iPads for Planning?

Robert Goodspeed's picture

iPadEarlier this week I read a report about creating a geographic data system for a community group in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The document contained detailed technical documentation for how to use iPAQ handheld computers to collect geocoded data. Since the data was collected and managed in geographic information system (GIS) software, it required pages of technical instructions. This case seemed a prime example of how GIS tools missed the mark for planners who need to work with geographic data, but in a different way than technical analysts. The purpose of the project was to empower community youth to collect basic data, a task ill suited to software designed for data management by experts using hundreds of attributes and a fine degree of precision.

One day later, I found myself reading Newsweek's cover story about the iPad, which reported that Apple expects to sell hundreds of thousands of the sturdy, easy-to-use devices in the coming months. Could the iPad be used for planning? I have previously written about the potential for the iPhone to augment city life. Since then the types of apps I described have only grown in popularity: navigation apps that use transit data, apps to report potholes or other issues to city officials, augmented reality apps providing information about your surroundings, and geographic networking and gaming like FourSquare.

The iPad shares the capabilities that make the iPhone so useful in urban contexts: it is highly mobile, location aware, and some iPads are 3G-connected. For planning, an important difference is the larger screen. Not only does it make it easier to record data in the field, it could be used to pull up renderings, images, and other data on the go. In a small meeting, the iPad could sit on the table allowing for the functionality of a touch table without the hassle and expense of the real thing. In short, it creates the potential for collaborative mobile computing with an easy-to-use yet technically sophisticated device.

Of course, much of the potential will be limited by the available software. The functions I am describing may not be sufficiently lucrative to attract developers, or seem too specialized for Apple to include in their store. Assuming that like the iPhone, the browser can query the device's location, one solution could be websites designed for planning purposes. Someday we could even see an city data portal, pulling up local property ownership, zoning, land use, permitting, and crime data as you walk down the street.

Then again, planners are often the first to point out that problems are rarely solved by technology, no matter how "magical" it is (to use Apple's term for the iPad). New devices only expend our toolkit for the hard work of good planning.


Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.



My supervisor and I were

My supervisor and I were talking about how the iPad could improve our field work efficiency of arranging for the installation of bike parking. That would be great, but we don't have one right now and we might have a difficult time convincing our superiors to let us buy one.

Read my blog: Steven can plan.

Also thinking about this question

Ken Snyder and the team at PlaceMatters have been thinking about this question as well. The cost helps to bring down barriers and the form factor is well suited for interacting with virtual data in a real context. I agree with you that technology alone does not a good plan make, but if the iPad can truly raise the quality and level of engagement, then it can at least help planners in producing quality plans.

Myself, Ken and the rest of the team will be using one iPad as a demonstration for interactive brainstorming at APA. It is highly experimental, but hopefully the beginning of a thought process that will lead to innovation around public engagement and planning.

If anyone will be at APA, you can register for the Charrettes and Social Media training (co-hosted by the National Charrette Institute and PlaceMatters). It will be on Saturday, April 10th at 1-5PM in MCC R05.

Rob, hope to keep this going as an active conversation, not just about the iPad but emerging technologies in general.

Jason Lally

GIS Apps

The iPad has GPS, map display capabilities, a *fast* processor, multitouch, and an extensive software development kit. GIS applications are a no-brainer. I'm looking forward to seeing what developers come up with.


We had the same GIS digital data gathering thoughts about "instantaneousness" as it arrived in buckets full of ESRI or MapInfo software. With the appearance of limitlessness technology, self-applied restraint gave us the answer. Huge data sets were readily available. What we had to do was rework them for all things subject to field confirmation.

We reinvented our old survey instruments to carry only the data that we could confirm in the field. Block by block data on land use, street address, building height in feet and stories, number of “units”, tree species and caliper, road and sidewalk conditions and so on produced the confidence that comes with a fresh “need input” snapshot.

This left us with plenty of room for ‘other data’ specific to the location, a key to link photo/video to locations and above all more time. It was time for interviews that included information about our project and a request for participation at a preset time and place, website stuff and so on. This not only made data acquirable, it made it a deliverable on the spot.

Confirmation was so much faster that we began to learn what we really needed and wanted to know from the experience. Discovering the novelty of a place is what makes the study of it worthwhile. These are the bits and pieces made it unique, its colors, sounds, smells, people centers, oddness, happiness, sadness and its creations. We asked what was worthy of rubbing, scrubbing and loving or what of all this stuff was the community capable of gaining or in danger of loosing?

Regardless of our objective documentation of existing conditions, it is of no importance and has no meaning unless it is in people. By sharing that instead of our documentation devises we found out how the meaning of a place that we injected into ourselves.

You make excellent points Robert. But looking back two decades I would have would have more than loved the use of this instrument. It would have replaced a ton of the paper pads we used. Ha! I guess it was inevitable the p-pad would become the i-pad.

Ipads are the next generation for planning

Hi Robert,

I listened to a speech last week from the editor of a local newspaper who mentioned that with the introduction of the ipad, it will revolutionize the way we read news. With regards to the urban planning industry I believe we should take advantage of this emerging technology. Why not lodge your planning application through an ipad?Advanced GIS software could also be available on the ipad. Just like governments have invested in E-planning, they should also be investigating the possibilities of utilizing the ipad.

I'm looking forward to it's release n Australia.

Eli Gescheit

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