Community Spotlights

The right place at the right time – inside the world of Philly’s Google Trekkers

by Conor Michaud and Gintautus Stirbys on October 12, 2016

It feels like a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. Conor Michaud, 26, born and raised in Massachusetts, a graduate of UMass Lowell, and Gintautus Stirbys, 31, a Temple graduate and Philly native, just happened upon an exciting opportunity to work for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. The job: trekking through Philly’s parks carrying a fifty pound camera mounted on their back. After spending the winter months working inside, Conor sought a position that would allow him to spend his days outside serving the city and contributing to the parks. Gint, who had been working as a mover, was looking for a position that aligned with his love of nature and desire to be outdoors. When the position of field data collection technician appeared on the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation website and the Philly subreddit, both young men leapt at the chance, not quite knowing what to expect.

The job requirements included the ability to walk long distances while carrying a heavy load in the summer as well as being able to read a map and a compass. Prior to applying, both men had adequately prepared for the job. Conor, an avid hiker, spent three months leading an Anchorage-based nonprofit trail crew that employed high school youth to build and maintain Alaskan trail systems. In 2011, Gint thru-hiked the 2,181 mile long Appalachian trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. That six month wilderness experience, along with the endurance and knowledge of the city gained from working as a mover, helped prepare Gint for this new endeavor. After meeting with Nora Dougherty, their project lead, Gint and Conor quickly learned the scope of their new job. While wearing the fifty pound Google trekker camera, they would work together and create a virtual map of the city’s parks and trails that span more than 200 miles. A native of the greater Boston area, Conor moved to Philly six months ago expecting just a handful of green spaces in Philly. When he discovered the Wissahickon area, he was impressed by how vast the park was and its proximity to Center City. Conor remarks, “Having come from a background in environmental science and having previous experience in different urban area, I was impressed with the access to, and the amount of green spaces in Philly.” “I feel like I’ve been taking our park system for granted all these years,” Gint states. “Growing up in Northeast Philly you might say I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You have all these amazing and unique parks all over Philly but you have blinders on, you go to work, you come home and you leave the city to go somewhere special even though it has been right under your nose this whole time. I’ve lived here for 30 years and 75% of the parks we’ve covered so far for this project I have never heard of, never been to, or both. And I know that I can’t be the only Philadelphian that feels this way.”

Teammates Gint and Conor have been enjoying every minute of trekking and exploring the city. For Conor, capturing images on the Boxers Trail in Fairmount’s East Park was memorable. The lack of crowds during the week paired with the ability to visit historic buildings like Strawberry Mansion has made a big impression. “Another favorite of mine has been Benjamin Rush State Park, at the heart of which is a community garden where neighbors can interact with the park and one another. It’s important that people have access to these kinds of spaces where we can grow our own food as a community,” says Conor. For Gint, getting footage in Pennypack Park has been a blast. Having grown up near the park’s northern end trekking through the area was a stroll down memory lane. “Returning to this park and others like it as an adult has fostered in me a newfound love and appreciation for these areas. Another amazing space I’ve come across is Fort Mifflin in Southwest Philadelphia. It’s an amazing intersection of history, nature, and technology. Walking around the fort, it’s very easy to feel transported to 1771 when Fort Mifflin was built. You are quickly reminded, however, that you’re in a city as planes fly close overhead and land at the nearby airport. I think it’s incredible that we have these kinds of natural areas in Philly.” “That’s really what this project is about,” says Conor. “Working at REI, customers asking for advice on where they should go on their next trip will be able to explore all these beautiful spaces from home. A trip, an outing, a picnic, or an adventure will be easier to plan and execute when this project is finished.”

Something Gint and Conor often discuss is that this project is about access and exposure. People who can’t get out due to illness or disability will be able to take a walk in the park again. City employees will be able to use these maps as an invaluable resource. Someone sitting at their computer or on their phone in Sydney or Tokyo or Cairo will be able to see what Philly’s parks have to offer, and maybe, that will be the impetus for them to plan a trip to our region and see it in person. “I think this project is exciting because it’s closing a loop. Conor and I are in the park everyday, using this technology to create a virtual map of our city’s trails which will in turn help people get outside themselves. We both think we’re part of something that’ll be amazing.”