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Making National Parks 'Smart' Could Be Key to Their Sustainability

Image credit: Lancaster University's Connected Communities Research Lab

More and more studies suggest that time spent outdoors can help foster our mental and physical development and wellbeing. Unfortunately, maintaining green spaces such as urban and national parks is not always an easy task. Maintenance can be particularly challenging for national park authorities, who often need to keep watch over hundreds of miles of wild terrain.

The last thing many of us want to think about when we #optoutside is being digitally connected, but a recent report argues a technological approach that can help in the preservation of hundreds of national parks and urban green spaces around the world.

The report, aptly named Smart Parks, points to technological innovation as the best way to not only maintain but also maximize the potential of national parks in a financially feasible way. In a recent interview, Professor Edward Truch, Director of the Connected Communities Research Lab at Lancaster University Management School and lead author of the report, stressed the complexity of this issue, pointing to factors such as added pressure on natural resources by an increasing number of visitors, along with budget cuts, that are forcing park services teams to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in new ways. Smart Parks suggests that connecting expansive areas of rural parks through Internet of Things (IoT) technology would create a network system that could exchange useful information in real time.

Using technology to improve communication and data gathering is, of course, not a new idea. IoT is used by organizations around the world to maximize the use of open spaces, and the report cites several successful business applications. For example, Disney World, an organization well versed in managing millions of annual visitors across massive parks, has been enhancing guest experiences through its visitor MagicBands for several years now.

So, why not apply a similar system to preserving our natural resources? When put to use in park services, Truch suggests that this kind of technology could help a wide range of people: “Beneficiaries could include park users, businesses, municipalities and the management authorities,” he said, while also providing “improved air quality [and] community life, better education and generally connecting people with nature.”

A connected system of information would also help park employees perform many of their daily tasks more efficiently. For instance, using apps such as Smart Earth Network, in which travelers can share data and log, for example, animal sightings or discoveries of invasive species, park rangers would be able to monitor animals and make sure vulnerable species are protected.

Connected parks systems could also offer campers and visitors life-saving information, such as real-time alerts about severe weather developments in their area. This kind of information exchange is already in use through smart community safety apps such as the Oxford Flood Sensor Network, which gives communities constant access to vital information.

IoT is being used more and more in national parks as thousands of visitors are turning to technology to help them maximize their experience. Apps such as Chimani and Google Maps help nature lovers explore hundreds of national parks across the US with GPS-enabled maps.

Truch believes that the best way to take advantage of this opportunity is for national park organizations to work together with businesses and perhaps form one common tech platform to maximize resources.

“It’s the interconnectivity of the data. The critical success factors include the degree of interconnectivity between the different devices and systems, and the interoperability of the data sources and the analytics and how they’re presented to the end user.”

To create these new solutions, he suggests bringing different stakeholders together at innovation events such as hackathons where creative ideas often emerge.


Desirée Kaplan is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. She focuses on topics such as sustainability innovations in architecture, travel and business. [Read more about Desiree Kaplan]


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