How One Park District in Illinois Is Making Smarter Parks

photo - How One Park District in Illinois Is Making Smarter Parks
photo - How One Park District in Illinois Is Making Smarter Parks
Park visitation can be impacted by rentals, holidays, weather and construction, as well as the number of attendees at special events. Cities can use data on these impacts to improve park operations and drive project outcomes. (Getty Images)

In many cities, one of the most popular services utilized by the community is open space, including parks and playgrounds. Unfortunately, park use is also one of the hardest things for cities to measure.

This is a guest post by Bobbi Nance and Edward Krafcik. This post is the first in a series celebrating National Parks Week.

With the abundance of startup companies interested in partnering with local governments — and the variety of new technologies designed specifically for this purpose — there has emerged a decision paralysis which inhibits city leaders to act quickly and effectively on any one innovation project. This is only natural — after all, with so much available on the market in terms of technologies and ideas, and with little evidence to show what works and why, it is reasonably challenging for city leaders to decide where to invest when the upside and downside are not yet fully measurable.

In this sneak peek into a case study from the Park District of Oak Park, Illinois, we profile how Oak Park is collaborating with a startup company called Soofa from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. By working together in a highly collaborative and iterative manner, both organizations achieved their goals simultaneously while maximizing the value the new technology provides to the citizens of Oak Park. This case study provides a working example for how innovative public-private projects can succeed, and offers advice on what to look for in a partnership with a startup company and how best to manage the associated risks.

The Park District of Oak Park first contacted Soofa in March of 2016 looking for ways it could count the number of people who use its parks with sensor technology instead of counting manually by hand. Specifically, the district’s goals were to compare the pedestrian use of its parks to inform capital planning decisions, measure the success of event programming and marketing activities, and tell a more complete story of how its parks are used and how valuable they are to the community.

As Bobbi Nance, senior manager of strategy and innovation for the Park District of Oak Park, described, "at any parks and recreation agency, the most popular service utilized by the community is open space, including parks and playgrounds. Unfortunately, park use is also one of the hardest things for park providers to measure. The technology in Soofa products was appealing to us as a data-driven organization because it allowed us for the first time to have consistent data about how our parks are being used, all while providing the added benefit of free solar-powered charging stations to our park visitors."

photo - Soofa Core station
A Soofa Core station installed in Oak Park, Illinois. (Soofa)

Soofa makes smart outdoor furniture, like park benches that use solar power to provide phone charging for the public and sensor data collection for public agencies and local governments. Oak Park is one of Soofa's first smarter parks beta partners, meaning it engaged in a pilot project with the intention of co-creating a technology product that would closely meet its needs.

The network of beta partners also includes agencies like NYC Parks, Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, Prince George's County, Maryland, Parks and Recreation, and dozens of other forward-thinking city departments and agencies. You can read more about Oak Park’s installation in this Chicago Tribune article and learn more about how they engaged their community with the new technology by designing a fun QR code scavenger hunt called SpotTheSoofa.

Nance further illustrated how being a beta partner has provided the district with critical data during the first stages of the project. “In the first six months, we’ve already been able to spot differences in usage patterns in the four parks where a Soofa Core station was installed, and we are starting to see how park visitation is impacted by rentals, holidays, weather and construction, as well as the number of attendees at a special event or the number of people that take advantage of temporary offerings like outdoor ice rinks or art installations.”

Data Collection and Interpretation

Pedestrian count data is provided to the Park District of Oak Park in comma-separated value files which provide the district flexibility to study how park use is impacted by events, weather and more. Nance imports this data into her agency-wide dashboard, which is powered by iDashboards. The dashboard enables different types of correlations, including how temperature and events impact park use, and it can evaluate the success of different marketing strategies and tactics by revealing how many people visit the district’s parks based on a particular marketing initiative or advertised event.

While not every city or agency is using a dashboard as comprehensively as the Park District of Oak Park, the main lesson to be taken from this example is that being able to correlate data is crucial. When considering or comparing different technology products, services or companies, cities should ask tough questions about how data sets can be correlated with others, how open a particular data set is (meaning how easy it is to access and share), and how flexible and adaptive it is.

Data Usage Goals

graphic - Soofa park data
A graph showing the impact of the 2017 Super Bowl game on park visitation. (Soofa)

The wealth of data gathered by Soofa’s sensors in the four parks across the Oak Park district is only beginning to be tapped into. The project has been live for nine months, with plans for expansion underway to increase the total number of sensors in the district’s parks. Further data use goals that will be explored in the coming months include:

  • Use pedestrian traffic data to improve park operations
  • Inform capital improvement schedules based on knowing how often different parks are actually being used — a goal which ultimately saves money on excessive improvements
  • Become more efficient in offering (and pricing) permits for events
  • Sync up with nearby business improvement districts and share the data to be able to quantify how public programming impacts park use and neighborhood activity in general
  • Measure the impact of park improvement projects by knowing how many more people visit the park after the improvements are complete

Accelerating the Process and Driving Outcomes

The original idea to bring Soofa benches to the Park District of Oak Park was presented in March 2016 by Bobbi Nance to her team via the district’s intranet, where district employees share innovative ideas. In just five months, Soofa technology was installed in four of the district’s parks. How did this happen so fast? Oak Park made a few recommendations on how to innovate efficiently:

  • Figure out early if you want to start with a pilot project or widespread deployment, and align all internal stakeholders accordingly
  • Insulate innovation projects from traditional processes and funding sources
  • Don't overlook the value and the opportunity that comes from the innovation itself, like being able to co-develop a product that really meets your needs

To learn more and see data visualizations prepared by the Park District of Oak Park, read the full case study here.

About the authors:

Bobbi Nance is the senior manager of strategy and innovation at the Park District of Oak Park. Bobbi oversees the agency’s strategic plans and serves as a catalyst for innovation, moving ideas from concept to reality and accelerating the pace at which her agency implements improvements.

Ed Krafcik is the director of partnerships at Soofa and is an advisory board member for Parks and Recreation Magazine. He collaborates with cities and parks departments across the country to solve problems using new types of data.

Bobbi Nance & Edward Krafcik