Calling for a SeeClickFix for National and State Parks
How civic tech could make our public lands easier to find, easier to visit, and even better to visit than they already are.
Trail information in Arizona is fragmented, as it is in many states. AZCentral estimates that federal, state, and tribal governments manage 81.8 percent of Arizona land, with directions, trailheads, length, and GPS coordinates spread out across those separate websites. Although trail use is on the rise, there are opportunities to better coordinate, organize, and distribute trail information.
Arizonans have abundant trail choices, but a lack of coordination among trail managers to clearly communicate those options can lead to decision paralysis. Websites like Trails.com and EveryTrail.com have tapped into the latent demand for a centralized, searchable library of trail information, and there are similar examples at the state level: HikeArizona, MaineTrailFinder, and Hike Finder in Washington. AllTrails is the most popular trail search website, hosting 50,000 trails throughout the U.S. with maps, directions, uses, reviews, photos, and an outdoor journal. AllTrails hikers share their experiences and contribute knowledge, which has fostered a sense of community on the site. Unfortunately, land managers are often left out of this equation, forgoing the chance to build relationships between land management agencies and the public.
American Trails has named Missouri “Best Trail State” for communicating accessible trail information to the public. In 2013, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon challenged residents to log 100MissouriMiles over the course of a year. Missourians covered 3,000,000 miles in just the first two years alone. For the challenge, the Missouri State Parks Department created an accessible space for the public to easily find information. The most noticeable feature on the homepage is a tagboard that searches and collects the public’s social media posts that relate to #100MissouriMiles. This online community is just as real and important as the community on the trail.
How users can search for trails is important for driving participation as well. According to the Outdoor Foundation, the closer a trail is the more likely individuals will explore it. Several states report that residents often can’t get out to the trail because of “a lack of time.” Allowing a user to search by proximity helps them better manage and spend their time; it could be the deciding factor for whether they go out on a hike or a bike ride, or not. Land managing agencies do not make this information readily available, so the burden of finding the closest trail is pushed off on the visitor.
The last significant feature 100MissouriMiles incorporates is a gaming component to keep participants motivated. Jane McGonial, an expert in designing games to solve problems using collaboration, explains in her TedTalk the potential of using game-like designs for motivating certain behavior. In Missouri’s case, various badges are offered for holidays spent on the trail, number of miles logged, and special events as a way to reward users.
In their effort to better engage the public with public lands, state agencies can look to other civic tech companies for inspiration and guidance.
SeeClickFix is one such company that has developed a platform for the public to help improve government services. In a time when government agencies are expected to be doing more with less, these types of platforms are viable options for success. Citizens participating in SeeClickFix can report non-emergency issues they see throughout their city on the web or with an app, those reports land with the appropriate government entity, and then “fixers” can mobilize and report progress back to the public. This type of reporting system would be especially beneficial for trail maintenance, one of biggest challenges for land managers.
Because the number of trail users outweighs the number of government staff available to continuously monitor those trails, it is much more likely that a hiker, biker, or rider will discover a washout or vandalism before the land managing agency does. When the issue is brought to the attention of the agency, the first step is to gather the necessary information about the issue and the needed resources to fix it. The second step is to communicate any changes—trail closures or reroutes—to the public, and if this isn’t done well than frustrated users will find their planned itineraries canceled.
There are many ways that land agencies could use technology to incorporate crowdsourced information into their work. Simply using a platform like SeeClickFix as a statewide trail information hub would contribute to the efficiency of trail maintenance, but it would not capitalize on the true value the public could provide. Existing adopt-a-trail or trail steward programs should be elevated as a key component of this new, bottom-up system. Management agencies know which organizations are best positioned to take responsibility for certain sections of trials. As a trail problem is identified and shared in real time via the reporting system, the land manager’s designated trail steward is updated. This allows the trail steward’s team to mobilize their resources and communicate their progress, eliminating the task of updating information for the land manager. With this, reporting and maintaining trails becomes the responsibility of a distributed community enabled by transparency, communication, and coordination.
Responsibility is not the only component that would become distributed with this type of platform. The much-needed environmental stewardship mission shared by land management agencies can be embedded in the design of the proposed information system. Citizens who take the time to report an issue are likely to be invested in seeing and contributing to the solution. Additionally, citizens are made aware of the club that is addressing this issue. The ability to connect to the individuals working on the ground is tangible and enticing.
Land management agencies are fortunate to be working in a field with such potential for new governance strategies. AllTrails, 100MissouriMiles, and SeeClickFix give citizens the chance to develop community around their public land. Although not every individual is looking for the same experience with their public lands, this space invites a slew of opportunity for engagement. We can think creatively about how people are consuming, presenting, and sharing information, and how it can contribute to increased participation and engagement with our public land.
Brianne Fisher is pursuing her Master’s in Policy Informatics at Arizona State University while also working for Arizona State Parks. She studies the potential of communication technologies to address the complex challenges in managing public lands.