Thursday, July 5, 2012

Parks in the Clouds


My generation of adventure leaders has struggled over the past few years with how to engage the next generation in our work.  While climate change, recycling, and reducing pollution have proven popular, few new younger volunteers have chosen to spend time outdoors in support of our parks, forests, rivers, beaches, and wilderness areas.  We wonder whether harder working lives and fewer hours for leisure have led most to choose online fantasy worlds, and fear the loss of direct connections to nature.

Lately, I've been exploring how some are helping build bridges between the two worlds.

For many years, I have supported and led an organization dedicated to preserving public access to, and protecting the environment of, the California Coast.  The work of Coastwalk California has provided innovative, cloud-based information essential to the use and preservation of one of California's most important natural resources.  Online maps, text, and photos from its most passionate hikers and revelers have engaged a broad range of new users.  Kept up-to-date through a variety of evolving, volunteer -focused coastal defenders, the organization has continued to explore the latest online tools to share knowledge and stimulate participation.

I believe that some recent advances in online data collection and location-based education hold great promise to bring the web closer to our world.  This spring, I participated in several regional and national conferences sponsored by companies and nonprofits devoted to developing stronger ties between technology innovators and those with causes.

Most of the talk centered on new methods to utilize social media platforms with limited budgets and staffing.  One answer being explored was how to help more organizations utilize the energy and creativity of new online volunteers in marketing, fundraising, and promoting new partnerships to promote the organization.  Another specialty area seems to be those whose tools and approaches are aimed at reaching and engaging those with smart phones and other mobile devices.

Like most who attend these conferences, I was looking for solutions to all of our problems in a simple answer.  Coastwalk has enough challenges presently without my introducing yet another new adventure.  To make matters more complex, my work with another nonprofit (Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods) meant I was looking for tools which could be useful in managing a 5,000 acre park we were agreeing to operate from the State Parks Department rather than see it closed.  Find me an online resource, utilizing knowledgeable volunteers, centrally-supervised, which improves our management of the resource, and provides initial interpretive information to online and onsite visitors easily.

Two innovations fall into that category:  Google's suite of new tools for Nonprofits, including  Spreadsheet Mapper; and's Connect Naturally.  Both address the needs my organizations have to better record and display key information about specific site locations in pursuit of protecting the resources while encouraging responsible access.  Both expand our ability to utilize lightly-supervised volunteers, and can assist in the training of dedicated interpreters and naturalist activists.

Google's Innovations
Well-known for encouraging their staff to spend time developing new uses of their resources, it wasn't surprising at all to see their arrival in May at NTEN's national conference with lots of energy focused on assisting nonprofits to utilize the latest versions of Google Earth, Drive, YouTube, Site and Maps.  Clearly, the message they brought to the conference was that they were being encouraged to make it as easy as possible for Google to become a major resource to assist nonprofits in reaching their missions.  Among the presentations they gave was one in which they demonstrated a simplified approach to placing large quantities of text, photos, audio and video into Google Earth and Maps in order to tell the stories of locations.  I believe these tools will assist Coastwalk California to connect users to the California Coastal Trail, and support our efforts to protect and provide access to it.

Canogle's Connect Naturally
Canogle's website services delivers geocontent about park areas and properties to GPS-enabled smart phones.  Their customizable publishing platform allows land stewards to easily publish and update information about specific points of interest, creates customized tours and resource-directed databases, and delivers trail maps and park-related news in real time.  I think Stewards can utilize these tools to help us expand and manage volunteers in Austin Creek Nature Reserve, and bring a new level of interpretive services to visitors.  I'm also thinking that sections of the California Coastal Trail, where either local issues could be highlighted, or routing cautions are important, would make good use of this tool.

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