided how and which pieces were important for the story after researching many other similar projects and then partnered with a designer to create a good user experience. It was our first big data project and a lot of it involved trial and error as well as exploration.
More importantly, we involved citizens by inviting them to help us build a collaborative tree catalogue and to share their own stories about the trees we had mapped. We did so through social media, inviting them to add information about tree species to a spreadsheet. Bogotá’s residents continue to help us enrich the catalogue to this day. In addition, we shared a WhatsApp number where people could send voice notes with their stories about trees. We received almost a hundred voice messages from people telling stories of trees where they had their first kiss, that taught them how to climb, that protected them from thieves or that were missed because they were cut down. We decided to include these audio f iles as an additional layer in the visualization app, so users could also get to know the city’s trees through people’s stories.
The main article and visual was then republished by a national newspaper (both in print and online), and shared by local authorities and many residents who wanted to tell their stories and transform the relationship that other residents have with their environment. So far, people have used the map to investigate the city’s nature and to support their own research on the city’s trees.
For our organization, this has been one of the most challenging projects we have ever developed. But it is also one of the most valuable, because it shows how data journalism can be about more than just numbers: It can also play a role in creating, collecting and sharing culture and memories, help people notice things about the places they live (beyond graphs and charts), and multiply and change the relations between people, plants and stories in urban spaces.