Pocket PCs help St. Catharines count trees

“I think that I shall never see…a billboard lovely as a tree,” wrote the poet Ogden Nash more than seven decades ago.

Evidently, the folks at St. Catharines, Ontario, share that sentiment.

The city’s parks and recreation department is determined to know everything about its trees – their location, type, dimensions, condition, and more – and has put new technology in place to acquire and access that information.

The technology is the brainchild of Joseph Keri, an IT systems specialist at the City. It includes a tree inventory database that can be updated and accessed using Pocket PCs.

Thanks to this system, there isn’t a tree in St. Catharines the city doesn’t know about.

That wasn’t always the case, however.

In fact, back in 2000 when it moved from a mainframe to a client server environment, city officials were abashed about how little they knew about their trees.

At the time, said Keri, information about the city’s trees resided on a mainframe server. He said much of that data – on the trees’ location, species, measurements and health – was either outdated or non-existent.

The obsolete information caused problems, he said, as it is the city’s responsibility to maintain, groom, replace or cut the 52,000 trees that line the approximately 40,000 homes in St. Catharines. “We had to go through all the residential properties, house-by-house, and identify and [re-classify] each tree.”

Keri said it wasn’t until 2004 that the department of parks and recreation migrated all of this information to a client server system.

In just three weeks Keri developed a program to assemble all this data. This program – written in Microsoft Visual Basic – was downloaded onto the pocket PCs. Keri and his team then used off-the-shelf Hewlett Packard pocket PCs to do all the data entry.

“At the end of each day we synchronized the pocket PCs, pulled off the data and uploaded it to the Oracle database,” Keri said, adding that data collection was completed by August 2004 and the Oracle database was ready to use two weeks later.

This database contains all the information staff at the department of parks and recreation need, including specific data things such as location of ash trees in St.Catharines. After the completion of the project, Keri said the pocket PCs were retired.

However by May, he plans on re-deploying them to the city’s service crews. On these handheld devices will be a program called Work Manager supplied by Toronto-based Direct IT Canada. “When we get a call for a certain location, all information about that property will be downloaded to the pocket PC.” He said work orders on these devices would let field workers know what tasks need to be completed, such as tree trimming or planting a certain property.

Currently, the department has five pocket PCs but eventually would like to have a total of ten.

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