Just in time for spring break, a free phone app is tempting kids and curious people of all ages to discover some of the outdoor wonders of nature along Sims Bayou near South Post Oak Road.

The app is called Agents of Discovery. The made-in-Canada plaything has been adapted to Houston by the non-profit Houston Parks Board as part of its Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which is turning the area bayous into recreational havens and travel routes.

To discover how it works, we drove north along South Post Oak in the heart of the 5 Corners Improvement District, crossed over the bayou bridge and immediately turned right on Simsbrook Drive into a landscaped parking lot with picnic tables nearby. The sun was out, the water in the bayou was calm and low, and a woman, man and little boy strolled playfully along the adjacent concrete hike-and-bike trail.

We’d already downloaded the app on a cell phone after finding it through the built-in App Store icon. The app entices you in English to walk along the trail for about three quarters of a mile and back, looking for specific birds and plants.

“Challenge Available!” said a pop-up box on the app. “It seems there’s a Challenge here. Walk towards it and it will reveal itself when you’re close!”

We won’t give away everything about this part of the game. We will happily report, though, that as an agent of discovery, we focused on several birds as they floated on the wind over the water. We might not have noticed and enjoyed them otherwise.

In other words, the app provides the electronic version of treasure hunt that is bound to entertain kids old enough to read or be read to. In the meantime it also serves to show how a guided walk can reveal beauties of nature that the people driving on the nearby road may never think about.

Consider Agents of Discovery to be a calmer, low-key version of the Pokémon GO game that was all the rage a few pre-pandemic years ago.

Or as described by Kelly Burnett, activation and volunteer manager for the Parks Board, the app drops “ ‘virtual’ bread crumbs” that users can follow to find treasure for the eyes and mind.

For people unaccustomed to navigating through such phone apps, this one includes “how to play” instructions. It also includes a tracker showing users where they are along the pathway.

The Parks Board rolled out the app for this section of Sims Bayou at the beginning of March. It will be available through April. This is the second section of Sims at which Agents of Discovery has been used to introduce the development of the region’s greenway upgrades. The Board hopes to apply the app to a stretch around nearby Townwood Park this year.

The Sims Greenway, including the pathway 10 feet wide, stretches east from Hillcroft almost 20 miles, past the Gulf Freeway. But the phone app adventure takes much less than an hour to complete on foot.

Of course, the wide pathways and sunshine allow for social distancing and quality air for avoiding the pandemic.

Sims is one of only two bayous at which the Parks Board has introduced the discovery game. The organization will consider expanding it to other other bayou systems where free parking provides easy access.

The early focus on the stretch of bayou in 5 Corners was due to parking near the trail and the desire to coax more people to enjoy this greenway, according to Burnett.

“We knew we wanted to target this part of town,” she said.

Adapting the app for Spanish speakers may be just around the corner, too.


— by Alan Bernstein