AWS Public Sector Blog

American Forests uses the cloud to advance Tree Equity across the United States

This is a guest post by Chris David, vice president of geographic information systems (GIS) and data science at American Forests.

What is American Forests?

American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States. Since our founding in 1875, we have been the pathfinders for creating healthy forests from coast to coast. In the early 1900s, we rallied forest advocates to champion the creation of the US Forest Service. In 2018, we won a decade-long campaign persuading US Congress to provide stable funding for preventing and fighting forest fires.

Now, we are focused on building a reforestation movement in the United States. From cities to large forest landscapes, we want to address two of the most pressing challenges of the day: slowing climate change and advancing social equity.

How do trees protect communities?

Heat harms more people each year than any other extreme weather event. Trees offer profound protection against this threat, cooling air temperatures as much as 10 degrees at the street level. Trees also absorb pollutants, preventing almost 700,000 incidents of respiratory illness per year.

What is Tree Equity?

Tree Equity aims to make sure all people have access to the benefits trees offer, and trees can help advance social equity when they are planted in the neighborhoods that need them the most. But the challenge of achieving Tree Equity across the country is immense. Our Tree Equity Score analysis estimates cities need to plant over 500 million trees in the right places to deliver equitable tree canopy cover to all residents. A map of tree cover in US cities – or lack thereof – is often a map of income and race. Trees are usually sparse in neighborhoods where communities are largely low income and people of color, and the communities who live there do not have access to the benefits trees provide, such as providing shade to reduce heat-related illnesses and death. To address this, American Forests is leading a new national campaign to bring Tree Equity to American cities.

What is the Tree Equity Score?

To illustrate the scope of the problem and catalyze action, American Forests launched the Tree Equity Score, a free online platform that maps Tree Equity at the neighborhood level in every urban area across America. The Tree Equity Score is backed by a science-driven methodology that measures the gap between a neighborhood’s target tree canopy and its actual tree canopy, weighted against a priority index that measures a neighborhood’s need for tree canopy cover based on factors like economic status, race, age, and urban heat islands. A single score between 0 and 100 summarizes Tree Equity in a neighborhood – the lower the number, the higher the need to close the tree canopy gap – creating a simple way for city decision-makers and community leaders to prioritize where to invest tree planting resources.

Our analysis found several national trends that further highlight inequity when it comes to access to trees. For example, wealthy neighborhoods nationwide have 65% more tree canopy than high-poverty neighborhoods. In places like Baltimore, where the tree disparity is 80%, the trends are even starker. The Roland Park area and nearby neighborhoods — comprised of around 15% people of color and only 5% of people in poverty — have Tree Equity scores of 100 and over 60% tree canopy. But just under six miles away, Broadway East — home to 90% people of color and more than 50% in poverty — is one of Baltimore’s hottest neighborhoods, with a Tree Equity score of around 60 and only 10% tree cover; some blocks in the neighborhood have a Tree Equity score as low as 50.

How the cloud supports the Tree Equity Score

At first, American Forests had no centralized technological resources for geospatial data analysis. After a few months of researching multiple cloud-based and locally hosted options, it became clear that Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the one-stop solution we needed to host and manage a growing amount of data and to deliver web-based maps and tools. During our rapid growth over the past two years, we have been able to turn to AWS for the resources we needed.

To create the Tree Equity Score, we use more than 25 nationwide datasets from a variety of public and private sources, including the U.S. Census and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all downloaded and processed utilizing automated python scripts on AWS. We also take satellite imagery from the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) to estimate land surface temperature that requires smart scripting techniques to process the huge amounts of data. All of this data is managed and stored in spatial databases on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances. Amazon EC2 provides us with optimized data storage, so we can process and analyze the data using Esri’s ArcGIS along with open source geospatial libraries in python. This is deployed on AWS WorkSpaces. Overall, AWS has enabled our mission with flexibility, resources on demand, scalability, and the ability to process frequent, large data updates. With the recently awarded AWS Imagine Grant, we are planning to build on this infrastructure utilizing AWS resources like Amazon SageMaker and AWS Lambda to create more efficient and effective data analysis solutions, as well as effective streamlined delivery of our Tree Equity Score platform.

Looking forward and advice to peers

The Tree Equity Score is already being put to use. The City of Tucson, for example, is using it to make decisions on where and how much to invest in trees and other green infrastructure. And the Phoenix City Council used the Tree Equity Score to build support for creating a Tree Equity program, the first such program in the country.

AWS is a uniquely suited platform for our technical development. We encourage other nonprofits in the process of exploring how to innovate with technology to leverage AWS to manage and secure data, both big and small, for analysis and sharing through applications; to provide a centralized data analysis environment that utilizes a wide variety of cloud desktops and big data and artificial intelligence (AI) analysis platforms; and to deliver high quality web applications utilizing the full suite of AWS deployment tools.

Read about other AWS Imagine Grant winners improving the world with cloud technology.

For more information about how AWS powers nonprofits to succeed in their missions, explore the AWS for nonprofits and NGOS hub, or contact the AWS public sector team directly.

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Chris David

Chris David

Chris David oversees map-based visual storytelling and data-driven decision-making at American Forests. He is building American Forests’ long history of data-driven decision-making and advocacy using spatial data and analysis to tell compelling forest stories and build decision-support applications that lead to better outcomes for climate, water, wildlife, and people. Prior to joining American Forests, David led GIS development for The Trust for Public Land’s Climate-Smart Cities work nation-wide and spent a decade supporting place-based decision-making for local and federal government agencies. David has degrees in mathematics, planning, and GIS from the Universities of Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland, respectively.

Jamin Gluck

Jamin Gluck

Jamin Gluck is a senior global program manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS) with a passion for using technology to make the world a better place.