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The National Forest Service and Quantum Spatial Inc. Provide Robust Interactive Maps for Forest Visitors

All experienced outdoor enthusiasts have their tools — the equipment and the know-how necessary to maximize their adventures. Constant innovation in the geospatial field has already enhanced the outdoor enthusiast’s experience, so what happens when the National Forest Service and America’s largest independent geospatial data firm come together? A practical, innovative way to experience the outdoors. While this isn’t nearly the first time the government agency and Quantum Spatial, Inc. have collaborated, the result of this round of teamwork is something not only original, but already widely used by outdoor enthusiasts and forest rangers.

The result of the collaboration, the Interactive Visitor Map (IVM), seeks to improve the experience of National Forest visitors by providing up-to-date information on about 193 million acres of National Forest System land while simultaneously providing a resource that makes the jobs of forest rangers easier. The Interactive Visitor Map is Geographic Information Science and Technology in action.

A Planning Tool

Whether it be a ten-mile hike or a week-long excursion, any involved outdoor experience requires careful planning and preparation. Often, the quality of the adventure mirrors the quality of the preparation. According to Kurt Allen, Quantum Spatial’s vice president, the IVM “gives the public a convenient, easy-to-use online resource from which they can learn more about their destinations and plan their trips.” Such a resource allows campers, hikers, and other adventurers to carefully prepare for their trips, leading to better experiences and greater safety in the National Forests.

How exactly does the Interactive Visitor Map act as such a resource? It provides frequently updated information across those millions of acres of forest. With the help of a detailed legend, users can see whether roads winding through the forest are paved, gravel, dirt, or completely closed to motorized vehicles. Similarly, hiking enthusiasts can look at the map to see if their planned trail route includes highly developed trails, developed trails, minimally developed trails, unspecified trails, or historic trails.

The IVM also makes clear the boundaries between the National Forest System lands and the wilderness outside of them so that campers can ensure they’re in a safe, maintained area. In terms of lodging, the IVM indicates the number of camping areas and cabins in a given National Forest, as well as where certain mounts (ATV, dirt bike, horse, etc.) are permitted, so enthusiasts don’t heft their toys into the forests for nothing.

All these resources not only enhance the preparation and enjoyment of venturing into the outdoors, but they also provide rangers with easily accessible resources they can use to assist visitors to the National Forest lands.

Agile Adaptation

For an interactive map to truly keep pace with the changes present in nature, it needs to adapt quickly. However, that’s not quite par for the course with government agencies, which, when working with independent contractors, usually set strict parameters for a given project. For the Interactive Visitor Map, however, the National Forest Service called for agile software development in their contract with Quantum Spatial. Such a development strategy allows the project to adapt and apply improvements to the map over time, rather than be restricted by narrow limitations.

The IVM has already seen several improvements to its interface, including simpler navigation, making searches more precise and expansive, and the addition of alerts regarding severe weather and other emergencies, all to improve the user experience. But where does Quantum Spatial gather the information that leads to these improvements? According to Cherie Jarvis, eGIS practice lead at Quantum Spatial, they have been able to “improve the map’s usability and deliver richer content, based on feedback from a range of real users.”

Jarvis goes on to say that agile development paired with user feedback allows the Forest Service to “achieve its mission of quickly delivering in-demand resources to the public.” Future updates to the IVM are slated to include more precise geolocation of Tweets and an expansion of content to mobile devices, which would allow users to access the map with little or no internet access.

Social Media Friendly

While many enjoy the outdoors precisely because it removes them from society for a period, the Forest Service understands that enjoying the outdoors is primarily a social experience, even if some enthusiasts don’t recognize it as such. An individual may be the only human in miles of forest, but perhaps a friend sent them to the spot, warned them about local animals, and the individual will likely go home to share his or her experience with friends and family. The social aspect of the outdoors enhances the experience.

Through the course of updating the IVM, Quantum Spatial and the Forest Service have integrated social media connectivity. For now, the IVM supports the social media giant Twitter as well as crowd-sourced content from the outdoor app Yonder.

The Twitter posts show up on the map as thumbnails that when clicked, reveal Tweets from actual National Forest accounts. These posts not only display the beauty of the area to draw visitors, but they also often feature information relevant to anyone planning a trip. For example, the account attached to Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming includes information on suppressing fires.

Yonder, which is a photo-sharing social media app focused on the outdoors, brings the element you’d expect from social media: adventurers sharing their experiences. While the Tweets are posted primarily by the National Forest staff, the Yonder posts you’ll see on the IVM are from other outdoor enthusiasts, with their pictures geo-located and pinned to the spot from which they were taken.

Thus, the IVM becomes a hub for two social media channels, both of which seek to inform, entertain, and draw more enthusiasts out into the wild, enhancing their overall experience.

The Interactive Visitor Map is a prime example of Geographic Information Science and Technology meeting the needs of real users. GIST graduate programs seek not only to expand the education that undergraduate students receive, but they also strive to provide students with the resources and knowledge necessary to create practical solutions to real-world challenges. Visit the USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute to learn more about its Geographic Information Science and Technology Online Graduate Programs, which push the boundaries of modern spatial thinking.