Make Time to Update Technology
Trees are only one component in today's landscapes, yet they require frequent checkups and maintenance. Tree maintenance can be as simple as applying a bag of mulch or as complex as installing cabling systems and lightning protection. Because trees have become such valuable assets to our landscapes, monitoring and ensuring their health and existence has also become important. There have been many technological advances over the past several years that make scheduling tree maintenance much easier. At the same time, many technological advances make scheduling tree work a real problem, oftentimes a bigger problem than performing the actual work. To avoid the pitfalls of the latter, there are some important considerations to make. The first is to understand that there are benefits to using technology. The second is to understand the technology. Finally, we must bridge the gap between the technology available and the benefits it can provide to you, the end user.
BENEFITS OF USING TECHNOLOGY
The first question to ask yourself when weighing the benefits of using technology is: “Am I managing or simply reacting to problems?” Reacting to problems is a mode that all of us fall into from time to time. To optimize our time over the long term, we must take a proactive approach to management. This means we need to dictate our circumstances and not the other way around. Technology can help by allowing us to do the following:
Maintain accurate records
Track activities such as chemical usage
Maintain historical information
Generate accurate, timely reports to provide to other interested parties
Reduce duplication of effort
Eliminate performing maintenance to the wrong tree
Save time and money
One of the first topics I like to talk about when I discuss scheduling is flexibility. Too many times we think of scheduling as good for other types of businesses but not for our business. We think that maintaining trees sometimes has too many variables to allow for effective scheduling. That may be true, but only if you build a schedule that will not allow you to address the variables. By tracking and monitoring work, you will find that over time the number of variables and the severity of the variables will be greatly reduced.
The simplest type of system (and some might even question whether or not it is even considered technology anymore) is a PC (personal computer) and a database. Although this sounds simple enough, there are some important considerations to make. The database is the brains of the entire system. Bad data and unorganized data can lead to bad decisions. This is not to say that good, organized data guarantees a good decision, but at least there is a better chance for a good decision. The quality of the decision will still rest on the shoulders of the decision maker. Many times managers think that once they have their system in place that they can take a ride on easy street. Remember that no matter how much technology you incorporate into your program, the electronics are only intended to be used for decision support.
Another database trap grounds care professionals fall into is that of trying to manage too much data. In the field they try to collect more data than is needed, but they figure they might as well collect it in case they may want it some day. Although this is something to consider, it is important to weigh the cost of data collection and data obstruction. You can have so much data that you can't ever find what you need. The amount of information computers can store is sometimes overwhelming. Pretend you do not have a computer and you only have your old filing cabinet and files. In those days, we were much better at database management because it was a matter of survival. The filing cabinet only had so much space, and we only had so much time to look for the data we needed. It is helpful to take that attitude forward to our current computer age. If you have some data that you don't use now but think you may some day, separate it out and put it somewhere that it won't get in your way.
The next step beyond databases is GIS (Geographical Information System). A GIS is simply adding a map to your database so that you have graphical representation of the location of your data. Figure 3, right, is a sample screen of TreeScape by Natural Resource Technologies, LLC. TreeScape and other similar user-friendly products are now available and have a relatively low start-up cost. Many years ago building a GIS was quite costly and time consuming. Today, map information is more readily available (especially on the Internet) in digital format. Figure 1, on page C12, is an aerial photograph, which provides a good base for a GIS.
Another way in which map attributes are brought into a GIS is through GPS (Global Positioning System). A GPS can range in price from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000. Prices vary based on accuracy of location, amount of data the GPS can store, and the format in which data is taken and stored. The low end of a professional type GPS is around $3,500. GPS is not only helpful in building a GIS, but also it can be helpful in locating trees in the field. This is where accuracy can be very important.
The latest step in technology has been the advancement of PDAs (personal digital assistant). These are great devices for taking to the field and updating information. They can also be used with a GPS receiver to help navigate to a point. There are a few important considerations when looking at PDAs. First, unlike most of us who use Microsoft Windows on our PCs, there has not yet been one “standard” operating system with PDAs, and because of this there can be compatibility issues. There is a close tie between the hardware and the software that you use. Collecting data and database management generally doesn't involve compatibility issues, but there are still a few bugs when dealing with the mapping side.
BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND THE END USER
The first step in bridging the gap is that you must be willing to have an understanding of the technology. This does not require you to become an expert, but it will require a little reading to learn the terminology. It is also helpful to know other uses of the technology even if it is in a different field altogether.
The second step is to understand the immediate need. What would make your job better? (Note that I did not say easier.) This is an important concept that often gets lost somewhere along the way. That is, we somehow thought that technology would make our lives easier. All of us who have turned on a computer quickly found that they were not going to make anything easier. Computers can, however, make us more proficient.
Finally, the end user must have a vision for the future. What will your needs look like 3, 5 or 10 years from now?
MAKING THE TIME
Trees are valuable assets in your landscapes. Oftentimes, trees require a different level of maintenance than other vegetation in the landscape. Some of the maintenance that trees require must be periodically checked and adjusted — such as cabling. Because of these complexities often associated with trees, technology can offer great benefits.
George Barker is president of Natural Resource Consulting, Inc. (Tallassee, Ala.).
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