After 80 years, UW's Arboretum is going digital

SEATTLE - There are thousands of stories to be told at the Washington Park Arboretum, and soon park visitors and researchers will have access to them all with just the click of a mouse.

"You will be able to go online at home or at the office and type in a specific name of the plant you are looking for and gather information," says Sarah Reichard, director of the University of Washington Botanical Gardens. "This will help researchers and teachers find the trees and plants they are interested in."

The Arboretum is home to thousands of plant collections and species that since the 1950s Reichard says have been managed and mapped using handwritten records on paper. But, that's about to change as the University of Washington is in the process of creating a georeferenced database and digitized mapping system for the 238-acre park.

"When a horticulturist needs to work on a particular tree they would have to get the paper map and go out into the park and find it," Reichard says. "It's pretty ridiculous considering where we are at."

A grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services is helping pay for the two-year project. While undergraduate and graduate students transfer all the handwritten information for each plant into a computer database, crews are out surveying and mapping each point of the park making sure the markers set in the 1950s are accurate for mapping purposes.

Those markers will then be connected with the digital information in the database and made available online for the public to use.

"We have a fantastic collection of Magnolias scattered throughout the 238 acres," Reichard says. "If you wanted to see a particular Magnolia you were interested in, you would have to contact the museum. Now, what you will be able to do is go into the website, type in the particular Magnolia and find out exactly where it is."

Reichard says you would then be able to take the GPS coordinates provided through the park's database and use your smartphone or GPS deice to locate exactly where that plant or tree is inside the Arboretum.

"It's pretty cool and exciting," Reichard says. "This is going to allow a lot more access to the public."

The goal is to have the digital map and database online and ready for use by next summer.
Reichard says this kind of work will allow park staff to eventually create more digital tools, such as cellphone apps, for use by park visitors and researchers.