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Smarter Parks in the Park District of Oak Park

Posted on April 3, 2017


This blog post is by Ed Krafcik with Soofa. Ed and Bobbi Nance with the Park District of Oak Park teamed up and wrote a case study to showcase the ways that the Park District and Soofa are co-innovating. 


With the abundance of new technologies available for and startup companies interested to partner with local governments, there has emerged a decision paralysis which inhibits city leaders to take action quickly and effectively on any one innovation project. This is only natural; after all with so much available on the market in terms of technologies and ideas, and with little evidence to show what works and why, it is reasonably challenging for city leaders to decide where to invest when the upside and downside are not yet fully measurable.

In this sneak peek into a case study from the Park District of Oak Park, IL, we profile how the Park District is collaborating with us. By working together in a highly collaborative and iterative manner, both organizations achieve their goals simultaneously while maximizing the value the new technology provides to the citizens of Oak Park.

This case study provides a working example for how innovative public private projects can succeed and offers advice for what to look for in a partnership with a startup company and how best to manage the risk.

The Park District of Oak Park first contacted Soofa in March of 2016 looking for ways it could count the number of people who use its parks with sensor technology instead of counting manually by hand. Specifically, its goals were to compare the pedestrian use of its parks to inform capital planning decisions, measure the success of event programming and marketing activities, and tell a fuller story of how its parks are used and just how valuable they are to the community.

As Bobbi Nance, Senior Manager of Strategy and Innovation at the Park District of Oak Park described:

“At any park and recreation agency, the most popular service utilized by the community is open space, including parks and playgrounds. Unfortunately park use is also one of the hardest things for park providers to measure. The technology in Soofa products was appealing to us as a data-driven organization because it allowed us for the first time to have consistent data about how our parks are being used, all while providing the added benefit of free solar-powered charging stations to our park visitors.”

Soofa makes smart outdoor furniture, like park benches that use solar power to provide phone charging for the public and sensor data collection for public agencies and local governments.The Park District is one of Soofa’s first smarter parks beta partners, meaning it engaged in a pilot project with the intention of co-creating a technology product that would closely meet its needs.

The network also includes agencies like NYC Parks, Prince George’s County, MD Parks and Recreation, Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, and dozens of other forward thinking city departments and agencies. You can read more about the Park District’s installation in this Chicago Tribune article and learn more about how they engaged their community with the new technology by designing a fun QR code scavenger hunt called SpotTheSoofa.

Nance further illustrated how being a beta partner has gone and what the results have been to date.

“In the first six months, we’ve already been able to spot differences in usage patterns in the four parks where a Soofa Core was installed.  And we are starting to see how park visitation is impacted by rentals, holidays, weather, construction, as well as the number of attendees at a special event or number of people that take advantage of temporary offerings like outdoor ice rinks or art installations.”

What type of data and how does it get used?

Pedestrian count data is provided to the Park District of Oak Park in comma-separated value files which provide the Park District flexibility to study how park use is impacted by events, weather, and more. Nance imports this data into her agency-wide dashboard which is powered by iDashboards.

The dashboard enabled all sorts of very interesting correlations including how temperature and events impact park use, and it is able to evaluate the success of different marketing strategies and tactics by knowing how many people come out based on a particular marketing initiative or advertised event.

While not every city or agency is using a dashboard as comprehensively as the Park District of Oak Park, the main lesson to be taken from this example is that being able to correlate data is crucial. When thinking about or comparing different technology products, services, or companies, cities should ask tough questions about how data sets can be correlated with others, how open a particular data set is, meaning how easy it is to access and share, and how flexible and adaptive it is.

The Park District’s plans moving forward for how it will incorporate and continue to tie Soofa data back to meaningful outcomes

The wealth of data gathered by Soofa’s sensors in the four district parks across Oak Park is only beginning to be tapped into. The project has been live for nine months with plans for expansion underway to increase the total number of sensors in the Park District’s parks. Further data uses that will be explored in the coming months include:

  • Use pedestrian traffic data to improve park operations.
  • Inform capital improvement schedules based on knowing how often different parks are actually being used, to ultimately save money on excessive improvements.
  • Become more efficient in offering and pricing permits for events.
  • Sync up with nearby business improvement districts and share the data to be able to quantify how public programming impacts park use and neighborhood activity in general.
  • Measure the impact of park improvement projects by knowing how many more people come out to the park after the improvements are complete.

Knowing pilot project goals and aligning stakeholders early accelerated the innovation process and drove successful outcomes

The original idea to bring Soofa to the Park District of Oak Park was initiated in March 2016 by Bobbi Nance to her team via the Park District’s internal Wiki page where everyone shares innovative ideas. In just five months later Soofa technology was installed in four Park District parks. How did this happen so fast? Some recommendations from the Park District of Oak Park on how to innovative efficiently include:

  • Figuring out early if you want to start with a pilot project or wide spread deployment and aligning all internal stakeholders accordingly.
  • Insulate innovation projects from traditional processes and funding sources.
  • Don’t miss out on the value and the opportunity that comes from the innovation itself, like being able to co-develop a product that really meets your needs.

To learn more and see data visualizations prepared by the Park District of Oak Park, read the full case study here.

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