Break it Down: Hosting a Data-Driven Parks & Rec System

By: Chris Orlea, Director, Parks & Recreation, Pearland, TX, LinkedIn & Twitter

As the face of Public Service evolves, we don’t always envision parks and Recreation as the innovator of the bunch. Taking that step into the virtual tomorrow and leveraging Big Data, a data-driven Parks & Recreation agency has the ability to create livable spaces that are better suited to the population and more streamlined to manage, creating the ever elusive win/win that local governments constantly pursue.

Christopher Orlea, PhDAs much as we want to build parks and plant trees and throw the towel in, claiming a victory, leisure services and spaces aren’t intrinsically sustainable. Once we accept that notion, managing the process and system becomes a surmountable task. In doing so, I’ve found the trick is the right tool. In my experience no platform has proven more powerful than GIS, Geographic Information Systems.

In our Park System, inventories, maintenance logs, and check-ups formerly lived on cumbersome documents that took the input of several employees to populate, and often even more to decipher any useful information from them. Luckily with the addition of a particularly astute new Superintendent and a great relationship with a robust IT/GIS function (under the new leadership of an ace CIO), an internally designed platform began to build on the exceedingly high potential of GIS.

Image result for parks & Rec win-win gifThe platform took an initial inventory from a handheld/smartphone friendly application of all components within the Park system from individual playground pieces to thousands of trees and at the end of only a few short months a thriving asset inventory lived on a graphic platform to share department wide.

Months may seem like a large commitment, but that was a process that was shared by three staff members and within the function of their normal operations as well. The data entry process is a component that can be contracted out depending on the resources available to the agencies. No one collection method fits all.

Once we had a populated database we designed queries that allowed all staff to execute searches that could identify ‘problem trees’, as defined by ANSI 300 standards as well as ensure that compliance inspections had been performed on playgrounds. Looking at the status of a park bench in a particular location? No problem, during the last site visit a maintenance staff member logged a damaged plank with a photo, and a new heat map within the system has flagged the problem for attention.

After realizing the ability of this system to manage things, it was a natural thought to dissect its ability with people. The program migrated to the Recreation function by overlaying layers of scatter plots that identified demographics with heat beacons identifying special events and functions. For the first time what we had speculated prior had come alive and had inherent data-driven proof when layer maps were shared for various reasons. With a demonstrable need overlaying a current program inventory, the community starts vying for their own needs from within the data sets.

The tool set proved invaluable as the department was in transition as well. With a new directorate, including an Assistant Director that assumed the role with experience primarily outside of the Park/Natural Resource scope, there was a small margin for error. ‘When you can see the entirety of a park system laid out, graphically, it begins to come together quickly. GIS was able to introduce concept and inventory at a glance versus weeks of notes and on-site visits,’ remarked Carry Capers, Assistant Director of Parks & Recreation.

The efforts of managing a Parks & Recreation agency within a GIS platform are transcendent. In the upcoming budget cycle, the data sets we have been able to collect and leverage with scripts that incorporate statutory regulations and measurements, we are planning to enhance the CAFR with an entirely new set of fixed assets that are overwhelmingly valuable, and no longer simply qualitatively – there is hard data to quantify it.

As populations grow, so too do the ways we serve them if we have any hope of retaining efficiencies. The implementation of GIS reminded me of a saying I heard: ‘you can’t reach a streaming demographic with 8-track mindsets’.

For an example of a data set representing demographics visit the City of Pearland GIS platform.

A very special thank you to Tyler Froberg, Thomas Spindler, Carry Capers, and all of their team for making this amazing new tool a reality!

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