Parks and recreation departments have one goal in mind: motivate their citizens to get outside and enjoy the natural resources of their community. They are all about trails, lakes, hiking, and exploring, and their efforts have no time for smartphones, tweets, and digital anything. Right?
In an era where citizens can order a pizza from a mobile app and have it delivered to a nearby park, deposit a paycheck without stepping inside a bank, and live stream life moments to hundreds of followers, local government parks and recreation departments that are not leveraging the latest technology are missing vital opportunities to reach and engage citizens. If you’re thinking, “We do use the latest tech. We have an Instagram account, and an online course catalog, and an email newsletter,” then you likely already see the value in making digital connections with citizens. However, social media, email, and online course catalogs only scratch the surface of what is possible thanks to advancements in smart tech. The latest opportunities for parks and recreation departments to make impactful impressions on their citizens and improve their quality of life are possible thanks to a web of integrated technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Better Technology Leads to Better Citizen Service
You have been hearing about the IoT for awhile, but it likely seemed like a tech term that was not bound to offer any opportunities or implications for parks and rec. Afterall, what do video-enabled doorbells and smart toasters have to do with public parks? While much of the hype of the IoT surrounds consumer products, the technology that fuels the IoT has significant implications for how the public sector can better engage and connect with citizens and enhance public service offerings—and parks and rec innovators are taking notice.
IT leaders in smart cities and counties across the nation are identifying effective entry points to move toward digital transformation models by leveraging IoT technology to help them solve business needs and—most importantly—better serve their citizenry. Consider these examples of how the latest smart tech is allowing for the collection of valuable and accurate environment, facility, and event data and the enablement of innovative citizen service and engagement:
- Sensors that Help Improve Water Quality – For communities working to improve the quality and cleanliness of lakes, embedded sensors, automated workflows, and robotics may expedite conservation efforts.
- Air Monitors that Detect Pollutants – Smart sensors placed outside of public facilities can monitor the air for increased levels of pollen, smog, and other pollutants, and notify civic leaders as well as citizens that have subscribed to receive air-quality alerts.
- Community Pride and Holiday Spirit – IP-based LED lights installed at community parks, public spaces, and community facilities can be controlled remotely to conserve energy and reduce costs when not needed. Administrators can also program such lights to change color to celebrate the seasons (think red and green for Christmas) or support important causes (think a wash of pink to support breast cancer awareness throughout the month of October).
- Geo-Targeted Mobile Messaging – Digitally connected parks departments can issue mobile app push notifications and text messages to inform nearby residents of ongoing local events, favorite venues, and volunteer opportunities, effectively promoting tourism and engaging locals.
- Wi-Fi Enabled Smart Parks – Smart parks allow busy parents, multi-tasking office workers, and kids to enjoy the fresh air while remaining connected to their mobile devices, so that they can complete their homework, participate in a video call, or stay connected with their kids, all while enjoying the health benefits of the great outdoors. When device batteries get low, park visitors can connect to solar-powered battery charging benches, all while enjoying the sunshine.
- Geocaching – Modern digital twists on treasure hunting games allow citizens to use GPS technology and integrated mobile apps to search for clues and geocache treasures throughout the local parks system, enabling local outdoor tourism by leveraging digital technology.
- Crowdsourcing Promotions of Local Events – Through the mobile Snapchat app’s “Our Story” feature, individuals geotargeted as located at your event can add to a department-sourced series of photos and videos, amplifying the social reach of your event promotions and lending an air of third-party authenticity.
- 311 and Citizen Request Management Applications – Used as a transparency citizen request and response mechanism to connect citizens directly to parks and rec and public works teams, these apps allow citizens who spot the need for maintenance or a repair to snap a photo, geo-target their location, submit a request, and receive an automated response when the work is complete.
- Attendance Data – Wi-Fi enabled parks that track tethered users can provide valuable insights relative to park attendance and peak hours to help parks departments make adjustments to staffing and other resources to accommodate citizen needs better.
How to Step Into the Light Toward Digital Transformation
To succeed in leveraging the latest IoT technologies to impact parks and rec service and citizen engagement, it will take a concerted, strategic, and data-informed approach. To begin a shift toward digital transformation, consider these best practices:
- Align Technology with Business Goals. To succeed in implementing transformative IoT initiatives, parks and rec stakeholders must partner with internal departments to align the value of digital transformation with business goals to ensure proper focus on connecting the systems that will make the most significant impact on the administration. It is essential to think of digital transformation regarding business goals, and not just projects. Taking too narrow of a view, or focusing only on progressive tech functionality for the sake of technology, is where too many initiatives fail.
- Embrace Integrations. The key to accomplishing IoT initiatives is connecting systems and software in ways that enable shared data, eliminate manual interventions, and minimize data entry redundancies. In an age where local governments must do more with less, systems should be interconnected to eliminate silos and wasted time. Utilizing systems that take an API-first approach to software stack interconnectivity will serve as a foundation for data integration management.
- Collaborate with Department Stakeholders. Find partners in other key departments that share your enthusiasm for IoT possibilities and that will partner with you in building solutions and finding efficiencies. Success will be dependent upon inter-departmental collaboration and upon leaders that champion initiatives and generate buy-in among all staff
- Build a Digital Transformation Roadmap and Go Agile. Adopting agile methodologies as part of digital transformation allows municipalities to start gaining value without an enormous upfront cost for a project that takes years to implement. The term agile refers to an iterative process in which projects evolve through the collaboration of cross-functional teams. Creating value iteratively allows risk-averse public sector entities to see the benefits of IoT initiatives quickly, allowing leaders to gain more stakeholder buy-in.
The IoT is bigger than smart watches and voice-command functionality. It is the next critical technological advancement opportunity for both the private and public sectors with the ability to enhance how citizens live their lives and connect to entities and people around them. For those who worry there is no role for tech in parks and rec, keep in mind that the next generation of voters and parks and rec users will grow up in a world where they know nothing other than interconnectivity, social sharing, and digital convenience. Not embracing digital transformation when we stand on the forefront of IoT innovation means potentially missing out on engaging a generation that will be vital in parks and rec sustainability. As you begin to make the shift toward becoming a smart city or county, always keep in the forefront of your strategic planning that the IoT is not about to which systems and data elements you can connect. It is about the processes, workflows, and moments of citizen engagement that such interconnectivity can enable.