Supporting Digital Conservation through Mediated Communication on the Appalachian Trail
Patel, Jaitun Vijaybhai
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Spanning 14 states in the northeast United States, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a popular destination for outdoor recreation, with thousands of individuals attempting to thru-hike the AT every year. For its scenic views and accessibility from the cities, the AT is experiencing a record number of visitors raising concerns about the sustainability of the trail. Many trail organizations manage the AT to reduce the visitor impact on the outdoors. In this research, I study the role of information and communication technologies in promoting collaboration between these trail agencies and visitors. I identify the need for a formal communication channel between the stakeholders by examining the existing information-sharing practices of hikers and trail managers through social media analysis, interviews, and a design workshop. I present the design of an online discussion platform, the SmarTrail board, and conduct a field usability study with two AT trail clubs to evaluate the platform. Findings from the study reveal that centralized direct communication and streamlined information can support trail management on the AT by promoting collaboration within the trail community. The research paves the path for future research into the design of ICTs for driving nature conservation goals.
General Audience Abstract
The Appalachian Trail (AT) in the northeast of the United States spreads across 14 states. It is accessible from many regional urban centers, offering recreational opportunities to thousands of individuals every year. It is also a popular site for thru-hiking, an endeavor to hike the trail from end to end in a year. Such popularity and accessibility to the trail put pressure on the natural resources, raising concerns about the sustainability of the trail. Management of the trail deals with minimizing the resource impact while preserving the trail experiences of the visitors. Thirty trail clubs maintain separate sections of the AT, and a number of trail organizations work together to manage the trail. The core of this management relies on the collaboration of these trail agencies with each other and the visitors. As communication is central to collaborations in everyday life and for the trail, I explore the practices and possibilities for information sharing and communication on the AT. Digital conservation refers to the technological developments that support and forward nature conservation goals. As the pristine environment of the trails and the AT are not barred from the reach of digital technology, the prevalence of smartphones among visitors presents opportunities for information and communication technologies (ICTs) to support the digital conservation of the trail. In this research, I study digital technology use among hikers and trail managers on the AT, particularly for information sharing. By analyzing comments on Reddit, conducting interviews with the AT trail managers, and organizing a workshop with long-distance hikers, I highlight the need for direct communication between these stakeholders. I present the design of an online discussion board called the SmarTrail platform as a formal communication channel between hikers and trail managers and evaluate it with two trail clubs on the AT. The results from the evaluation offer several use cases of mediated communication, highlighting its need and potential in supporting trail management on the AT. Centralized and formal communication can lead to effective trail management by engaging visitors in trail management, improving volunteer management for the clubs, and enabling knowledge sharing and coordination between the trail agencies. With design considerations for improving human-nature interaction and simplifying the available information for visitors and trail management authorities, this study informs the design of ICTs for trail environments that would forward the digital conservation goals on the AT.
- Masters Theses