Using location data for better parks

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This post is inspired by a conversation with Dr. Jamie Saxon, a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Center for Data and Computing of the University of Chicago. Jamie was originally trained as a particle physicist but made the professional transition to focus on cities because he wanted to better maximize the information gained across his career.  We asked Jamie to share his thoughts on how location data is used in the public sector and the different ways it can help create better public parks. This is what we heard. 

When they work, public parks are more than space on a map and more than a place to spend a sunny day. In ideal scenarios, they provide a green space, a play area, a place of solitude, a place to gather, and somewhere we can all access with equal opportunity and common enjoyment.  

At least that’s the idea.  Location data from smartphones can help inform the creation and maintenance of those experiences. This post explores some of the questions and challenges that designers can address through location and mobility data.

There is enormous potential for geolocation data in urban design. But to fully realize that promise – to measure and improve public spaces – we should complement GPS data with other data streams and tools. -- Jamie Saxon

Getting started with smartphone data streams

It’s important for those responsible for delivering parks, public spaces, and other public services to integrate measurement and validation in their workflow.  Otherwise, we risk perpetuating a cycle of ‘build it and they will come’ projects.  The problem with that idea (and datasets that limit you to this way of thinking) is you get stuck applying the same ideas over and again.  When parks and other public spaces are conceived with this mentality, their performance is measured in the rearview mirror if at all.  Appropriate data allow us to refine both our ideas and the spaces we create, to better serve the public.  The data allow us to evaluate and improve the equity and accessibility of urban neighborhoods.

It can be daunting to integrate new data streams in workflows.  These data can be computationally involved, and it takes time to get familiar with any newform of data.  Further, some available tools and offerings that offer a nice initial impression mask warts in the incoming data streams, or limit the questions that you can ask.  From a researcher’s perspective, no amount of lipstick will redeem the pig.  So for many, the question becomes, ‘Can I even trust this?  Is it worth the lift?’  The answer is yes. If you have the right questions and the right data streams informing your work. “We all spend a lot of time cleaning, validating, and investigating datasets. I felt I had reached a tipping point with location data, when every ‘feature’ I investigated on the ground turned out to be true. It flipped from me teaching the data, to the data teaching me.”

Once the data is formatted and validated, it offers striking insights at extraordinary spatial precision. Adjacent neighborhoods, opposite sides of the same street, and different parts of a park can be used by the public in different and sometimes unexpected ways.  Working with fresh, clean data gives you both a global view, and lets you drill down to those individual corners, neighborhoods, streets and parks.  It tells you where to focus.

3 advantages of working with smartphone GPS data

1.      You are never stuck with the base model intellectually;

2.     Data from smartphone GPS is clean, fresh and rooted in ground truth; and

3.     Location is readily available as an alt-data stream for researchers and the public sector.

There is a risk with public works, to believe that noble intent justifies intervention. We need more post-occupancy measurement analysis of parks and public spaces. It is my hope that with GPS data and other measurements, we can iteratively optimize public spaces. -- Jamie Saxon

Location data in public parks

Outside of researching and planning parks, the public sector and government rely heavily on data from demographics, location and other sources in order to plan and execute projects. Some of the more common use cases for location data in the public sector include:

●      Planning and operations for public transit

●      Real estate acquisition and development

●      Maintenance and security

●      Location planning for essential services

●      Urban land use classification

Smartphone location data help inform how people move through parks, and what spaces they actually use within them.  Sometimes, the data make common sense: keep parks within a short walk of people and they tend to visit more. Identify and remove barriers to access.  Build play grounds, offer views, and provide a place to sit. Those are classic lessons.  But the data also reveal the limitations of traditional methods.  Across American cities, older models usually veil inequity in actual rates of visits to parks.  GPS data capture this inequity automatically and allow us to address it. 

Smartphone data streams are also unique in their ability to relate subsequent destinations.  Analysis shows that commercial corridors adjacent to parks are a strong driver of use. Investment in strengthening these connections could help drive both commerce and park visits.  As always, we should consider how to measure success. 

Sometimes the data can tell us strange things, too – stuff that at first may seem counterintuitive or even tough to hear. For example, in one instance, a prized garden drew far less foot traffic than the nearby parking lots (see figure).  “At first, I didn’t believe it,” says Saxon, “Then I went and watched.”  The parking lot was extraordinarily active for tailgating, partying, and watching over the water.  So how much is spent on enabling a great experience for tailgaters?  Data can help focus resources on supporting and affirming communities and parks’ current users.

A prized garden drew far less foot traffic than the nearby parking lots

What is new is our ability to quantify cross-visits, visualize foot traffic. We should use these data to expand on existing successes and work to invite an ever-broader base of users to enjoy parks’ many benefits. -- Jamie Saxon

A lot of this information comes from blending location data with stuff parks people already know. There’s an easy way to try for free, and we’re here if you’d like to ask more questions, or


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