Park Service to unveil easy-to-use mapping tool for workers

With Places Editor, a Park Service worker with no coding knowledge could reroute a path or add a new building to a park's digital map.

National Park Service workers now can make updates to the agency’s digital maps — even if they don’t know how to code.

In the next week or two, the Park Service officially plans to unveil Places Editor, which will allow its more than 22,000 employees to redraw trails, reroute roads or add new buildings in a park. A few hundred workers are already using the tool after a soft launch earlier this year.

Nate Irwin, who leads the Park Service’s mapping team, said the tool would help the agency make quicker updates. Only 50 to 100 people in the Park Service are trained on GIS, or geographic information systems, and many of those workers only do mapping work part time, he said. Now, all workers can make some changes themselves.

“It’s better for us as an organization,” he said. “It makes us more efficient, more agile and nimble so we can address shrinking budgets and resources, and still improve our data processes dramatically.”


To create the tool, Irwin’s team took the existing Park Service GIS data sets and aggregated them into a database that was linked to high-resolution satellite imagery. From there, a Park Service biologist, summer intern or resource manager — or any other worker — can go into the online editor and update trail routes or landmarks on top of the satellite pictures. The edits update the Park Service’s maps almost immediately, Irwin said.

He acknowledges that data from GIS novices may not be ideal. But he said it offers a good starting point. He hopes that thousands of workers will use the tool.

“We’re building a living dynamic product that is going to be constantly updated over time by a growing number of people who have really good on-the-ground knowledge,” he said.

Federal agencies increasingly been looking to reap the benefits of opening up their data — internally and externally. Earlier this month, offices across all levels of government opened up data during the country’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

Irwin’s team has been looking at open data for two years and has been examining how those outside government could improve their data. At a hackathon this spring that was hosted by the Interior and Agriculture departments, the team experimented with a prototype that would allow the public to update Park Service maps. He said preliminary results from the experiment look promising.


Looking ahead, the National Park Service is planning to unveil a new website in 2016 when the agency celebrates its centennial. Mapping will be an integral part of that site, he said.

“So we’re spending this year improving our digital products and next year is going to be a pretty massive roll out for us,” he said.

But in the meantime, he said other agencies across government could used the Places Editor as a model.

“What we’re doing is really prototyping what we think is a system and a workflow that we think will work for most other federal agencies if they choose to go down that road,” he said.

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