Open Spaces

Technology Hits the Trail

Carrying a smartphone outdoors is not a novelty. Just ask the host of businesses that make rugged cases designed to protect pocket technology from the elements.

By April Anderson


Technology is becoming a natural part of experiencing the natural world, whether it’s retrieving maps, interpretive programs, or references with the touch of a finger. Citizens for Conservation, Cook County Forest Preserves, Lake County Forest Preserve District, and McHenry County Conservation District are just a few of the local organizations using technology to improve experiences of their users, while cell phone applications for bird and star identification provide connectivity on an even larger scale.

Another way to communicate

For McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), QR codes strategically placed on kiosks connect visitors to their website and volunteer information. (QR codes are “Quick Response” codes that move information through a matrix-style barcode.) In 2015, the conservation district will be providing additional QR codes to provide visitors with site-specific trail maps.

Lake County Forest Preserve District (LCFPD) has a mobile LCFPD application (“app”) which provides lists of daily events, news, photos, trail maps, and site-specific information. QR codes offer access to trail maps at Grant Woods, Half Day, Independence Grove, Lakewood, Old School, Rollins Savanna,
Ryerson Woods, and Van Patten Woods. “We tried to concentrate on including information that on-the-go mobile users would find useful,” says Lake County Forest Preserves Marketing Specialist Kara Martin.

How a postcard led to a QR trail

When Citizens for Conservation (CFC) board member Diane Bodkin offered to chair Flint Creek Savanna’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 2014, she recalled a postcard she’d received from a local church that changed her life. The postcard had a QR code that didn’t just promote a Father’s Day service, but contained a short video clip. What if Bodkin could use this idea to create educational videos to commemorate the savanna’s 25th anniversary?

Although she had never seen a nature trail with a QR code, Bodkin could not stop thinking about the benefits of such outreach. “I wanted our restoration experts to give talks along the trail for the celebration,” says Bodkin who subsequently contacted Barrington High School special media teacher, Jeff Doles, for assistance. Doles assigned Jennifer Nazha and Taylor Bugnowski to the task of compiling six, five-minute videos of local restoration experts for the six QR-coded stations at Flint Creek Savanna. Setting up a private YouTube, Doles made the videos accessible strictly by QR-code while Bodkin and her husband, Jim, designed signs that would blend into the natural area and weather its harsh seasonal conditions.

“Our biggest challenge is not having Wi-Fi capabilities across the prairie,” admits Bodkin. “The other challenge involves people being aware of how to use their scanner apps.” Using 4G network scanners, at each of the six stations dispersed along a loop trail less than a mile in length, CFC members and guests can enjoy five-minute videos with Patsy Mortimer sharing the stories of: Flint Creek Savanna visionary Waid Vanderpoel; Katherine Grover providing background on CFC’s native seed garden; Edith Auchter imparting information about native prairie plants; Tom Vanderpoel expounding upon the importance of volunteers in native landscape restoration; Jim Vanderpoel introducing animals and insects of the prairie; and local bird authority Wendy Paulson sharing her passion for birds of the savanna.

New apps are on the way

On the Prairie State Hiking application (app), MCCD offers 13-minute-long narrative opportunities at marked posts scattered throughout Glacial Park to educate visitors about invasive species, controlled burns, glaciation, native ecosystems, and historic families. They plan to roll out narrations for Coral Woods, Marengo Ridge, and Pleasant Valley. Visitors can either read the text, or listen to an audio narration on- or off-site.

“The idea is to complement experiences in nature rather than to replace them,” says MCCD education services manager Deb Chapman. “Technology can be the hook that generates interest in nature that might not otherwise be there.” For example, the Sky Guide app enables users to identify constellations as well as noticeable planets and stars, automatically adjusting to users’ geographic coordinates worldwide. Star Guide can even be programmed to send out notifications regarding special astronomical events.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app provides access to 70 million records in its eBird citizen-science database to help users find birds which are most likely to be encountered within a 30-mile radius of the North American location they enter, and accepts email from those wishing to ask questions or share sightings. Bird silhouettes, accompanied by color photos, descriptions, songs, and warning calls are all components of this handy field guide.

Targeting people who aren’t necessarily looking for an educational experience – such as walkers or runners – Cook County Forest Preserve is working on an interpretive app that will be coming out later this year.

When visitors arrive at Deer Grove Forest Preserve (one of two locations in Cook County where the new app will be piloted), they will be invited to download an app that will allow them to gain an appreciation of the site’s history and ecology. For those who can’t wait to get to Deer Grove, information will be available via the forest preserves’ social media outlets, once the app is ready.

“We see technology as something we can use to help educate people about nature and enhance the visitor experience, much like binoculars or guides [used] in conjunction with nature,” explains Cook County Forest Preserves’ Web Manager Ryan Lothian. “It’s basically a new way of thinking about interpretation.”

Deb Chapman of MCCD agrees, extolling the value of presenting “higher-level content” which enables people “to develop deeper relationships with the environment through citizen science projects that allow them to input and share data or photos (such as Project NOAH).”

Technology changes the way we see the natural world as phones morph into field guides, cameras, video players, and more. Once blamed for disconnecting children from nature, technology is making positive strides in taking those who visit local natural areas by the digital hand to provide information to enrich their experiences and reconnect them with wonder.

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April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: