How "Land for People" Science, Data, and Technology are Driving Big Impacts for a National Non-profit

Breece Robertson, VP, Director of Planning and GIS, The Trust for Public Land
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Breece Robertson, VP, Director of Planning and GIS, The Trust for Public Land

Breece Robertson, VP, Director of Planning and GIS, The Trust for Public Land

16 years ago, I was the first GIS hire at The Trust for Public Land—a national nonprofit that creates parks and protects land for people to enjoy across the United States.

Today I manage a team of 40 GIS and planning professionals and consultants. Our use of GIS and technology is embedded into and guides every aspect of our organization and mission delivery—protecting the lands people love, creating and maintaining funding for public lands, leveraging big data analytics in guiding resource allocation and driving our key strategies and goals. We are celebrating many achievements—most recently, building the first national, authoritative database of local and urban parks.

How did The Trust for Public Land transform from one GIS hire to an award-winning, industry-leading team that makes a meaningful difference? The technology evolved becoming both more powerful and more affordable providing new avenues to explore data. But even more importantly, I was aided by Will Rogers, President and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, and Jack Dangermond, CEO of Esri—visionary leaders who recognized early on how GIS could help the organization more directly achieve its land-for-people mission—both by measuring the impact of our work as well as using big data to identify specifically where the organization’s work was needed most in the United States.

The whole field of conservation was more reactive when I started at The Trust for Public Land in 2001. We were saving land and building parks in areas that we knew needed them based on our long-time knowledge, relationships, and experience in the places we worked, but we did not have the data we needed to be truly strategic and proactive in our approach. Which community truly has the greatest need for parks and open spaces? How can resource allocation be justified through measurable metrics? Did the investment have the intended impact?

The Trust for Public Land has always prioritized equity in park access—meaning that the organization strives to build parks in the communities that need them most—from neighborhood parks to national parks. But how do you measure need? It is a complex issue. That is where GIS analysis helps us zero in on the places with the highest population density, lowest household income, greatest number of children and seniors, and biggest public health challenges. And when we are working with a specific neighborhood to build a park, we look at additional factors including traffic, sidewalks, public transportation, crime rates and access to healthy food. GIS helps us determine exactly where in a certain community we should build a park so that the most people can use it safely. Our GIS analyses now drives the organization’s decisions around which specific communities in the nation to focus our resources and time. As the technology evolves, we are constantly finding more ways to ask questions of the data. Leveraging big data is helping The Trust for Public Land to have a greater and more meaningful impact in its work across the country.

The organization’s vision is to build a park within a 10-minute walk of every person in every American city, starting with the areas of greatest need. But we haven’t had a way to truly measure the scope of the problem we are trying to solve—that is, in the nation as a whole, how many people live within a 10-minute walk of a park and how many do not? How can we solve a problem if we cannot even measure or describe it? The data and methods just didn’t exist—so we built them.

Our team has spent the past years gathering spatial data on local and urban parks from 14,000 cities and towns across the country, encompassing over 80 percent of America’s population. We built models, tools, and code to dive deeply into data metrics. We brought all that data together into a tool called ParkServe®—the first free, digital, online, comprehensive urban parks platform. Now that the data are all in one place, we know precisely how many people have easy access to a park, at any scale, from national down to the neighborhood level. Each year we continue to add park data, fine tune analytics, and grow the database and platform to ensure delivery of meaningful information to decision makers in local communities to leverage their park investments to areas of greatest need.

We have collected the data and provide it online for free, and created analytical tools that are simple for everybody to use—there are no limits to the questions you can ask. Doctors even use it to find parks near their patients’ homes, so they can write prescriptions for people to exercise outside. There is a function that allows you to draw a shape anywhere on the map, then hit “Go,” and it will tell you—if you were to build a park in that shape—how many people live within a 10-minute walk. The tool will enable anyone from city officials and urban planners to students and grassroots neighborhood activists to envision and advocate for a park in their neighborhood.

I see it all the time: when people are talking about concepts and places, everyone has their own idea of where the problem is or what should be protected and where. But when you throw a map down on the table, it brings everyone together. They start getting on the same page and creating a shared vision of what they want their community to look like, and how they want to tackle those problems. Maps break down barriers and give us perspective to be able to understand our world and each other better.

It requires patience, curiosity and the understanding of changing business practices of an organization to effectively use GIS technology in an ever changing world. Keeping a keen eye on how we can use data, science and technology to move the organization towards our goals has resulted in GIS being a driver of change in the organization.

What does the future hold? Next up for my team is using anonymized cell phone data and social media to estimate park and public land usage. We are also leveraging Esri’s Network Analyst and Business Analyst market research data to estimate what access people have to the places where they want to recreate close to home or far away and the types of preferred recreation. We are also developing ways to leverage both passively and actively collected community-generated data. We continue to evolve and tune out our enterprise GIS “Land for People” platform. And I am excited about gathering an advisory group of technology professionals from across sectors to hone our strategies and encourage us to think bigger and more broadly. If you are interested in using your data technology capability to make positive change in your neighborhood and nationwide, we want to hear from you! Intelligently leveraging GIS and technology is a game changer for organizations striving to have a positive impact.

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