Technological insights for outdoor recreation

Brian Macaulay of the Outdoor Recreation Network, blogs about how technology is being used to improve and enhance people's enjoyment of outdoor recreation.

In March 2016, the Outdoor Recreation Network, in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, hosted a one day seminar exploring the potential of digital data for research on outdoor activities.  The growing use of data in both quantitative and qualitative research methods provided the inspiration for the seminar.

The spread of digital technologies has resulted in an interconnected network which is generating staggering amounts of data. To contextualise, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has highlighted that we create as much data in two days as we have since the dawn of civilisation. Considering he made the projection in 2010it is likely that this rate has increased.

The explosion of information impacts the way we study and our understanding of the dynamics of systems. It makes possible the application of quantitative methods to identify underlying patterns which are rich in variety and more reflective of the context of the focus (themes more reminiscent of qualitative methods).

The increased openness to share data on tracking activities was a key theme of the seminar. The audience heard from the Quantified Self, a movement whose members incorporate technology into tracking inputs such as food or quality of surroundings, states such as moods or blood oxygen and how these affect performance. In addition to giving the individual data, the sharing of these enable a valuable and cost effective means of wider data collection. The proliferation of wearable devices such as Fitbit, as well as data sharing apps such as Strava, provide an increasing quality of data from activities.

The value gained from harnessing peoples’ willingness to share data was highlighted in two projects – the Ramblers Big Path Watch and Reward your World BetterPoints app. Within the Ramblers project, volunteers adopted a section of the national network and provided details of condition through the smartphone app. The inclusion of geo-location among other data provided an opportunity to integrate into GIS software to allow links to other areas of interest. In the case of BetterPoints, it works by providing a payoff for adopting a certain behaviour or undertaking an activity. By using a digital currency, redeemable locally, the app captured the activity in space and time, with users being rewarded based on these.

These two projects highlight the potential for using the technology in smartphones to gather large amounts of data at a low marginal cost (without underestimating initial investments in building and marketing the apps).

During the seminar, delegates were then given a hands-on demonstration by researchers at Sheffield Hallam on a variety of innovative technologies for measuring activities. They were shown the results from field lab experiments as well as being given the opportunity to try out some of the new wearable devices.

The seminar concluded with two presentations on how organisations can extract value from digital data; Canal River Trust highlighted a range of exploratory technologies and data collection methods being explored to help the Trust manage the 2,000 miles of rivers and canals under their control. From augmented reality for locating underground networks to devices that measure vibrations from using power tools, the Trust is bringing new innovations to the historic network. Ordinance Survey presented the successes through its Geovation project. Geovation is about using geography to help improve and develop communities; it rewards innovative applications of open spatial data to address key challenges. For example, Growing Routes is a movable heatmap of Wales which provides users with accessible information regarding the proximity of facilities along the Wales Coast Path. By integrating OS data with location data for key Points of Interest, the application can enhance the users’ experiences and add value to the sustainable management of the Path.

The seminar highlighted the many ways in which organisations from across sectors can harness technology to improve understanding and develop more efficient ways of working to further enhance a participant’s experience.