DES MOINES, Iowa — One lucky intern will have the best summer job ever: cycling central Iowa’s 600 miles of paved trails on a tricked-out “data bike.”

Using a 360-degree camera that sticks out like an antenna from the lime-green electric cargo bike, and a phone app that picks up vibrations caused by imperfections in the pavement, the rider will catalog trouble spots.

It’s part of the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization’s effort to measure the health of recreational trails and arm the agencies that maintain them with valuable data to aid budgeting decisions and respond more quickly to damage.

“Maintaining a quality trail system is difficult,” Polk County Conservation’s Loren Lown said. “One of the things that’s most troublesome is our ability to know when we have a fault out there, a hole in the trail or a washout.”

The conservation agency manages more than 60 miles (almost 97 kilometers) of trails, including portions of the High Trestle and Great Western trails.

“(This) allows us to get out there quickly and repair the problem on site. It will make a big difference,” Lown told The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2rw2iIV ).

Here’s how it works: The cargo bike is equipped with an electric hub so the rider can generate a constant speed, which is crucial for accurate data collection.

As the wheels run over ruts and cracks, an app designed by Canadian company Rival Solutions graphs the vibrations — similar to a seismograph — via a smartphone strapped to the frame.

At the same time, a Samsung Gear 360 camera attached to the rear of the cargo cage takes snapshots every two seconds.

The data will allow local agencies, including Des Moines and other metro cities, to pinpoint cracks, ruts and other issues.

“We can say, ‘here’s your priority areas,’ and they can spend the winter looking at the data. Come springtime, cities can go out and do an inspection in time for summer construction season,” said Marcus Coenen, an MPO associate transportation planner and the brains behind the project.

An added perk of the program: Cyclists will gain a 360-degree view of the central Iowa trail system, available on their smartphones.

The MPO plans to upload footage from the camera to Google. Users will be able to tour the trails through Google Street View.

One lucky intern at Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization will have the best summer job ever: cycling central Iowa’s 600 miles (almost 970 kilometers) of paved trails on a tricked-out “data” bike.

Several groups, including the Des Moines Bicycle Collective, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and even the MPO, have created their own trail maps and apps. But riders say central Iowa lacks a universal view of the whole system.

“If you’re in the city of Des Moines, you’re going to work on Des Moines trails. If you’re in Urbandale, you’re going to work on Urbandale trails,” said Scott Sumpter, avid Des Moines cyclist and member of the regional Trails and Greenways Advisory Committee. “It’s time consuming to get the trail maps together and submit those changes to Google.”

And most central Iowa trail maps available online are large PDFs not easily accessible on a cellphone, he said.

“If we could make it easy for tourists and people that live here to find trail information . that’s golden,” Sumpter said.

Joe Jayjack, a spokesman for the Iowa National Heritage Foundation, said his organization would like to see data bike efforts on trails throughout the state.

“That’s a longer range vision that, once we kick the tires and figure out how this is going to work best in central Iowa, we could rent it out to different entities in the state interested in gathering this data,” he said.

The condition of Iowa’s streets are already tracked and scored, using laser-equipped trucks to measure imperfections. But there’s no data for paved recreational trails, said Gunnar Olson, an MPO spokesman.

“As the system is aging we’re going to need to shift more dollars toward maintenance as a region,” Olson said. “We came up with this concept to get good, accurate data on trail conditions.”

Des Moines’ has one full-time trail maintenance employee and seasonal workers that inspect the trails for damage, but the city mostly relies on users to report damage, debris or other issues, said Ben Page, the city’s parks and recreation director.

With more than 300,000 people using the city’s trails each year, Des Moines is able to keep tabs on repair needs, Page said. But new data from the MPO program will be welcome, he said.

“Anytime we can be more analytical about how we do things the better, especially when it comes to budgets,” Page said. “There’s plenty of grants to build new trails, but there’s very few grants outside of city funds to maintain them.”

Des Moines budgeted $143,704 for trail maintenance in fiscal 2018, $20,000 more than the previous budget year.

Clive also relies on a combination of city maintenance workers and trail users to report issues, said Todd Seaman, director leisure services. The city maintains 13-miles of trails, including the popular Greenbelt Trail.

“This will give us hard data to use to drive our decision-making,” Seaman said.

The city currently relies on intuition to make a lot of trail maintenance decisions, he said.

The MPO’s “data bike” program was developed using a $5,000 grant from Iowa Department of Public Health. It expects to have data complied this fall. That’s also when it will add the 360-degree images to Google Street View.


Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Des Moines Register.