Not so long ago, San Francisco’s Franklin Square was a good place to avoid. Playground sand was a dumping ground for used condoms and hypodermic needles. Fed up with what officials politely described as an “underperforming park,” neighbors got organized. They used an interactive Web tool called ParkScan to pinpoint infractions on a satellite map, add text descriptions of the problem, and upload photos of trash or vandalism. Their data-gathering campaign helped convince the city to invest in a complete park makeover.
“Franklin Square is a great success story for the neighborhood— and for ParkScan,” says Meredith Thomas, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council. The San Francisco- based parks advocacy nonprofit has spent several years developing ParkScan, with $1 million in grant support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and other backers. Now the tool is being rolled out to other cities interested in engaging their residents as park monitors.
Once ParkScan is adopted by a community and customized with satellite photos, maps, and other information about local parks, the tool enables anyone with Internet access to report a broken swing set, low-hanging tree limb, graffiti, or other concern. Each “observation” is assigned a tracking number and referred to the appropriate city department for follow-up. Updates are posted online. Not everything gets fixed. Addressing some complaints would require capital investments that are not in the maintenance budget. But the transparency lets citizens know their concerns are being heard. What’s more, all the data are compiled, giving the community a more complete picture of the local parks landscape.
Thomas says the tool “multiplies the eyes and ears on our parks,” delivering a number of crowdsourcing benefits. With better information, budgetstrapped maintenance crews “can work more efficiently,” she says. Potential safety hazards are noticed more rapidly. After a storm, for instance, the city might ask residents to scan their local parks for downed trees or other debris. This increased community engagement sometimes leads to volunteer work parties or advocacy efforts, such as the Franklin Square campaign. At budget time, San Francisco officials rely on ParkScan reports to inform their spending decisions.
These benefits are attracting interest from other cities. Portland, Ore., began using ParkScan at 40 sites in 2008 and rolled it out to 150 parks a year later. Ali Ryan, the Portland Parks & Recreation specialist who coordinates ParkScan Portland, says the interactive tool offers “a great way for the community to connect directly with us.”
ParkScan isn’t only for registering gripes. In both San Francisco and Portland, community members have started using the tool to shout out compliments. “Someone might upload a photo of a bed of sunflowers that really brightens their walk to work,” says Thomas. “It’s nice to have a way to document when people are happy and not just frustrated.” Maintenance crews “can be kind of invisible,” acknowledges Ryan. “This is a nice way for them to get credit for doing a good job.”