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CaliParks: A new way to discover and share your parks

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Parks and technology -- for some park lovers never the twain shall meet. Parks are where you go to escape from technology. But for many others, technology is a way to discover, enjoy, and share experiences and a love for parks.

In California, we're deeply engaged in reimagining the ways that technology can connect visitors with parks, enhance their experiences in parks, and deepen their engagement in supporting parks in the future. The Parks Forward Commission, a blue-ribbon commission charged by Governor Jerry Brown with charting a future path for California State Parks, recently released its final recommendations. And the state Department of Parks and Recreation has created a transformation team, which has drafted a plan to implement the commission's recommendations, which you can track online.

One thing the commission made clear is that technology needs to be a big part of the solution -- particularly for connecting a new, young, diverse, technologically adept, socially connected, and increasingly urban generation to parks.

CaliParks300.jpgSo, naturally, we created an app for that! You can find it at CaliParks.org. There you can discover your parks -- that is parks nearby or far away, where you can do the things you want to do, whether it's camping, hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, wildlife watching, whatever. You can see what other people are doing there through social media and you can share your experiences with friends or invite them to join you.

The app grew out of research that I conducted at UCLA in conjunction with technology developed by Stamen Design, a San Francisco-based data visualization, mapping, and strategic communications firm where I am a partner, plus data from GreenInfo Network and Hipcamp. We began our research in the fall of 2013 by setting up algorithms to capture all of the social media content actually emanating from parks through Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare. So far, we've gathered social media from more than 500,000 unique social media users, who have shared content in one or more of the close to 12,000 parks in California.

We discovered two simple but powerful things about parks.

First, parks are social. People do things in parks that they do in the rest of their lives. They take selfies, they share beautiful photos of nature, they meet up. We don't have to gin up social media around parks. People are already sharing their love of parks on social media. When I recently shared our research with leaders from the National Park Service, one said: "Yeah, it's like people are having a party over there. And they're talking about us. And we're not going to the party."

For park agencies and park support organizations, the message is clear: We don't have to create the party. We just have to figure out how to bring something to the party.

The second thing we found is that diverse Californians will see people like themselves in parks, despite the fact that some groups are, in fact, underrepresented in park attendance. And for some Californians, that's a barrier. They don't think they will see people like themselves in parks. But if you look at social media, you will see diverse Californians in parks.

People want to see people like themselves in public spaces in order to feel welcome there. And if we can represent that diversity by sharing those images, it is an invitation to California's parks.

We think these lessons could be powerful for all parks. And we hope you'll get out and discover your parks!

Photo of the author testing CaliParks.org on a recent trip to Northern California, by Lucia Christensen.


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