We were able to bring the skills of our staff up to do this work in-house. We broaden our public engagement for other initiatives and now are moving forward with equity work that aligns with state goals.
Washington State Maps Recreation Inventory
Washington State is known for its diverse opportunities to enjoy the outdoors during all four seasons. From its rare prairies to the forests that give rise to its moniker, the Evergreen State has diverse landscapes that support a variety of recreation activities in every season. Founded in 1964, the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) is a small state agency that helps lead coordination among its various partners through grant administration and technical assistance.
RCO now has nearly 30 grant programs and will award $465 million in grant funding for the 2023-2025 biennial budget cycle. In addition to its statewide advocacy, RCO is responsible for complying with the federal mandate from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to prepare a statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (SCORP). Every five years, each state creates a SCORP—strategic plans to help guide investment in recreational assets and develop public outdoor recreation spaces. This requires a statewide understanding of what recreational assets exist, regardless of what jurisdictional entity manages them; maintaining this information is a major challenge.
The recreational data is inherently spatial, including polygonal boundaries of parks, the linear features of trails and greenways, and points of interest. For each asset, residents, RCO's recreation partners, and the state legislature require varying levels of detail and information. Updating this data and presenting it in a way that suited a diverse audience became challenging. To accommodate these needs, RCO needed a modern, efficient, and spatial way to communicate this data.
Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO)
Every five years, RCO collaborates with recreation partners to complete a statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan to protect, enhance, and conserve public outdoor spaces. The plan follows a federal mandate to comply with the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Leveraging geographic information system technology, RCO developed a hub site to consolidate information about the state's recreation areas. The hub site includes maps that display points of interest and opportunities for outdoor recreation; feedback from residents surveyed about what they want to see in recreational spaces; inventory of public lands and recreation facilities; and dashboards that monitor service quality and distribution.
Adopting a geographic technology framework gave RCO the opportunity to increase public engagement, doubling a previous effort made in 2017, which had produced over 6,000 responses to resident surveys.
In the past, data—received from recreation partners to complete the SCORP—was displayed on a static website with documents and spreadsheets. These were cumbersome to update, and they did not capture all the information needed to accurately represent the full diversity of Washington's recreational assets.
To update this information for the 2023 SCORP, RCO had been contracting with community organizations and universities to facilitate engagement surveys, but these were costly. Additionally, statewide data collection and collaboration techniques from multiple agencies and organizations lacked standardization, and the data was not always concise or accurate. Resident engagement only reflected a portion of what residents and visitors were doing in recreation areas. These challenges made it difficult for RCO to discern gaps in access to recreation opportunities and see where to prioritize investments that would provide the most value to underserved communities while protecting the states' abundance of natural and cultural resources.
"Collaboration has been a huge challenge. One of the pillars and main priorities of our new SCORP plan is to address the balance of increasing demand of public recreation spaces with protection of natural and cultural resources in the state," said Ben Donatelle, policy specialist, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.
Prior to 2016, RCO did not use any commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology solutions to assist in collecting data from statewide partners. RCO—which has grown from 65 employees in 2016 to 83 today—saw an opportunity to implement configurable geographic information system (GIS) technology across the organization. This allowed staff to scale their ability to map and inventory a wide variety of information in greater detail and with increased quality control. Across RCO's service areas, staff were able to visualize and explore what activities were being offered to residents and visitors. This results in faster, more confident decision-making, supported by the automatic components of RCO's grant and program management operations and the data collection that staff require. To achieve this, the RCO deployed a COTS software solution. Implementing GIS tools like ArcGIS Survey123 allowed residents to provide feedback to RCO on community needs and allowed RCO to consolidate data from statewide recreation partners. Using ArcGIS Hub, RCO could provide interactive maps of the state's recreation sites, activities, and amenities in one dynamic hub site.
"We were able to bring the skills of our staff up to do this work in-house. We broaden our public engagement for other initiatives and now are moving forward with equity work that aligns with state goals," said Donatelle.
"We were able to do the first GIS inventory of major public lands in Washington State," said Greg Tudor, chief information officer and information technology manager.
Being equitable is not just about identifying where underserved communities are, it's also about leveraging tools that are easy for communities to interact with and providing information in a transparent and intuitive way. RCO used GIS to achieve this.
With ArcGIS Survey123, between 2017 and 2020, the RCO doubled its resident engagement efforts as well as the feedback it got from survey results. RCO received 12,000 responses from multiple surveys. With seamless integration of ArcGIS Survey123 into the hub site, staff were able to disseminate the results of the surveys in near real time, providing greater transparency around the SCORP process. "One of the biggest advantages of doing the surveys is that we can be really transparent with the results—we can display the survey results directly and immediately after they close," said Donatelle.
In 2021, the success of RCO's implementation of GIS caught the attention of the Coalition for Open Government. The coalition was impressed by the Public Lands Inventory, a searchable, interactive map and dashboard that display all recreation and conservation lands owned by cities, counties, and state and federal agencies and provide an additional map that shows state-owned land by category—recreation, habitat, conservation, or revenue generation. The Washington chapter of the Coalition for Open Government awarded RCO the Key Award for making this data open and accessible to the public.
The tools were easy to use due to their configurability and integration across the ArcGIS system and their ability to automate so many components of the workflow. Now, nearly 90 percent of RCO staff leverage GIS tools to facilitate their mission, lowering costs with increased efficiency and greater standardization of data.
RCO plans to continue to use GIS tools to advance this work. "The 2023 SCORP was really our first test for implementing and deploying the [hub] site, and that was really our biggest success in terms of broad public engagement and storytelling," said Donatelle.
Tudor concurred, saying, "We get a lot of requests from the legislature to investigate and develop new policy, and this is a really good tool for continuing to do outreach."