National Park Service bringing online to the outside

The Interior Department’s National Park Service will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2016.

As part of the commemoration, NPS wants to bring new technology tools and services to national parks.

Shane Compton, the National Park Service’s associate CIO, said the first step is to work with the telecommunications carriers and their subcontractors to bring the signal into places like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park.

“We are looking to help people to pick up their own signal when they are there with their mobile device,” he said. “That may not often [be available] in those areas when you can get on the main stream, it may get a little slow so that’s where we are looking at when you are at our actual visitors center, you will need a high speed connection. So that’s where we are looking and partnering with vendors who are working with our National Park Foundation to actually help assist us. We are looking at partnering on testing new ideas. We have new tools out there that have been demonstrated at some of our national events where we have things like cellular on wheels or high-speed microwave. Some of those connectivity options as IT evolves, those technologies often get cheaper and smaller.”

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Compton said his office is evaluating what can be done and is developing a plan that by 2018, high speed connections are available at all national parks.

The reason NPS is focusing on increasing bandwidth at national parks stems from the plan to add more online content about the historical and cultural sites it manages.

Compton said NPS wants to provide visitors more content — whether photos or text or maps — about the monument or park.

“We are asking the parks, our regions to come up with why you think WiFi might actually be better for the customer experience. It may not be a better customer experience to hike out in the backcountry, but if you are in a visitors’ center or looking at monument, that is where that might be beneficial. We are trying to make some conscious decisions on where it will be the best for the public.”

Compton said he’s working closely with the mission areas to ensure a better customer experience across all areas of the park service.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis launched the Call to Action plan in 2011 in preparation for the centennial in 2016. Compton said many of the IT efforts to focus on the customer are coming from that strategy.

“That connection between IT and the customer exists before they get to the park, and they have that expectation for it,” he said. “So IT is becoming more and more important for the customer experience. I can tell you the complaints we get when somebody goes in to a park and finds a hotel doesn’t have high-speed WiFi so they can do their work while they are on vacation. It’s an expectation now so IT has to make sure it’s there.”

He said his office is connecting park rangers with teachers and students through online chats, and providing a teachers’ portal where there are lesson plans and other information available to educate students on historical and culture monuments.

“We do a lot of mobile and data, so if we have a database for like recreation, we often provide to industry. So one of our jobs is to get geospatial information service data to locate something in the Park Service,” Compton said.

But it’s not just about the external customers. Compton is focused on internal technology improvements as well.

He said NPS is considering moving more and more sites and applications to the cloud.

“NPS.gov is one of the largest federal websites. People hit it every day. They may not hit the home page, but they will do a Google search for a park and be on our site. Imagine a million people on the website at one time on one day; the cloud is perfect that,” he said. “We are looking at other systems like Volunteer.gov and other applications and permit systems to go onto the cloud. We just think it’s a matter of time before we move a lot of what we have to the cloud.”

Compton said NPS’ goal is to move off platforms and current servers and put those applications into the cloud as part of a normal refresh life cycle.

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