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State Parks CIO Sees Digital Solutions as Key to Access

Patrick Dennis told attendees at a recent Techwire Member Briefing that his department is focused on data as a way to operate more efficiently while enhancing public access to the state’s 279 park properties.

The chief of technology for the California Department of Parks and Recreation has big plans – and a big plan – in the coming months to enhance public access, workforce mobility and strategic growth and development among the state’s 279 park properties.

Patrick Dennis, chief information officer for the department, laid out his top three priorities in a Techwire Member Briefing last week:
Patrick Dennis
Patrick Dennis
  • The department’s time and attendance system for its approximately 4,300 employees (which swells to about 6,000 seasonally) will be moved from its current paper-based system to a digital system. That includes creating a system to handle the onboarding of new employees and the departure of outgoing workers, Dennis said. “We’re planning an IT project to implement a time and attendance system,” he said.
  • Another key priority for Dennis is the collection of data relating to park visits – who visits them, when and how far they travel, among other factors. Dennis said that as CIO, he’s focused on “making sure I bring data to the department, to my business partners, so they can make data-driven business decisions.” Data about the parks’ use and users, he said, informs how the department plans for additional maintenance or law enforcement staffing on a particular weekend, he said.
  • Using technology to further enable department workers – whether park rangers, scientists or technologists – to work remotely with as few impediments as possible. Automating the mobile workforce, Dennis said, is especially important given that so many parks are in very remote areas, far from easy digital connectivity.

Dennis was asked by moderator Alan Cox, executive vice president of e.Republic and publisher of Techwire, to cite some of the department’s successes.

Since Dennis was named CIO in 2018, he said, the department has greatly expanded its reservation system.

“When I got here, we had a really large emphasis on improving the system,” Dennis said. “Camping reservations are how folks interact with State Parks most often,” so he has focused on making sure that system is efficient and effective. He emphasizes “regular, standard improvements ongoing to the reservation system.”

Dennis added: “We have done some really great work recently with our Outdoors for All program, in partnership with the First Partner’s Office, to implement and automate some new parks passes. … Also, the California State Library Parks Pass allows cardholders to check out, like a book, a free day-use pass at 200 participating parks locations to gain free access to our parks. … We’re really proud of those implementations and enhancements to the system.”

He also cited “a recent department-to-department partnership we have with the Department of Social Services … to reach out to folks that are in their CalWORKS program, to proactively identify folks for our discount pass. We call it our Golden Bear Pass, and it’s really a free pass for folks that meet certain income requirements. It takes the burden off them, and we and the Department of Social Services proactively identify and solicit” people who would be eligible for free use of the department’s parks, beaches, monuments and museums.

With the department’s “extremely diverse portfolio,” Dennis said, “we have one of the largest networks for connectivity across the state. We have 279 park units, all of which require connectivity in some form or another.” To that end, he is working with the California Department of Technology (CDT) and the Office of Broadband Services on the new statewide rural connectivity project, started in 2021.

That effort is focused less on fiber than on point-to-point fixed wireless connectivity, he said. Some of that connectivity is already available for state entities to use, especially in rural spaces.

“That’s important,” Dennis said, “because, of 279 parks, at least 100 of them are connectivity-challenged, and of those, almost 70 are connect-impossible.” Now that a state contract is in place, he said, “How do we take advantage of that procurement vehicle to identify projects that are our next priorities, and how we can actually leverage some of those state projects to feed into the governor’s larger broadband initiative and help to connect adjacent underserved communities?

“How to answer that connectivity challenge is really fundamental to the park system’s modernization, and important for reasons of community and connectivity.”

Department employees and the public are already benefiting from several digital initiatives, Dennis said, citing a chatbot on the state’s website; a plan to broaden “touchless park entry,” where the public could pay for parking through their phone or by credit card rather than with cash; and ultimately offering a “digital wallet” through which park-goers could buy camping supplies and other goods without having to carry cash.

Any conversation about digital wallets and touchless payment raises the question of cybersecurity, and Dennis said his department is “working through its assessments and audits” with CDT and the California Military Department.

“We’ve been really going through our network in the last 18 months, wrapping the proper security around those transactions,” Dennis said. “I’m super confident in our ability to have … a secure payment system for our citizens.”

For vendors interested in doing business with the department, Dennis said, “Make sure you’re attending the (Techwire) Member Briefings.” He said that because he gets buried in email solicitations; he advised “reaching out with a business development person who is a trusted colleague to bring you to my attention. … It’s so hard to respond to everybody” individually.

Cox said he was impressed with Dennis’s presentation, which can be viewed here.

“I enjoyed my conversation with Patrick,” Cox said. “The breadth of services his organization provides to the department is unique when you consider the number of locations, point-of-sale systems and the law enforcement role of the organization.”

Dennis said he expects the department to publish its IT strategic plan in June or July, and he advised vendors to study it for insights into what’s on the horizon.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.