Feature Article - January 2017
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Go! Tech-Enabled Parks

From Pokemon GO to Geocaching and Beyond

By Dave Ramont

Go! Techie

QR (Quick Response) codes—those ubiquitous black and white barcodes—are another inexpensive way that parks have been marrying technology and nature. These appeal particularly to younger people who are seemingly tethered to their smartphones. The codes can be placed on stickers and affixed to trees, posts, geologic features, kiosks or added to visitor brochures, printed maps or signs. Parks and refuges often place them at trailheads, where visitors can use their phones to link to online maps and trail guides, historical and nature information, video and audio clips.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida developed the iNature Trail, which features two sets of codes. One set—targeting kids—has specially created interactive YouTube video links. The other is geared toward adults and has more informational video links.

Everyday there are new mobile apps entering the market, and nature apps are no different. Many are free or under $10, including MyRefuge, which provides information on hundreds of National Wildlife Refuges, such as the best locations for birdwatching, hiking and wildlife viewing. TreeBook, Florafolio and Leafsnap allow users to identify trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns, vines and grasses. Bird enthusiasts will like WildLab Bird, National Geographic Birds and iBird Plus, which feature information on hundreds of species, along with bird call recordings, drawings, maps and photos. MyNature Animal Tracks assists in identifying animal tracks while Project Noah lets users upload their own wildlife photos or review those uploaded by others, while also documenting our planet's biodiversity.

New technologies also continue to evolve at recreational and sports facilities. Sports turf managers can monitor and measure soil temperature and moisture, sunlight and leaf wetness instantaneously.

Some challenge courses (modern versions of obstacle courses) have an app allowing players to compare their times with their friends or with users across the country, with real-time results and leader boards, since the courses are designed to the same specifications. The app also allows schools and parks to better gauge how the course is used, since it gathers anonymous data including age and gender of participants, frequency of use, number of visits and more.

At aquatic facilities, wave generators and surf simulators create waves every several seconds that dramatically change shape, size and difficulty level at the tap of a screen. If you're into slideboarding, a video game-integrated waterslide where participants use a boogie board and attempt to hit targets while sliding, a progressive system will track your score—allowing you to compete against yourself or slideboarders at other facilities. As with the Challenge Course app, these features tend to spur repeat customers who like to compete and improve their scores.

Back in Arlington, Texas, Rogers reflects on how technology can further a park's mission: "Technology provides us the opportunity to make data-driven decisions that ensure we are fulfilling our mission of providing quality facilities and services that are responsive to a diverse community, and sustained with a focus on partnerships, innovation and environmental leadership. Whether it's embracing apps such as Pokemon Go or utilizing software/hardware solutions that provide operational efficiencies, streamline workflow and provide potential cost savings, we are always on the lookout for technological solutions that will benefit our department and constituents."

Of course, there are always two sides to a coin. At the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., they scrapped their QR code program after receiving feedback that they shouldn't encourage people to stare at their phones. And, while they do use social media as a primary marketing tool, maintaining around 11,000 followers on Facebook, they use the platform to entice people to get off the computer, according to President and CEO Jason Meyer. "We use digital platforms to encourage participation, sans electronics, at our nature center. There's just no substitute for experiencing nature first hand. We don't discourage use, but we don't encourage it either."