By the beginning of 2022, visitors throughout the 1.1 million acres of the Pinelands National Reserve in South Jersey could be able to use, and contribute to, a mobile app aimed at improving accessible points of this great natural resource for people with disabilities.

It's been something the Pinelands Preservation Alliance has been taking feedback on in virtual town halls over the past year, according to executive director Carleton Montgomery.

The Alliance not only wanted to find out what some of the specific accessibility challenges are, but also where information was lacking on what's accessible and what's not.

As its app development partner, the Alliance has chosen Hopeworks, of Camden, which trains young prospective workers with a technology focus.

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They have been and will continue to be working on surveying land, making note of the conditions, and incorporating that data into the app.

Geographic information systems director Luis Olivieri said one thing the Alliance wants to do is update Pinelands visitors on current conditions in their area.

"That information, it could be part of a hard copy map, but it could also be part of an online map, and the good part of having an online map is that it's dynamic," Olivieri said.

And if an access point is deficient in any way, Montgomery said the app will ideally feature a way for users to report that.

"We can then learn from it, the land manager perhaps at the state park or state forest or nonprofit nature preserve can also learn from it, and improve conditions," he said.

Something the Alliance learned from its town halls, according to Montgomery, is that accessibility issues reach beyond just the disabled, and cover differences in race, ethnicity, and economic background.

By enlisting Hopeworks' diverse field of trainees, Montgomery hopes they will look to environmental causes as a possible career path.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance is "all about" getting people into the woods, enjoying and appreciating nature, and being involved in its preservation, Montgomery said.

But physical and mental challenges can prevent that experience, not just for those with disabilities, but for their family members and caregivers.

The information provided by the app would go a long way toward fixing those problems, according to Olivieri.

"Not just accessibility, but also to make people aware of where they can go, people with disabilities in this case," he said.

This partnership is funded by a grant from the state Department of Human Services, and those exploring the Pinelands could soon take advantage of what the collaboration has produced.

"We are aiming to have our mobile app ready to be tested by people in the field over the next six months, and then after that it's going to be continually evolving and improving," Montgomery said.

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