No app development experience? No problem! Civic innovators Amy and Stuart Ferguson saw a local challenge: how can we make it easier for people, especially first time users, to navigate and enjoy the Rivanna Trail? Their answer: leverage technology to create an app … and despite having no app development experience … they did just that. We believe this project and other types of civic innovation has the potential to improve our community in meaningful ways and we’re eager to support and promote the new tool. So we asked Amy and Stuart a series of questions about their journey to inform and inspire! If you know of other civic innovators who we should profile, please let us know!
Civic Innovation Spotlight – Rivanna Trails
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How does your app/webtool help solve a problem in the community?
Amy: The Rivanna Trail system – an urban network of trails circumnavigating the city of Charlottesville – can be difficult and intimidating to navigate. The goal of the Rivanna Trails app is to improve accessibility to this community-wide trail system. The app helps people to easily find access points by identifying parking lots and trail heads. It also provides location services so that a user knows exactly where they are in relation to the trail and in which direction they are heading. We hope that providing this freely available app will give the community the confidence to explore and enjoy the unique outdoor resource that the Rivanna Trail system has to offer.
Stuart: The Rivanna Trail Foundation (RTF) wants trail users to feel as though they could get lost in nature while navigating the Rivanna Trail system – the app is intended to ensure that feeling avoids becoming a reality.
What made you decide to pursue this app/webtool?
Stuart: Around the time I was invited to join the RTF board, Amy was enrolled in a free online course offered by Esri (the leading provider of Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software) called “Do-it-Yourself Geo Apps”. The course really opened her, and by extension, my eyes to the power of geospatial apps for smart devices. Amy and I started thinking that there was a fantastic opportunity here to make a transformative impact on a small organization and the local community, by building a GIS-based app that would encourage the use of the trail by making it much easier to access and navigate.
What were the necessary components to building this app (did you need public data, expertise, support from specific people, etc)?
Amy: To build this app, we needed to 1) choose an affordable app development platform and 2) collect new, high resolution data.
First, we applied for and were accepted to the Esri Non-Profit Organization Program that provides GIS software for free with a minimal administration fee. Through this program, we were able to set up an online web map that serves as the foundation for our web app and mobile app. As an added bonus, Esri provides mobile app templates that require little to no programming to build both iOS and Android apps.
Once we had the platform selected, we then set about gathering data. We aggregated data from RTF board members and the city and county GIS websites. This initial effort served as a great baseline, but we decided that we needed more granular information. For this, we turned to a free iOS app called “Trails – Outdoor GPS Logbook” to create a new, high resolution GPS track and collect feature point data along the entire 20-mile loop. Data collection is still a work in progress as we continue to map trail spurs and add trail features.
What would you say to others looking to pursue a similar project?
Stuart: Three things: 1) identify the problem your project intends to solve, 2) be pragmatic with the solution you develop, and 3) establish a reasonable and achievable timeline. The fulfillment you will experience in slogging through a project of this type is maximized by the effectiveness in which your end-product solves the problem. In this case, Amy and I had more than once been lost on the trail, which elucidated a clear problem that the app could help solve. As Amy dug into developing the app, we were both tempted to add bells and whistles that, while alluring, did not move forward our chief aim of helping to guide trail-users. Ignoring these unnecessary features was key to building a streamlined solution in a timely manner. Which brings us back to number three – recognize that unforeseeable barriers will emerge, delaying your launch date. As you set your timeline, estimate how long it’d take if everything went right, then estimate how long it would take if Murphy had his way and everything went wrong. The law of averages should land you somewhere in the middle, so use that when you manage end-users expectations.
Amy: Be persistent and leverage your network. The resources and answers are out there, so be bold in pursuing them. At the start of this project, I had a solid foundation in GIS, basic understanding of programming, and absolutely no exposure to app development. Stuart and I reached out to different organizations for best practices and researched countless different platforms. Ultimately, we selected a low cost, high impact platform that capitalized on the skills we did have (GIS) and compensated for our knowledge gaps (programming/app development). We also relied on our network in Charlottesville by working with other tech-savvy RTF board members and brainstorming with UVA research faculty, the UVA Library Scholar’s Lab, and the Charlottesville Area GIS Users Group.
What’s your plan for maintaining the app? Are you looking for others to join your team?
Amy: The configuration of the Rivanna Trail network is constantly shifting according to changes in city, county, and landowner permissions and easements, so it is really important for us to have the ability to update the location of the trail quickly and efficiently. Using Esri products for all of our mapping needs has helped streamline our workflow. Updating the web map automatically updates the web app hosted on our website and the mobile app.
The RTF is always looking for new members and board members to join our team! If you are interested in supporting our organization, please send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to share anything else with our community?
Stuart: The Rivanna Trails app is still a work in progress. Looking to the future, we would like to incorporate a reporting feature to the app interface so that users can submit issues they encounter along the trail (e.g., tree limbs, trash, etc). This will help us focus our monthly work parties and keep the trail in better condition year round. We hope this app is the beginning of a broader movement in Charlottesville to improve transparency and access to community trails.