Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Sean Parker’s Penance – A California Beaches Mobile App

by Matt Rosenberg October 15th, 2014

It sounded like deja vu all over again: more bad news for beach-hoarding magnates who may employ gates, landscaping, fake garages and fake trespassing signs restricting access to public lands. A California court in late September ruled against Vinod Khosla, Sun Microsystems co-founder and clean energy investor, saying he couldn’t keep a locked gate to Martin’s Beach, reached along his Half Moon Bay property. Then Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill turning the screws on Khosla further. Still, the much-publicized case is but a speck of sand on the beach. There are 1,150 access points along the state’s 1,270-mile Pacific coastline, and many are tricky to find or use. The good news: fairly soon there’ll be a new way around that.

The Sean Parker connection

For years Californians and visitors have used the popular California Coastal Access Guide, published in hard copy by the University of California Press. Some 118,770 copies have been sold since it launched in 1981. Now it’s in Kindle too. Nice, but really, what about a mobile app? As it happens, The Open Standard has confirmed that the California Coastal Commission will be debuting a free mobile app with statewide public coastal access data. The dev team is provided by tech entrepreneur Sean Parker – formerly of Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook, and currently an investor in Spotify.

It’s part of settlement Parker made with the state for unpermitted construction on a Big Sur campground for his deluxe wedding on June 1 of last year. News reports had indicated that in addition to forking over $2.5 million for conservation non-profits, Parker’s help on an educational video or some sort of public lands access app would also be part of the deal. But buried on pages 58 and 59 of the 156-page settlement documents packet were the details and timeline of the app option, which we’ve now learned that Parker has chosen over a video. Thankfully.

App delivery by next June

The mobile app option will involve using the state’s “coastal access point data” integrated with an existing mapping app or a new custom mapping app, and is to show beach entries statewide “in proximity to the users’ locations.” Delivery is required by June, 2015.

“I think people will love it. It will be one more tool for people to get out there and enjoy their public beaches, and it will be able to be used for trip planning, not just at your immediate location,” said Linda Locklin, the commission’s Coastal Access Program Manager, from her Santa Cruz office.

Commission spokesperson Sarah Christie added, “We’re really excited to be working with the technology team Sean Parker has put together. This is about ease of access. We’re as anxious to get it launched as people are to use it.” So stay tuned, and be clear, there’s nothing out there yet to go download. But it’s coming, and you’ll be sure to hear about that here.

Parker spokesman Michael Polansky declined repeated interview requests. But Al Wanger, the commission’s Deputy Director of Information Technology and Water Quality, said the agency will take ownership of the mobile app after delivery of the initial version for iPhone from Parker’s team, and then over time seek to develop an Android version.

Mobile app will complement open-sourced mobile web site

The commission is building a mobile-friendly open source Web app of the Coastal Guide, and the front-end code will be on GitHub; the locational data can be read-accessed now for use by developers via the State’s coastal access Google Fusion Tables, which are updated as needed.

Wanger said Parker’s mobile app for the state will complement this nicely, because most of the California coast south of Monterey and north of Bodega Bay lacks mobile web connectivity. The mobile app being developed by Parker’s team will allow users to access cached data on beach access. Though the state will control the mobile app as part of the settlement with Parker, it’s not yet clear if that source code will be open, said Wanger.

The convergence of the California “open coast” push and mobile technology is rooted in history. California voters in 1972 approved Proposition 20 leading to creation of the coastal commission and its mandate to maximize public access to public tidelands. The use of those lands was guaranteed by Article 10, Section 4 of the state constitution, but continuing development complicated things.

We owe David Geffen

A case in point: DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen. After a long dispute with the state, in 2005 he agreed to let commoners back onto the public lands of Carbon Beach, or “Billionaire’s Beach,” adjacent to his Malibu home. This helped plant the whole tetchy issue of coastal access even more firmly in the public’s consciousness. Around the time of a similar settlement last year between the state and another “Billionaire’s Beach” homeowner, open lands activists unveiled an iPhone app called Our Malibu Beaches.

Some of that work, and a subsequent Android version issued this spring were funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The Spanish-language version, Nuestras Playas De Mailbu, came this summer. Our Malibu Beaches is free; and has north of 42,000 downloads. Collaborating on the project were California environmental writer, artist and activist Jenny Price, currently a Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities at the Princeton Environmental Institute; and Escape Apps co-founder Ben Adair.

A mission suited to mobile

Speaking from Princeton, Price told The Open Standard, “I’ve been super-pleased to see what this app has done. These beaches are very hard to find and use. Accessways are scant and obscure. It’s hard to park. There are fake boulders, fake driveways blocking paths, and on the beaches, lots of illegal, inaccurate signage. You need to be able to find the beaches and then to feel okay once you’re there.” The app’s users are even able to learn on which beaches they can use not only the wet sand, but also the dry sand, closer to residences. (A lot, it turns out.)

Price added, “You need an extraordinary amount of information, and the app is really well-suited to conveying that data.”

“People really want a spotlight shined on any place where public access is being denied or public space is hidden”

Adair, who’s been working a gig as interim managing editor of New American Media’s popular radio show Marketplace, and has taught at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said, “I’ve been blown away at how engaged people were with this issue. People really want a spotlight shined on any place where public access is being denied or public space is hidden. These lands are part of our shared heritage, held in the public interest. That more than 42,000 people have downloaded the Malibu app, which covers a limited area, says a lot.”

He added, “During the Kickstarter campaign we got supportive comments from Lebanon, Israel, Thailand and all over the U.S.; people saying they had the same issues where they lived.”

The Oregon example

While retaining public access to public beaches in California has required technology coupled with regulatory oversight, Oregon has what’s been called “the best protected, most widely accessible beaches in the country” because of something engineered in 1913. Oregon Governor Oswald West convinced the state legislature to approve a bill setting aside the state’s Pacific coastline for public use. Today, easy access is assured via a dense network of coastal Oregon state parks, and well-marked access drives, parking, public paths and stairs. There’s no mistaking to whom the beaches belong, and how to get to them.

As open systems go, that’s also pretty state-of-the-art.

This article originally written by Matt Rosenberg was first published at The Open Standard on 10/15/14, under a Creative Commons license allowing full free re-use for non-commercial purposes.

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