CityFixer

California's Hiking Trails Just Got Safer Thanks to a Crowdsourced App

In time for spring break exploring, Caliparks hits “mute” on unauthorized trails.

Image AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Visitors take pictures of wildflowers in Death Valley, California. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The web app* Caliparks has had one central goal since it launched in early 2015: Attract younger, more diverse Californians to their beleaguered yet magnificent public parks system.

Now it’s got a fresh new redesign. Besides including maps, links, and search-filters for different activities, Caliparks now serves as a clearinghouse for millions of Instagram posts tagged across California’s 11,826 local, regional, state, and national parks. (Previously, it also drew posts from Flickr, Foursquare, and Twitter, which somewhat cluttered the visual experience.) Better than ever, the app shows off the beauty of California’s natural lands, and how people actually use them.

“It’s important for people to see people like themselves in public spaces in order to feel welcome there,” Jon Christensen, a partner at Stamen, the mapping firm that designed the app in partnership with the environmental communication agency GreenInfo Network, told CityLab last year.

But in its first iteration, Caliparks may have been a little too inviting. Because the app drew map data from the volunteer-edited OpenStreetMap, some of the trails it displayed were actually unauthorized by park officials. These “social trails” are often created by hikers wandering off the beaten path, or by folks using tools to intentionally carve out new paths or biking terrain. When other people follow these trails, it can be risky business.

“It can lead to erosion, impact species, and threaten wildlife habitat,” Nick Salcedo, a watershed manager in Marin County, told the Marin Independent Journal. “People can also get lost. We don’t patrol those trails as part of what we do.”

Park managers have tried to delete these trails from OpenStreetMap, but they often pop back up, thanks to OSM’s thousands of well-meaning mappers who work from aerial or satellite imagery. “The problem is the trail really exists,” Christensen tells CityLab. “So enthusiasts of open mapping—who believe the map should reflect the world—will put it back on the map.”

With the relaunched web app, developers at Stamen, GreenInfo Network, and Trailhead Labs essentially “muted” the data that identifies the errant trails by tagging them with a code that differentiates them from authorized paths.

“By retagging them, we make the map more accurate and we leave a trail, so to speak, that future mappers”—or managers, researchers, and rangers working in the parks—“can use to understand what we did,” Dan Rademacher, the executive director of GreenInfo Network, tells CityLab.

It’s a small, simple solution for one local app. But in the age of socially generated everything, this kind of fix could have positive implications for other types of crowdsourced geographical information, and the people, animals, and plants affected by it. Google, for one, might take a hint, since its maps also reflect “social trails” to an extent, risking user safety, natural habitat, and pissing off park managers and property owners the world over.

Meanwhile, Californians can enjoy a safer, more accurate digital gateway to their beautiful parklands—just in time for spring break.

*This post has been updated to clarify that Caliparks is a web app, accessed through an Internet browser.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.