CLEMSON — Clemson University and the National Park Service plan to take sometimes-lonely information out of a virtual wilderness and place it at the fingertips of the people most likely to use it.

Clemson and the National Park Service recently agreed to collaborate on a project that assembles in one place the best research, management and digital content about parks. The Open Parks Grid uses state-of-the-art Internet and computer technology to assemble information that empowers a community of people who use, manage and study parks. The pilot project is under way now at several park service southeastern sites.

The Open Parks Grid will match the right knowledge to a park manager who needs it, when he or she needs it — “just-in-time knowledge” according to Brett Wright, chairman of Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department. The Open Parks Grid also has the ability to notify managers when new information about a subject becomes available.

Clemson’s department of parks, recreation and tourism management, the university’s computing and information technology division and the R.M. Cooper Library are working with the National Park Service’s Southeast Region on the Open Parks Grid project. Development and pilot-testing of the project were initiated in the fall of 2008 and will be completed in April. The grid will utilize cyberinfrastructure developed by Clemson University computing and information-retrieval specialists to combine a specialized search engine and online library of information and artifacts with maps, educational materials and tools for the individual park communities to organize around shared park interests.

“Park managers are typically located far from other park managers and the resources that might help them better manage the natural and cultural resources within their park,” according to Chris Abbett, National Park Service assistant regional director for partnerships. “They need to quickly and efficiently tap into research, guidance and databases that will allow them to make the best management decisions for their parks.”

The Open Parks Grid enables researchers, managers and users to share knowledge across multiple systems and locations.

“Often in the parks profession, national park people aren’t talking to state parks people and state parks professionals aren’t talking to local parks people. Sometimes even within one park system, different groups of people aren’t communicating as efficiently as they could,” Wright said. “So when managers in one park find a solution to a challenge or produce a research study of significance, that knowledge frequently remains isolated because of geography or funding.”

A grid is more than an elaborate Web site. It harnesses modern computer muscle to connect information from multiple sources.

“The grid can search, classify, collect and disseminate large amounts of diverse information very quickly,” said Jill Gemmill, executive director of cyberinfrastructure technology integration with the Clemson Computing and Information Technology division. A grid gives users a sort of one-stop shopping experience for information that otherwise would require separate visits to individual Web sites. The Open Parks Grid also provides managers and researchers with the ability to share large databases and a professional networking component that allows people to find each other based on common interests related to parks.

The Open Parks Grid is being tested at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Congaree National Park, the Cowpens National Battlefield, the Ninety-Six National Historic Site and the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area. Professionals from the R.M. Cooper Library have worked with the agency to select, digitize and make available materials currently held in their archives, including historical photographs, artifacts, documents and research findings.

Clemson and the National Park Service this year plan to expand the scope of the grid to the remaining 64 parks in the service's Southeast Region, as well as to state and local parks systems in the region.

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