Smartphone app will map five Pittsburgh parks

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By spring, a new smartphone application will be available to provide navigational mapping in Pittsburgh's five regional parks.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is working with the city and the design firm Deeplocal on the project, with financial support from the UPMC Health Plan.

The impetus is to remove what conservancy vice president Mike Sexauer called "psychological barriers" that keep some people from venturing deeply into parks, especially heavily wooded ones such as Frick Park.

"Our goal is to have as many people using the parks as possible," he said. "There are people who aren't familiar with woods and have concerns that if they don't know where a trail goes they might get lost. We think there are many more people using the fringes of a park rather than getting the full benefit of [it]."

The app is designed to recognize the features of Schenley, Frick, Highland, Riverview and Emerald View parks.

Meg Cheever, conservancy president and CEO, calls it "a real game-changer" for people who might be intimidated by large urban parks. "Trails and heavily wooded areas offer some of the best park experiences, but these areas can also be the most daunting."

The app will be tested this winter by conservancy staff and volunteers.

Meanwhile, a contest is under way to name it. The deadline for offering a name is Nov. 30. Everyone who participates will be entered into a random drawing to win an iPad.

To vote, go to facebook.com/UPMCHealthPlan.

The app will be text-based, with points of interest and trail descriptions -- such as whether they are appropriate for bicycles and strollers.

To make the app as relevant to park users as possible, the conservancy surveyed people online earlier this year.

"Most people who responded take their phones with them in the parks," Mr. Sexauer said. "We listed 20 things we could think of and asked people to check as many as they would like."

Of 215 respondents, he said, 92 percent chose navigating trails. Other popular responses were for restroom locations and a way to report problems, he said.

The conservancy has been plotting park features using GPS for the past four years with the original intent to create more accurate print maps and better signs, Mr. Sexauer said. Mobile applications were not in mainstream use four years ago, but that technology now is "a great way to put all this information to use."

Deeplocal is developing the app with an international and local track record that includes the ParkPGH app that helps drivers find parking spaces Downtown.

The parks app will be available on Android and iPhone platforms. It will operate, like any map app, with satellites that recognize where you are in motion with your phone.

"If you park at a trail head or near a landmark that we have plotted, say the Frick gatehouse on Reynolds, that would be on the app," Mr. Sexauer said. "So, you could take a trail into the park and if you get turned around, you'll be able to get back."

The app is an extension of the Parks are Free campaign launched in 2009 by the UPMC Health Plan, the conservancy and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who said in a recent statement, "Our parks are one of the main reasons we have been named a most-livable city."

neigh_city - outdoors

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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