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Happy Earth Day, From One Gov Geek to Another


These days, getting outside begins on the internet. As the mother of a 6-year-old, and the owner of a large dog, I spend a good deal of my free time taking advantage of our many urban playgrounds, swimming pools, beaches, woodlands, and trails. I find out about events and volunteer opportunities from social media, compare all possible options for summer camps and swim classes online, and comb through search results for information about off-leash dog trails.

In addition to improving quality of life and making our communities healthier, parks serve as a vital component of our cities — they are our public commons. While getting outside should be an opportunity to unplug, it’s important for park agencies and local governments to think about how parks can benefit from the ubiquitous use of technology in the 21st century.

In honor of Earth Day, I’m sharing four goals that park agencies can incorporate into their technology strategy, combined with resources to make them actionable.

Make information about parks easily accessible

The first place you should start is your own website. Make sure that your content is up-to-date and reflects the needs of your residents.

  • Dive into your website analytics and find out what people are looking for, then organize your content accordingly.
  • Ready to do a spring cleaning of your park’s website? Check out these resources and tools to make your website more responsive to residents’ needs.


Open up your data in standardized formats

With Google maps, it’s easy to figure out where you’re going and how long it’s going to take you to get there. The maps you see in Google come from data that is owned by a collection of government and transit agencies and has been opened in standardized formats. Now, federal, state, regional and local jurisdictions are releasing trail data allowing developers to make use of it in new and interesting ways.

  • Code for America Fellows worked with Summit County, Ohio and a coalition of the region’s park and trail stewards to develop To the Trails an application to help visitors navigate their parks.
  • The Open Trails specification helps government agencies open up their data in a standardized formats making it possible for companies like Trailhead Labs to build better and more affordable technology on top of it that connects people with the outdoors. Now 25 agencies have either adopted or are in the process of adopting OpenTrails. These agencies manage nearly 20k miles of trails.


Make volunteering fun

There are many technology tools out there that help make volunteering fun and meaningful.

  • Have your volunteers help you collect data about your park assets using LocalData.
  • Encourage people to continue volunteering year-round by adopting a piece of park infrastructure. Maybe Adopt-A could be adapted to your needs.
  • Make up a hashtag and invite your volunteers to share their involvement and accomplishments on social media, helping to spread the word and showing how rewarding volunteering can be.

Engage park goers and solicit feedback

Public parks have a responsibility to serve all residents. Serving everyone means incorporating the needs of all residents into park design and programing, as well as creating ways for every community member to take part in decisions and issues that affect them, regardless of language or ability. Technology can be a great tool to help engage park goers and make informed decisions that benefit the community.

  • CityVoice is a place-based call-in system to collect and share community feedback. In the City of South Bend, the Parks and Rec department used CityVoice to collect feedback on park improvements.
  • Our Community Engagement Standard emphasizes the role of the citizen not just as passive recipient of government services, but as active participant in building government. When park agencies fully engage with their communities, we expect to see greater stewardship of our parks over time.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Greater & Greener Conference in San Francisco hosted by the City Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Recreation & Park Department. The conference focused on the power of parks to create healthy, resilient, and sustainable cities. I participated on a panel that focused on how technology can be used by parks.

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