Growing the Tree of Knowledge: extracting informational returns from the maintenance of trees in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Despite some encouraging progress, comprehensive urban information systems are still not commonplace and planners and decision makers continue to struggle to acquire the rich information that they need to conduct in- depth analyses and to make important decisions. The focus of this paper is specifically on the untapped power of the latent informational returns that could be extracted from routine urban maintenance operations. The approach is based on what the author calls the six principles of City Knowledge: (1) a “middle-out” approach; (2) informational jurisdictions; (3) fine-grained, distributed data management; (4) sustainable updates; (5) information sharing and (6) interagency coordination. The author proposes that communicative planners could become catalysts of our transformation from “hunters-and-gatherers” of urban data toward “farmers” of municipal information. This paper presents a specific model for actually implementing the “farming of information”, by methodically harvesting fresh data from maintenance activities on a regular basis. This case study on Cambridge trees, illustrates how maintenance operations can provide a reliable and efficient path for the gradual accrual of city knowledge.