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On a Mission from Dog: Staffer, Dog Map Pittsburgh Parks

A Pittsburgh city staffer took it upon himself and his dog, Porter, to map the city’s recreation areas on their daily walks. With a GPS unit in tow, the pair created an open data portal residents can use to find trails.

Matt Jacob walking the trails of Pittsburgh with his dog, Porter, and pole-mounted Trimble R2 GPS.
Matt Jacob walking the trails of Pittsburgh with his dog, Porter, and pole-mounted Trimble R2 GPS.
(Matt Jacob)
One staffer in Pittsburgh, Pa., took it upon himself to collect data on the city’s public trails during the pandemic in order to improve local infrastructure access and public planning.

Experts are continuously exploring what equity-focused urban planning looks like. For example, a recent California project launched a website to inform Los Angeles County residents about the available parks and amenities. Some local governments, like that of Buffalo, N.Y., have even turned to augmented reality to bring more people into their parks.

In Pittsburgh, a particularly unique project in this realm was led by the Department of Performance and Innovation’s senior enterprise applications administrator, Matt Jacob. He mapped all of the park trails in the city with his dog, Porter, and a GPS unit.

From summer 2020 through early 2021, Jacob embarked on the data-gathering project with a Trimble R2 GPS, which can be mounted on a pole or put into a backpack — Jacob did both.

The impetus for the project came about naturally when the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone outside in 2020. With frequent community requests for information about the city’s available trails — and because Jacob was walking the trails already in his free time — he decided to bring a GPS along to help create a comprehensive trail map that included the smaller parks, greenways and extensive trail networks.

“A lot of residents aren’t even aware these places exist, or that these trails exist, and so they’re really missing out on an opportunity to kind of explore some areas of the city that they haven’t,” he explained. “So many people don’t even realize that these green spaces are open to them for recreation.”
Matt Jacob and Porter posing on a trail.
Members of the public can now access the resulting trail map from Matt Jacob and Porter’s walks.
(Matt Jacob)
After collecting data with the GPS, Jacob started the process of getting that data into a public-facing map — a labor- and resource-intensive process. It involved bringing together many of the city departments and groups that have a stake in the areas the map would highlight.

The Department of Public Safety, the Department of Public Works, CitiParks and the Department of City Planning all have some hand in maintaining or protecting these spaces. The conversation between stakeholders allowed the team to make critical decisions about whether to make certain areas public for safety or environmental reasons.

Jacob said that this public map is only the first version, and the goal is to continually improve mobile functionality and build on the available information.

“We also want to, of course, use the data for planning purposes — and ultimately, hopefully public safety purposes,” he said.

An example he gave of its possible value in this space was using signage in these areas that a caller could reference to 911 in an emergency to be located more efficiently.

The pandemic brought the need to improve public outdoor spaces to the forefront. Jacob said that knowing outdoor spaces are being used by the community encouraged the city to provide more resources for those people to access places or amenities they were not previously aware of.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.