Top 10 Free Web Applications for Planning

Chris Steins's picture

I had the opportuntity, at the 2009 national planning conference in Minneapolis, to present (together with my colleague Christian Peralta Madera) ten free web applications that can be used to support planning.

Approximately 350 participants attended the session. Since the presentation, I've received over 100 emails congratulating us on the practical nature of the presentation, and requesting links to the websites we presented. Since our presentation was a hands-on demonstration, this blog entry outlines the ten technologies, and provides links to examples of the technology in practice and resources so you can experiment with the technologies.

Does Free Matter?

When a web application is "free", we are more easily able to experiment with the technology. Many of us have had the experience of trying to talk a manager into purchasing a new technology for us to try. Unless the manager is already aware of the technology or service, the justification and budgeting process can be complex, and can discourage experimentation. All of the following web applications are offered for free so that you can easily experiment with them. However, it's likely that if you plan to use a web application on behalf of your organization, you'll want to upgrade to the paid version. In most cases, the paid versions offer extra features and support.

Google Maps Mashups

City of Burbank Planning Projects MashupThe term "mashup" comes from the music industry where a DJ (disc jockey) at a club combines music from two different records or CDs to create a new sound. In the technology industry, the term has been applied to combining different kinds of data in unique ways. Google Maps makes it very easy to combine your own data with a Google Map.




Image of video showing Doug Boxer discussing DensityMost of us already recognize the power of video when we organize our day around our favorite television show. Video can be a powerful tool for community outreach. Just five years ago, the tools to capture, edit and display video was prohibitively expensive and complex for most of us. Today, the situation has changed dramatically with the advent of video sharing websites.




Twitter, sometimes called a "micro blog", enables you to distribute short messages of up to 140 characters in length to your "followers" -- friends, colleagues and anonymous others who choose to follow you. The service has become increasingly popular in the last several months. Twitter creator, Jack Dorsey, explains: "Twitter has been my life's work in many senses. It started with a fascination with cities and how they work, and what's going on in them right now."  



Virtual Meetings

Image of a sample DimDim web conference with video and a whitebaordWe've all had the experience of having to wake up extra early to fight traffic to make it to a meeting across town. But as project teams becoming increasingly diverse, in-person meetings are not always practical or a good use of time. Additionally, for some community members, participating in planning and design meetings during the day may not be possible. There are now a variety of free and low-cost options for holding virtual meetings, from a "webinar" style to full video conferencing where participants can collaborate on a whiteboard.



Wikipedia has become a valuable resource for most of us, and is perhaps the most famous example of a wiki. A wiki is a set of linked pages that can be edited by any participant, but all changes are recorded so you can see every change that was made. Wikis are sometimes described as "the simplest online database that could possibly work", and the word wiki comes from the Hawaiian word for "fast".

Screenshot from FutureMelboure Wiki home pageExamples


Social Networking

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, Ning. Yikes. There are now so many ways for us to create and maintain connections with our friends and colleagues, it's sometimes hard to keep up with it all. Social media-savvy planners are increasingly using these social networking technologies to efficiently inform, educate and engage members of the community where they are gathering online.




If you're reading this post, you already know what a blog is. Planetizen Interchange is a "group blog", where members of the planning community come together to discuss issues of concern to the community. The ability for readers to leave comments is an important part of many blogs, including this one. So please consider leaving a comment about your favorite web technology for planning at the end of this post.



RSS & Alerts

These are admittedly the least exciting of the free web applications, but probably the most immediately useful to you. RSS stands for really simple syndication, and enables you to have news from your favorite websites collected and delivered to you in your web browser.

Google Alerts notify you whenever Google's search engine finds a news article, web page, blog entry or video about a word or phrase you tell it to look for. For example, if you're working on the the City of Tulsa Comphrensive Plan, why not set an alert for "PLANiTULSA" so that you know every time someone mentions it online?



Screenshot from 'Ideas for Austin' website on UserVoiceCrowdsourcing is taking a task traditionally performed by a single person, and inviting a large group or  community to help complete the task. For example, companies will sometimes publish a thorny technical question, and offer a monetary reward to anyone who can solve it. The technologies that have evolved to meet these problem-solving needs are particularly well-suited to the field of planning, where we are often seeking ways to more effectively collect community input. Crowdsourcing websites allow the community to vote on which are the best ideas, or to submit new ideas for consideration by the community.




Example of a PollAnywhere poll used by sessions attendees to vote on their favorite technologyText messaging or "texting" is the popular term for sending short text messages from the now ubiquitous mobile phones using the Short Message Service (SMS). Most people use texting to send person-to-person messages, but text message can also be used to participate in contests by voting (think American Idol), order products, or interact with automated systems. In some cases, texting might be used as a replacement for keypad polling, which is often used in planning, but can be expensive to setup. We used the Poll Everywhere service to enable participants in our conference session to text in their vote for the most popular technology presented during the session.




We're considering offering an hour-long webinar to provide a hands-on demonstration of each of these web applications. If you are interested in exploring more about how to use these technology for planning, please email me, and I'll let you know when we schedule the webinar.

Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.



Open Source is better than free

All of your applications are free in the beer sense, but not actually free. I suggest the following:

Microblogging: (which uses the blogging software)
Blogs: Wordpress
Website: Wordpress, Drupal or Joomla
Maps: OpenStreetMap and Mapnik
Social networking: BuddyPress, a Wordpress MU addon

The clear advantage that Free/Open Source software offers is control over your own infrastructure coupled with the no acquisition cost.

Two More Free Resources

Great list of resources! I have two more free resources for your list:

1. Social Explorer ( — very cool historic heat maps with demographic data

2. Cubit Planning ( — cut-and-paste ready reports about limited English Proficiency populations and quick estimates of Environmental Justice Groups in your project area (full disclosure: I work for Cubit Planning!)

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