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State Parks Adds Navigation Technology to App

Officials at the California State Parks system indicate the new capabilities, now applied to more than 8,000 points of interest, will facilitate rescue efforts and provide a more meaningful experience for visitors.

Last week, the California State Parks system (CSP) announced the addition of location technology to improve rescue operations and the park visitor experience.

In recent years, new technologies like drones and robots are being used in places like Travis County, Texas, to improve search and rescue operations. The location technology from what3words has been implemented to improve public safety in places like Dallas and Los Angeles, dividing the world into a grid of 10-foot by 10-foot squares that all bear a unique combination of three words.

CSP has been working to innovate the visitor experience with technology, including the launch of an augmented reality mobile app experience in June. The addition of what3words adds another tech tool to support visitors in California’s 280 state parks.

There are two primary reasons CSP adopted this technology, according to CSP Assistant Deputy Director of Park Operations Adrien Contreras. The first is public safety.

“Every year, we have folks that do get lost on trails,” said Contreras. “So, the ability to have someone identify a very specific 10-by-10 location in the middle of wide-open wilderness in a park unit is obviously a massively important public safety tool that can make our jobs much easier and could potentially save a life.”

The second reason for adopting the tool is that it can help visitors communicate their specific location, such as a specific picnic table or campground, when meeting up with other park visitors in a California state park.

The official CSP app now displays what3words addresses for over 8,000 points of interest in the state park system.

“I think there’s a cool social aspect where you can say, ‘Check out this beautiful view from the top of this peak — and here’s the exact location,’” said Contreras.

And although what3words has partnered with numerous government entities, what3words Chief Marketing Officer Giles Rhys Jones said most partnerships have been heavily focused on public safety applications, and this partnership is particularly unique as it emphasizes user experience benefits as well. It's also one of the largest partnerships in terms of the land CSP manages.

The benefits could extend to many, such as people working on events in parks, interpretive activities and guided hikes, Contreras said.

“As far as what’s to come, I think there’s a lot of possibilities,” he said.

In addition, Rhys Jones noted that it could be used internally for managing critical infrastructure assets, dealing with weather-related closures or even improved reporting for things like illegal dumping.

Contreras argued that, although the ideal scenario would be to never have a lost park visitor, if this helps mobilize rescue efforts more quickly for one person, the impact will be worth it. However, he said much of the impact of this tool in the way of visitor convenience and experience will not be measurable, except perhaps through feedback.

Notably, park visitors can use this tool even without access to cellphone service, which is the case for a lot of CSP land, and can make emergency calls if they are in need of rescue. This is possible through either the official California State Parks app or the what3words app.

According to Rhys Jones, the technical integration into the state parks app was fairly simple as it is an API that converts GPS coordinates to words and back again.

This story first appeared in Government Technology magazine, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.