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L.A. County Parks and Rec Using Tech Solutions, Seeks More

Mohammed Al Rawi, CIO for the sprawling Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation District, has been in his current job for just six months, but he has a big goal. “I want to change the way IT is perceived,” Al Rawi says. “I want to change it from the idea of IT as a service provider to a business partner.”

Mohammed Al Rawi, CIO for the sprawling Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation District, has been in his current job for just six months, but he has a big goal.

“I want to change the way IT is perceived,” Al Rawi says. “I want to change it from the idea of IT as a service provider to a business partner.”

Al Rawi, 34, oversees all things tech for an agency with 2,700 employees, 210 miles of trails, 70,000 acres and 182 recreational sites. And he’s intent on transforming the agency’s IT culture one tree, one trail and one swimming pool at a time.

“Add a voice to the tree, add a voice to the pool, and it will tell you what’s going on,” he says. He means it literally.

As part of a pilot program, his agency is working with Cisco and AT&T, among others, on bringing technology into nature in a way that he says will make life sweeter and safer for those visiting L.A. County’s myriad recreational sites. It comes down to four parts:

If a tree falls and no one hears it …

“Trees are one of the largest assets we have in county parks. We have thousands of trees across our 182 sites,” Al Rawi explained. “And as you know, trees represent big liability/risk, with many trees falling and causing unfortunate damages.

“We are going to implement soil sensors, wind sensors and video analytics to monitor those trees. Those sensors will provide data to predict a tree falling before it happens. Additionally, it will add a huge level of efficiency, as we currently check tree health at the county by sending arborists to each location.”

Sending out an SOS

With the sprawling nature of Los Angeles County’s parks, it’s not unusual for a hiker to wander off, get lost, or perhaps fall and suffer an injury. And in a remote valley or canyon, there may be no cell signal with which to summon help or search-and-rescue. 

One solution that Al Rawi likes: “Trail SOS stations” over Cisco's "LoRa" or LoRaWAN — a low-power, long-distance wireless network that “will allow us to implement SOS stations along the trail route,” Al Rawi said. The network mesh would enable rescuers to triangulate a downed hiker’s location.

Pooling resources against drowning

“To go swimming, you need a swimsuit and maybe some goggles,” Al Rawi said. “What if I told you that for $25, there was neckwear — a necklace — that could save your child’s life? It’s a no-brainer.” Such technology is already in use across Europe, and Al Rawi expects that it’ll catch on in the States, as well.

“Using video analytics, we will be able to detect drownings quickly and alert lifeguards onsite instantly,” he said. “This will help reduce the unfortunate drowning incidents we've had at our pools in the past, including two deaths in the past two years.”

Tech really is a walk in the park

The fourth element of Al Rawi’s plan could include using Cisco’s Connected Mobile Experience (CMX) technology to boost park attendance, smooth out spikes in park usage and sweeten the experience for park-goers. The idea is that a park visitor’s cellphone would enable the county to record the time and place of the park visited, as well as the duration and frequency of such visits. Having better metrics on park demand and usage allows the county to more efficiently deploy staff.

Al Rawi said he is talking with Discovery Agents, a Canadian-based AR game developer, about devising specific tech games to boost attendance at under-used parks and during non-peak hours. The idea is more efficiency for the county, and a high-quality experience for the resident. Discovery already has such games in place in other localities: 

“I wanted to prove that IT can make everything better,” the CIO said. “IT can make your life easier, not more complicated. We can make the parks more accessible but safer.

Al Rawi said AT&T, which has worked with San Diego and some other municipalities on a “smart cities” initiative, has expressed an interested in talking with LA County Parks and Rec about some of his ideas. He’s sold on Cisco’s LoRa and CMX technology, and he said he’d love to hear from other vendors as well.

“We’re not limited,” he said. “I’m open.”

Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.