The iPad’s unique form factor opens up more possibilities for planning and civic engagement applications that can engage people in a mobile environment. The iPad is less like a laptop and more like a “window on the world,” which can be held up to view, record and interact with place in ways that laptops and smart phones cannot. It is just big enough to display more useful information and just small enough to cradle that it could be the next killer mobile application. Tablet PCs or other niche pen based computers that are used only by specific fields never completely delivered the experience that the iPad (and it’s successors) are poised to provide. The iPad democratizes access to mobile content just a little bit more and is the platform on which new intuitive software can be built.
There are two user groups in planning that stand to benefit from this mobile platform: professionals (including city staff and consultants) and the public.
For professionals in planning related work, the iPad is the perfect platform for the recording of necessary information on the city level. Site surveys can be done with the flick of fingers. Instead of recording land use information on forms with clip boards with paper maps, a planner (or assessor) could go out into a neighborhood, with parcel level data, and quickly record land uses, building heights and other relevant information. Applications could be standardized avoiding recording errors and decreasing the amount of time the information takes to get into a database. This is not impossible now, but generally the applications are so expensive that they are out of reach. At $499, the iPad lowers the barriers to entry.
Planners, architects and civil engineers could bring simple tools with them into the field and pull down relevant information when designing. And even basic sketch planning could be done on site in a mobile GIS. The public could benefit as well, possibly engaging in their own design schemes that could be used to inform a planning process. Or augmented reality applications could be used to educate the public on what could be right there on site. This could be a powerful way to connect visualization and information to actual places. Workshops could happen on site instead of in cramped rooms with bad coffee and the public could give relevant feedback in real time. It is easier to imagine possible futures when the sidewalks are below your feet and the vacant lots right in front of you.
Or what about the contentious and subjective issues of density and design. I can imagine an application that lets users rank or rate existing places as they walk along a city block. They could rate things like safety, comfort, or liveliness. Get enough feedback and you can build a database of how a real place makes people feel and compare that against prototypes for future infill or new development. You can even ask people what density they think a given block or neighborhood is and use that to show how people tend to significantly underestimate actual density particularly in well designed neighborhoods. Again, these are not new concepts. Cities have done things like this with paper surveys, visual preference and other methods. An application lowers the costs because it can just live “in the cloud” and collect data over a long period of time without having to manage and enter paper surveys. It can be used in a passive manner or actively on specific projects. And if one city implements it, the cost of entry continues to go down as more people use it.
In the setting of public meetings, devices like the iPad could be used to capture and record ideas that may get lost in reams of scrawled notes. Each participant can become an active note taker. By allowing them to do this live in a meeting setting, they benefit from hearing other ideas but can still anonymously record feedback. Voting could be done on iPads as well and more interesting polling applications could be enabled by the new form factor. For example, dot exercises could be done anonymously and aggregated on a per group level and for the entire room on the fly. Participants could propose questions to a moderator (which would be helpful in very large or distributed meetings). Digg-like voting could occur on multiple proposed ideas with a simple thumbs up or down, freeing facilitators from the maximum of 11 options.
None of these potential innovation areas is without its implementation hurdles such as initial cost, social equity issues, and process or user problems. However, it is important to push innovation on the cutting edge so that it can eventually become standard practice. Many of the potential problems all have potential solutions (for example, One Laptop Per Child is now working on their own iPad-like tablet for 2012). There are a lot of creative and passionate people out there that will enable the next civic engagement evolution. The iPad is just one piece of the puzzle that will enable us to move forward. The other pieces include cloud computing, pervasive Internet access, new user interaction technologies, and enhanced game-like visualization
- Sketch planning application for planners, architects and the public
- Site analysis application to record important planning information
- Site survey application for assessing various subjective indicators of design and density
- Augmented reality apps that pull down future design scenarios along with relevant indicators
- Feedback applications that enable new methods of brainstorming, voting, and prioritizing in a public meeting (dot exercises, Digg-like voting, iterative polling, randomized polling, “world cafe” polling, etc), breaking free from keypad limitations
- Note-taking applications that allow anonymous feedback from individual users as part of small group exercises