Nearly unlimited transit and trail data is coming to an app near you. And whether you're seeking singletrack or chasing a commuter train, that's a very big deal.
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You’re in San Francisco for a work conference. You’ve got an afternoon free, a mountain bike you’ve borrowed from a friend, and an itch to check out the singletrack at China Camp State Park, up in Marin County. You don’t have a car, so you check an app on your phone that shows where you and your bike can catch the next Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to a station where you can then catch a bus that takes you to within half a mile of the park.
Next time you enjoy this kind of incredible convenience, thank Bibiana McHugh.
While on vacation in 2005, McHugh, who manages the geographic information systems for TriMet, Portland, Oregon’s transit agency, realized that it was very difficult to access an online map with quick, easy transit data. The timetables and maps various transit agencies put online—if they even did that—all looked and worked differently. So she started working with Google and transit planners to codify transit data—any agency’s transit data. The result is a standardized format that many transit agencies now use and make freely available. Google used this data to integrate directions into Google Maps, and of course anyone who wants to build an app uses the standardized data, too. And there are thousands of such apps, for public transit systems all over the world.
This data standard (called the General Transit Feed Specification) is a huge deal. Without it, transit agencies might still use their own unique databases to store timetables and route information. Google Maps’ transit directions would probably not exist, nor would those third party apps exist—or there would be far fewer, and they would cost more. The standard has made public transit an attractive, easily understood, and accessible travel option.
Now, the same type of standardization is happening for data about trail networks, which means the cash-strapped agencies that maintain the trails will be able to liberate that data for anyone to use to build accurate, easy-to-use, and dependable maps and apps. And this is also going to be huge.
Perhaps you’ve read how Strava, the mapping service designed to help athletes track bike rides and runs, is now feeding the anonymous, aggregate data they collect from users (more than 2.5 million GPS-tracked activities each week, according to the company) to urban and bike planners. The hope is that understanding where and when commuters ride will lead to better biking infrastructure.
Strava is also one of a handful of organizations working to standardize trail and public land data in a manner similar to the way McHugh helped standardize transit data. The nonprofit Code for America, which uses technology to improve local government and public services, is leading the project, called the Open Trail System Specification (or just Open Trails).
Open Trails was born through a project to help visitors navigate the hive of different trails system in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, adjacent state and city parks, and trail systems in the Akron and Cleveland metro areas. “The specification is designed to help these parks communicate with one voice and provide one map for their 8 million annual visitors,” says Alan Williams, who runs Open Trails development at Code for America.
Most states have at least one similar conglomerate of parks, governed by various agencies who use their own maps to illustrate their trails networks. There are often small feeder trails that link the networks together, but you may not see them on a map produced by one of the parks. But with the Open Trails standard, all the data will live in a standard format and look the same to mapping or application software, which will save a ton of time and expense when creating or updating maps or applications. Parks that are adjacent to or nearby each other will be able to create a single map, for example, making linking up a route through multiple parks a lot easier.
With trail data being set free, parks—many of them operated with small and strapped budgets—will also be able to develop apps that are useful and dynamic. You’ll learn about trail closers before schlepping it to the park. Third-party apps will also emerge. An app might help you get to one trailhead by bike, find a place to lock it up and trail-run to a beach, suggest a good lunch spot, and then find a bus back to retrieve the bike. Or an app designed for trail runners or mountain bikers might help you find races, clubs or training events, or provide an easy way to report a cougar sighting or a down tree to park managers. The maps might also show nearby services—eateries, outfitters, transit stops, swimming holes, whatever. Think of it as Google Maps for trails and parks.
The specification for the Open Trails standard is now complete (if you really want to nerd out, see it here) and Code for America is already working with parks and other interested parties to start collecting data and building out applications.
Open Maps, Open Data
The specification was written with input from The Trust for Public Land, GreenInfo Network, commercial partners such as Strava, and Trailhead Labs, a trail and public transit mapping application startup.
Trailhead Labs is the brainchild of Ryan Branciforte and Jereme Monteau, who previously developed Transit & Trails, a project of the Bay Area Open Space Council (which I tested out for this story). They’ve created a software platform called Outerspatial. Using Open Trails data, Outerspatial will serve as a framework so that park agencies and trail managers can create user-friendly maps and apps for park visitors—much more quickly than if they had to start from scratch.
“We are looking at mapping the whole outdoor domain: parks, trails, trailheads, amenities, campgrounds, points of interest, bathrooms, water, etc.,” explains Monteau.
Trailhead Labs is already working with some Bay Area park agencies but hopes to expand to parks across the country.
“Our vision is that there isn’t just one app that tells you were to go and what to do. There are a whole bunch. I probably use four or five different transit apps just for the Bay Area,” says Branciforte. Just as standardized transit data has enabled those different apps, Open Trails will foster the creation of unique outdoor apps. “There might be an app for finding fire pits, or another for playgrounds,” he says. “That, ultimately, is how we’d get people engaged in the outdoors.”