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New app puts key to green spaces in your pocket


A new learning app designed by three local nature-loving entities is offering a deeper perspective on Northeast Ohio's robust parks systems.
 
ParkApps, developed via a partnership among Cleveland Metroparks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) and Kent State University, aims to educate visitors as they explore the region's parks. Similar to other apps created for national and state parks, the new software, currently available for free on iTunes, places points of interest on a digital map where users learn about the history and ecology of our precious green space, says Patrick Lorch, manager of field research for Cleveland Metroparks.
 
The map currently has 200 points covering topics like wildflowers, geology and marsh habitats. Through a feature called "Adventure Tracks," a user's mobile device pings them to stop and engage with pre-determined points along a trail or path. Completed trails earn visitors digital badges as a reward.
 
"The map is the basis for everything," says Lorch. "Points on the map are the equivalent of a sign at the side of a trail."
 
Another feature called "My ParkApps" lets users create their own maps, giving them free access to an accompanying website that records their hikes in the park. "Citizen Science," meanwhile, asks participants to share photos of the same park features over time, allowing officials to study stream bank erosion and other changes in habitat.
 
The app project, funded by a three-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning initiative, will test the feasibility of app technology in parks while studying the impact of mobile devices on informal science learning. Along with the educational piece, combining technology and nature is a new way to explain park management activities such as the culling of invasive species or protecting particular natural resources, Lorch says.
 
"People ask us why we're pulling plants they find attractive," he says. "We want to help people understand the ecological reason for these things, because that's often not clear."
 
Future versions of the tool will include availability on Android devices and an identification option where visitors can get help identifying plants, trees and animals.
 
"I can imagine a fishermen recording their favorite fishing spots and tagging them with a photo," says Lorch. "How people use the app could point to a general direction for us."

The Cleveland Metroparks is part of Fresh Water's underwriting network.

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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