Open Data for our Public Lands

Americans have inherited a vast and spectacular landscape. Through the efforts of citizens and governments throughout the 20th century, today Americans are the equal-owners of some 785 million acres of public land.

These public lands and trails help us understand the world around us — including our environment, our communities, and ourselves. Across the country, our open spaces serve as outposts dedicated to science, education, and active recreation.

The health of our society depends on this understanding of our world. At the same time, our public lands depend on visitors, students, and taxpayers. As a new, more connected generation comes of age, it is critical that parks and public lands communicate as effectively online as they do on the trails themselves.

Over the past year, a coalition of stewards in Northeast Ohio has joined forces to do just that. There, a vast trail network unites the Akron and Cleveland metropolitan areas, spanning the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as nearby parks managed by park agencies, cities, and non-profits. They realized that by sharing data, they could also share a common infrastructure to serve the residents of Northeast Ohio.

As Code for America Fellows, we partnered with this coalition to develop an open data specification for public-use information about trails networks. By adopting the “Public Land and Trail Specification (PLATS),” the Coalition can speak with one voice to their common visitors, whether they use the open-source To The Trails app we developed, or other apps that support PLATS data like Transit and Trails. In crafting this specification, we took inspiration from the power of open, consistent, and accessible government data like GTFS. We took lessons learned from Code for America’s work helping ecosystems of civic tech tools blossom through data specifications like House Facts and LIVES.

The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail connects Akron and Cleveland through the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley.

Today, Code for America is expanding this collaboration to include stewards across the country. PLATS aims to empower stewards to easily share open data between one another and the visiting public. After all, Northeast Ohio isn’t the only region where information about public lands is fragmented. Thousands of the stewards care for our land, ranging from Federal agencies, state subdivisions, and cities to special districts, trusts, and non-profits.

Over the next month, Code for America is facilitating a public Request for Comment period. We are soliciting insights and constructive critique from domain experts and software developers alike. The comment period will culminate in an official version 1.0 of the specification.

Code for America is here to help governments be effective, including parks and public lands. Visit the PLATS Specification Page to get started. If you are interested in publishing data compliant with PLATS, please get in touch. If you aren’t sure whether PLATS is right for you, we are here to answer your questions. If you are a technologist looking to build products and services using PLATS data, let’s go hiking together and think big. To engage critically with the specification, and the considerations that inform its current iteration, please sign-up below and review the technical documentation.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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