One of the exciting and challenging aspects of the ParkLife project is the process of co-designing the collection and use of new data about parks. For most of the park officers and Friends of Parks groups that we are working with, data is not part of their regular decision-making processes. This seems to be because relatively little data about parks is collected consistently, and the data that is collected often belongs to different organisations and isn’t located in one central place.
The ParkLife project is helping to bring more data into decision-making by creating an open-access dashboard for data about parks. The dashboard will display live data from sensors installed in parks, along with data from other sources that helps to provide an overview of park activity. This will include counters for bats, people and bicycles as well as events and weather.
To make sure that the data and dashboard are useable and relevant, we have been hosting conversations with park managers and community members. In our first workshops in spring, we asked participants what data they would like to have about parks. This ‘requirements gathering’ process helped to determine what sensors would be placed in parks and what other data streams would be connected to the dashboard.
In autumn we held a second round of workshops to discuss details of the dashboard design. We wanted to understand how people might imagine using the data and interacting with the dashboard and how they might interpret different data visualisations. This would provide the guidelines for how we displayed the data.
Focussing on three of the main data sources -bat counts, people counts, and bicycle counts - we asked participants, “How might this data be valuable to you, and how would you use it?” Over the course of the conversation, participants highlighted four main uses of the data.
Two main types of evidence were emphasised - one to identify new interventions and one to evaluate the impact of interventions.
Parks have many types of users and uses, and these occasionally find themselves in conflict with each other. A particular issue is conflict between cyclists, pedestrians and dog-walkers on shared paths. Parks without designated cycle paths would like to understand where they could best create designated paths to reduce conflict. One participant got thinking rather creatively and wondered if we could have a sensor that could distinguish between not only cyclists and pedestrians but also dogs! Would this perhaps lead to designated dog-walking areas…?
Friends groups and other organisations occasionally raise money to develop new services and infrastructure for parks, from wildflower meadows to community gardens to exercise equipment to pop-up cafes. They would like to know if people are actually visiting or using those interventions. For example, Friends of the Meadows has a new community garden, and they would like to know approximately how many people visit it every day, if the picnic benches are used, and how the use changes by time of day/season, etc.
In addition to having more general evidence about how parks are used, having regular data and specific numbers to attach to things will provide valuable insights - and open up new questions. Participants pointed out that thus far the sensors will not tell them new things - or, as they put it, “You aren’t providing us with new information, but it’s nice to know more details” (paraphrased). For example, with daily data about bats, they will be able to observe patterns over time and begin looking at interactions between different interventions. As they reflected on the potential for having this level of detail, they began to think of other issues they would like to monitor, like air and water quality, and how that information could show the value of parks (e.g. preserving areas of clean air) or the need for increased environmental standards (e.g. if quality of local stream water deteriorated).
Awareness and Education
This conversation naturally led into the use of information for awareness and education. This was one of the biggest priorities for park users and one that really caught their imagination (besides counting dogs!). They were very excited about raising awareness of biodiversity and the environment in parks and greenspaces. One participant actively uses the iNaturalistapp to track and identify species observations, and her enthusiasm for getting more people involved in monitoring biodiversity was contagious.
We’d planned for the final part of the conversation to look at and explore different data visualisations and how they could help people get the insight and value that they had now identified out of the data. However, as we gathered around the participant’s phone, and she began scrolling through photos of local nature submitted by hundreds of active users, our graphs and trend lines somehow just weren’t quite as interesting…