The Application of GPS Visitor Tracking
Implications for Interpretation at Heritage Sites
Ryan L. Sharp
1712 Claflin Rd
Manhattan, KS 66506
Ted T. Cable
Kansas State University
Park Management and Conservation
Kansas State University
Park Management and Conservation
This paper presents the results of the application of GPS Visitor Tracking (GVT) to evaluate visitor movements through a heritage site. This method provides temporal and spatial distribution and “heat maps” that depict visitor movements through the site. Documenting these visitor movements indicates to interpreters where to concentrate interpretive efforts and identifies opportunities to strategically encourage visitation to less visited areas of the site. The research team approached 117 travel parties and 106 elected to participate in the study, yielding a 90.6% response rate. Analysis revealed that visitors typically travel in a clockwise direction once they entered the park, stopping at a point of interest then proceeding to the visitor center. However, the density maps revealed that other points of interest were less visited. This information about temporal and spatial distribution of visitors can provide information for creating interpretive programs that people may engage with at the park.
GPS, heritage sites, visitor movement, evaluation, visitor use
Evaluation is “the systematic collection and analysis of data to address the worth or improvement of something” (Henderson, Bialeschki, & Browne, 2017). Specifically, the improvement of interpretation and the visitor experience at heritage sites can be guided by rigorous evaluation. An organization that fails to evaluate indicates disrespect for its interpreters and disregard for their work, and it implies little concern for the quality of visitor experiences (Beck, Cable, & Knudson, 2018). However, often these evaluations rely on visitor surveys and reported behaviors, and not actual visitor behavior. In fact, an argument can be made that most interpretation-based evaluations (typically utilizing surveys) do not measure behavior, but intent to behave, and solely rely on visitor input related to these intended behaviors (Bixler, 2014). This is an important point, as intended behavior (as reported) does not always lead to actual behavior. Often times visitors are only responding to intentions to behave when cued to do so in an artificial setting (Sniehotta, Presseau, & Araua-Soares, 2014). For these reasons, there is a need for more objective measures of visitor behavior, that do not rely solely on visitor answers to survey questions. Global Positioning System (GPS) data collected during a visitor’s experience at a heritage area, can provide such objective behavioral information by actually cataloging the temporal and spatial attributes of their visit.
Many studies have been conducted on understanding temporal and spatial distributions of visitors in protected areas (D’Antonio, et al. 2010; Orellana et al. 2012; Newton et al. 2017), however, few have focused on cultural or historical sites, instead focusing on large “natural” protected areas. Moreover, few of these studies explored how protected area managers can proactively use technology to provide meaningful interpretive experiences for their visitors. The studies that have examined pairing GPS data and interpretation have mostly focused on how interpretation attracts or enhances current visitation (Wolf, Stricker, & Hagenloh, 2013) and does not delve into visitors movement within an area as a means of understanding interpretive opportunities. Identifying where people visit, their travel routes, the quantity and timing of use, and the amount of time spent at a location can add a layer of depth to interpretive planning that currently is being underutilized. This paper presents the results of the application of GPS Visitor Tracking (GVT) to evaluate visitor movements through the Fort Larned National Historic Site (FOLS) in Kansas. The use of GVT as an innovative tool produces temporal and spatial distribution and “heat maps” which depict visitor movements through a site. Additionally, this study provides a unique perspective on visitor movement due to the relocation of the main entrance of the park. Documenting these visitor movements indicates to interpreters and planners where to concentrate interpretive efforts and identifies opportunities to strategically encourage visitation to less visited areas of the site. By understanding visitor movements and addressing areas of concentration or underuse, interpreters can take steps to distribute visitors both in time and space so that they can more fully experience the site and be exposed to the complete array of interpretive themes and stories offered at the site.
Fort Larned National Historic Site is in east-central Kansas. Most visitors come to the park to see the historic structures and learn about the history of the fort and the Santa Fe Trail (National Park Service, 2018). The park consists of several buildings that are accessed by a crushed stone trail that runs the interior of the parade grounds (~0.3 miles). There is also a trail that leads to the cemetery and then continues on as a nature trail loop (~0.8 miles). From October 2016 through July 2017, researchers used systematic random probability sampling (Vaske, 2008) to intercept FOLS visitors. Sampling occurred on weekends and holidays to maximize the number of people available for the study and to understand differences in visitor-use patterns. Intercepted visitors voluntarily participated in the study and received a GVT unit to carry with them throughout their day. The researchers distributed one GVT unit per travel party, and the size of the travel party was also recorded. Researchers chose to use the Canmore GT-740FL Sport for GVT due to utility and accuracy (White et al. 2012). GVT units were configured to mark spatial waypoints and time stamps at 15-second intervals and all waypoints were recorded in decimal degrees. The researchers asked participants to return the GVT units at the end of their visit. Once the data had been cleaned using the procedures from Beeco et al. (2013), the researchers used ArcCatalog (ESRI kernel density analysis) to organize the data by day and travel party size. The research team physically approached 117 travel parties and 106 elected to participate in the study, yielding a 90.6% response rate. Although the unit of measure for this analysis was the travel party, these travel parties represent approximately 337 visitors participating in the study. All GVT units distributed were returned to the researchers at the end of their stay.
Results and Conclusions
The average time spent in the park was one hour and 38 minutes with a maximum time of four hours and 40 minutes and a minimum of seven minutes. Analysis revealed that visitors typically travel in a clockwise direction once they entered the park stopping at a point of interest then proceeding to the visitor center. Although not conclusive (and largely occurring in a museum setting), several studies have found that there is a “right turn” bias that visitors often exhibit when visiting a site (Bitgood, 1995), which was not evident in this study. However, Bitgood (2006) states that visitors also adhere to the general value principle that visitors utilize to mentally calculate the benefit/cost ratio of their movement throughout an area. This may have come into play at FOLS, as the visitor center is to the left upon entering the park, and may be one of the major benefit drivers for visitors to the site.
The researchers then investigated point-density analysis at each hour. Figure 1 display the specific areas of highest use during times of the day (all data aggregated). The density maps were created to follow the flow of visitors through a typical day at the park (10:00am–4:00pm). These maps are intended to provide a broad overview of what the output of this data may look like and to provide a sense of the utility of using GVT. The program used to do this analysis (ArcGIS) can be utilized to analyze the data and create maps in a wide variety of ways.
Analysis revealed that visitors typically travel in a clockwise direction once they entered the park (after crossing the bridge from the parking lot) stopping at a point of interest (officers row) then proceeding to the visitor center, then other points of interest (barracks and the shops building). The post cemetery received moderate use compared to other attractions on the clockwise loop visitors used to travel. Visitors consistently stop at the arsenal, the commissary, and the quartermaster’s storehouse. However, the density maps revealed that the commissary and the quartermaster buildings were less visited than the northern side of the park. This information about where visitors are and when they are visiting certain parts of the park can provide information for creating interpretive material or providing interpretive programs that people may engage with at the park.
This study displays how GVT can be used at a heritage site to objectively understand visitor use and how interpretive materials and programs may be developed to reach as many visitors as possible. This method provides objective data about the temporal and spatial distribution of visitors and relies less on asking visitors when and where they visited a park, which is often spurious and unreliable (Bixler, 2018). If someone is visiting a site for the first time, or is unfamiliar with the content being presented at a site, they may not have enough information to properly answer a set of survey questions about their experience, thus possibly leading to responses that have little to do with the questions being asked. A limitation of survey research, often used for interpretive planning, is the assumption that all respondents will have prior knowledge and full understanding of the topic being interpreted (Vaske, 2008). The use of GVT can help to overcome this limitation by the observation of objective movement patterns at the site. Of course, other data inputs (e.g. surveys, interviews, focus groups, interpretive staff expertise, past research) would be required in the development and evaluation of interpretive materials and/or programs, but GVT can act as an initial tool to understand where visitors are and how long they spend in certain areas, including those with a historical or cultural focus. Although not addressed in this paper, the use of GVT can also provide a wealth of data that could be used to understand patterns of use across different visitor segments (e.g. short versus long visits), and how visitors may skip around from location to location. The GVT data may also reveal areas that interpreters should spend more time observing visitor behavior (e.g., based on length of stay in an area, or areas of frequent visitation). Overall, GVT can assist in maximizing limited interpretive budgets to understand visitor behavior in order to reach the largest number of visitors.
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