Its capacity, potential and versatility are evident from the moment you log on to the UW Arboretum's new interactive map (uwarboretum.org/map). Still in its infancy following its November debut, it is already loaded with so many features that even the most jaded Arboretum visitor may discover something new.
The "Learn" tab alone allows I-Map users to choose from base maps charting the Arboretum's ecological communities, its terrain or an aerial view. Over these, you can lay an abundance of data. One layer displays the sanctuary's trail network, another its wetlands, still others its featured restoration projects, its effigy mounds, its springs and so on. Depending on the strata you select, scrolling your mouse over the I-Map may yield historical primers on Lost City or the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp; notes on the distinctive properties of different silt or sandy loams; a complete inventory of trees in Longenecker Gardens; aerial views of the property from 1937 and 1962; birding hot spots; images of fauna captured by wildlife research cameras; even the boundaries for the Arb's watersheds, which include the Mendota and Monona basins as well as Wingra, plus Badger Mill and Nine Springs creeks.
Mark Wegener, a database technician for the Arboretum, is a principal architect of the map, produced in collaboration with the UW Cartography Lab and the private Axis Maps LLC and drawn from the vast Geographic Information System database Wegener manages for the 1,260-acre research sanctuary.
Wegener says one of the map's principal audiences will be researchers who need to know as much as possible about soils, hydrology and other factors key to siting their projects. But he expects the broadest audience to include visitors who seek a deeper understanding of the Arboretum. Wegener also hopes the resource will help recruit a younger, computer-savvy generation of Arboretum visitors to succeed the devoted but aging constituency of existing donors and volunteers.
"We struggle a bit," he explains, "because we're a natural area in the middle of the city." Some area residents may know about the Arboretum, he notes, but not its research functions.
These are suggested by the Arboretum's litany of rules: no dogs, stay on the trails, no off-road biking, no Rollerblades, no loud music, etc. One of the I-Map's aims, Wegener says, is to "creatively communicate" Arboretum research "so people don't just assume that we're a park that has a lot of rules."
The new map is still being optimized as glitches are addressed. Chief among the early complaints Wegener has heard are that parts of the map are too small to be legible (a fault easily corrected with the map's +/- tool, explained in the site's introductory tutorial video) and that the density of its data layers can sometimes render performance sluggish on slower Internet connections.
"We wanted to build this thing to be robust," Wegener explains, so it could evolve and adapt to new ideas and needs. Such mutability is a hallmark of interactive maps that aspire to lure users back for repeat visits.
He expects further refinements to be driven by user feedback but also tantalizing possibilities like those posed by a six-foot map cabinet "full of all these awesome paper maps going back to the 1930s," some hand-drawn by the likes of legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold.
So vast is the Arboretum's Geographic Information System database that to add everything to the I-Map might be prohibitive, Wegener allows, but more features are under consideration. Among them: a hike of the month and the conversion of Curtis Prairie census archives into an animation illustrating species diversity and migration across the decades.
Wegener's own favorites among the I-Map's existing features include a tool that allows hikers, runners and Nordic skiers to calculate trail distances for their routes. He also likes the tab labeled Your Turn, where visitors can post their own Arboretum photos and observations as a complement to features like Arboretum naturalists' notes.
"You kind of have your own idea of what people like about the Arboretum," he explains. "I think it's neat to see other people's view" by inviting input from "the people appreciating the place and using it."