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Old Faithful Goes Digital: Google’s Partnership with The U.S. National Park Service

When the government shut down in October 2013, employees were furloughed, websites were sent offline, and delivery of important government services was interrupted. These were all difficult consequences for our nation. Yet, the one effect of the shutdown that seemed to foster the most frustration was an unexpected one: the closing of our national parks.

America’s network of national parks represents some of the most beautiful places in the world. The U.S. National Park Service preserves the unique and diverse environments and historical landmarks that make up our country and makes them accessible to people all over the world. This agency has a mission that we all appreciate, no matter our political affiliation. Yet, during the shutdown nobody could reap the benefits of the parks and monuments. Google’s newest map service may provide a solution. No government shutdown or expensive plane ticket should stand in the way of anyone enjoying America’s national parks.

Google is taking their “Street View” technology out of the street and on to the trails, starting with San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. Google has unveiled the Trekker, a mobile image-capture platform that took the technology from the Street View cam and made it portable. As The Verge reports, a team of Google cartographers captured panoramic views of Presidio with the Trekker device mounted on backpacks and made the images live for all to see on Google maps. These pictures are “part of a suite of new national parks coming to Street View that also include Joshua Tree, Yellowstone, and Sequoia. For the past year, the Trekker has journeyed to ever more improbable locations, from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of Mount Fuji,” the article reports.

You can view the beautiful panoramic maps here and begin exploring Yellowstone, the World War II Memorial, or the Grand Tetons mountains from the comfort of your couch.

Here’s what it would look like to explore Joshua Tree National Park with Google maps:

Here is a snapshot of a walk through the National World War II Memorial:

If you are feeling more adventurous, Google invites you to borrow the Trekker yourself to map out your own journeys through our country’s national treasures. However, Google is not lending the Trekker to private individuals, instead they want to reserve the technology for explorers affiliated with “an organization such as a tourism board, non-profit, government agency, university or research group that would like to take photos with the Trekker for future inclusion on Google Maps,” Verge explains.

What does this mean for your agency?

The article points out, “Street View helped set our expectations of what a map should look like—and that no matter where we wanted to look, we could simply drop a peg on a road or trail and immediately feel like we were there.” As customers’ expectations about mapping and data visualization increase, Google’s partnership with the National Park Service should set an important example for other agencies. Fortunately, agencies do not have to re-invent the wheel in order to incorporate innovative mapping at their agencies. Google has already partnered with agencies such as Amtrak and the U.S. Census Bureau to create customized data visualization tools. Google is partnering with government to bring our country’s extensive resources to anyone with access to a computer.

What could mapping do for your agency and for your customers? Grab a Trekker and find out.

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Lorrie Andrew-Spear

I was on a five-day Rim to Rim to Rim winter hike of the Grand Canyon in November 2013 when our group saw the Google Trekker. So ‘my’ hike is the one recorded by Google! Though, nothing can replace experiencing it in person – the sun, the wind, feet in the freezing river, looking up at a zillion stars in the sky at night, the light rain and rainbows, and finally the sleet and snow at the top!

I hope the shutdown does bring the Parks to the attention of the public – and highlights the fact that they are NOT free. They cost a lot to upkeep, and, sadly, to protect from misuse, litter and vandalism. It would be great if everyone honored the great outdoors as they should, with Leave No Trace principles. But until we stop littering with cigarette butts, water bottles, candy wrappers – and yes, human waste, tromping off trails to destroy sensitive habitat, carving our initials in trees and painting them on rocks, and harassing wildlife, someone will have to protect the National Parks – or close them if we can’t. I appreciate the hard work the National Park Service does, and to say that we should have just opened the doors to all the Parks during the shutdown and let everyone in to do whatever they please there, does the NPS a disservice, by de-valuing the work they do every day to make the Parks safe, clean and accessible for all of us.