By Abhijeet Chavan and Christopher Steins
Gadgets are no longer glorified toys. They're becoming tools-and eventually could become indispensable ones, at that.
We have scoured various technologies to find the items planners would find most useful yet which are still affordable.
There are now dozens of small handheld devices, referred to generically as personal digital assistants, or PDAs. But the PDA of choice is the Palm Pilot, produced by Palm, Inc. Weighing in at about four ounces, and only slightly bigger than a deck of cards, the Palm Pilot is the digerati planner's new tool of choice. It comes in a well-designed blue or slate case with a small screen that is quite readable, even for longer documents.
You can synchronize the Palm Pilot to your computer using the cradle that is part of the Palm Pilot package. We use Microsoft Outlook in our office, and were able to easily synchronize all of Outlook's calendar appointments, contacts, notes, and email. If you change your calendar or your contact list on your Palm, the changes show up on your computer when you next synchronize, a task that takes about one minute.
How many times have you sat at a community meeting scribbling notes onto your legal pad, only to have to transcribe them later onto your computer? Hook up the device's mini fold-up portable keyboard, and you can type your notes directly into the Palm. Need to make a little sketch? No problem, software called Teal Paint lets you draw and save sketches from your Palm screen.
The Palm Pilot also can serve as a repository for information. When we tested it, we were able to load an entire municipal code (minus the photos) into our Palm, and then search it by keyword.
Consider some handy applications. An unusually named application called YAUC easily converts geographic measurements-acres to hectares, for example; TimeReporter tracks your time and expenses; Tiny Sheet is a little spreadsheet that synchronizes with Microsoft Excel; TealDoc helps you compress and load entire manuscripts, such as a general plan or municipal code.
There are even global positioning satellite (GPS) units that can connect to your Palm. For some users this may span the gap between a fully contained GPS unit that does everything and a unit attached to a full laptop or desktop computer. When connected to a GPS receiver, the Palm can display your current position and record your route. RandMcNally's Street Finder and DeLorme's Earthmate Road Warrior are two of the latest offerings. For around $200, these packages include a GPS unit that attaches to your Palm and detailed street maps to help you navigate.
Unfortunately, the GPS unit is an external attachment that is connected to the Palm by a cable. However, a new GPS unit, HandyGPS, has recently been released for one of the Palm competitors called HandSpring, which slips easily onto your HandSpring like a battery onto a cell phone. Expect to see these soon for the Palm as well.
Researchers at the Advanced Policy Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, working with the Los Angeles Housing Department, are pushing the envelope of how a Palm can be used in the real world. The policy institute has created a method for synchronizing the housing department's inspection database with individual inspectors' Palm Pilots. Housing inspectors now record their inspections and make notes directly onto the Palm Pilot. When the inspectors return to their office, the housing inspection data is synchronized with the database, and the appropriate warning and compliance letters are generated automatically.
The Palm IIIxe is one of the lower priced models, at just $249, and it's a bit heavier than the sleeker Palm Vx. The newest offerings are the Palm IIIc and VII. The Palm IIIc provides rich color-all the others are monochrome, featuring black and grey text on a greenish background. The Palm VII is equipped with a wireless modem, which provides access to news, stock quotes, travel information, and web content.
Some special-purpose digital cameras offer features that are attractive to planners. For example, Kodak's Digital Field Imaging System (FIS265; $1,495 for the basic model) is a digital camera system that combines global positioning technology with digital photography.
The package consists of a digital camera connected to a Garmin GPS III+ GPS unit. Location and temporal information-latitude and longitude, date and time-is recorded along with every digital photograph, so that the information can be transferred to a geographic information system (GIS) for mapping purposes and individual images can be easily identified. The manufacturer provides an extension for ESRI's ArcView GIS product (Windows version), allowing digital images to be incorporated into existing GIS datasets. A separate product, the DC 265 Global Positioning System Solution Kit, caters to those who do not use ArcView.
Eliminating the need to manually enter locations in a GIS or to track film negatives and prints, this GPS-and-camera system opens up many options: code enforcement, asset inventory, zoning, surveys, and project documentation.
To use today's sophisticated tools, somebody has to convert printed information into digital form. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology can scan the printed word, recognize the characters, and save the material as digital text. Desktop OCR-enabled scanners that attach to computers are available. But what do you when you are far away from your scanner?
Now OCR technology is portable. About the size of large markers or highlighters, these high-tech OCR pens, when rolled across a printed page, can scan and "read" text on the fly. The text is stored in the pen itself until it can be downloaded to a computer.
One model, the Siemens Pocket Reader ($99), can store up to 40,000 characters and even has a small built-in display that allows minimal editing. The Pocket Reader can connect to Windows, Linux, Macintosh, or Psion computers.
Similar products include Hewlett-Packard's CapShare 920 E-Copier ($499) and Wizcom's QuickLink Pen (about $130). Besides being able to download text to computers, QuickLink can connect to PDAs such as the Palm and even mobile phones.
This product may be ideal for citing a paragraph or two from an environmental impact statement or for quoting from a general plan. It can be useful for recording text when you do not have easy access to a photocopier or when the couple of sentences you want to scan are contained in a thick volume that won't fit on your scanner. You could also use portable OCR to copy this paragraph and send it to your boss with a request for a purchase.
Planning requires teamwork, but nobody likes to record all the scribbles made on a whiteboard during a meeting. Now electronic whiteboards can record this information and store it in a digital format.
SMART Technologies' SMARTBoard is an electronic whiteboard that can be installed on a wall and connected to a computer. Images are projected from the computer to the screen for presentations and demonstrations. The screen itself is touch-sensitive, and can be written on with special electronic markers. What's written or drawn can be captured to a digital file.
Researchers at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using the SMARTBoard to develop an innovative application. They are customizing the SMARTBoard for use as a physical interface for sketch planning in urban development. Using a rear-projection model of the SMARTBoard mounted horizontally, users can project maps or aerial photographs on the screen and do collaborative sketching. Work is under way on a vocabulary of sketch gestures that can directly interact with urban development planning data and models.
The Mimio by Virtual Ink ($499) is a portable electronic whiteboard system consisting of a bar that can be set up on any regular whiteboard and connected to a computer. Marker holders transmit and track movements. The EBeam by Electronics For Imaging ($549) is a similar product that uses two small pods instead of a bar.
Phones soon will have features that previously required a laptop computer, a pager, a regular mobile phone, and a PDA. What this means is wireless Internet access. The devices won't replace laptops, however; instead, they are being designed for quick, convenient mobile access to little bits of information-text only, at least at first. Several models of web phones already exist, but most carriers, manufacturers, and software developers agreed on a common standard called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). This single standard, to be used for providing Internet communications and services to pagers, PDAs, mobile phones, and other wireless devices, will make it easier to develop a single version of service or website that can be accessed by any WAP-enabled device.
ESRI, a developer of GIS software, has joined the WAP Forum -- an industry association with more than 200 members that has developed the WAP standard -- and plans to support WAP by providing real-time mapping to mobile phone users.
Webcams operate on a fairly simple premise. Run a video camera continuously, capture images at selected intervals-every second or every 10 minutes-and put them on a website. Webcams have an array of possible uses-desktop videoconferencing, monitoring traffic conditions, promoting tourism, or recording whiteboard images during a meeting. The possibilities are endless.
In one way, that is part of the problem. As with any new technology, questions can arise about privacy and government becoming "big brother" by watching what its citizens are doing.
However, webcams have had a warm reception on many college campuses because they allow virtual visitors to see the center of campus or a favorite student spot. And the applications for promoting tourism are obvious. One fine example is the live view of O'Connell Bridge in Dublin City, Ireland.
Webcams are cheap, and they capture pictures easily. You could capture a community brainstorming session-where participants are updating images of a neighborhood on whiteboard. This would allow planners to see how a community plan evolved, or allow citizens who did not attend a particular meeting to see how a plan was created.
This technology also been used for traffic monitoring. The California Department of Transportation and Maxwell Technologies have teamed up to create SmarTraveler, which offers views of major freeway intersections from several cities. There are five streaming images from San Francisco's freeways, updated every few seconds.
The webcam itself is only about the size of a tennis ball, with a small eye in the center. It can sit on top of your computer monitor (for videoconferencing), or in the corner office of city hall. The camera usually is connected by a cable (USB or serial cable) to your computer. However, several new cameras use wireless devices to send the images to the computer, making them even more versatile.
These webcams range in price, but many moderate-quality webcams cost between $80 and $200, including the software needed to make them work. Popular models include the Intel PC Camera ($130), Logitech QuickCam ($50), Kensington VideoCAM ($80), and the Ezonics EZDual Cam ($150), which works as both a webcam and a detachable camera.
Computer companies can't tell planners how to use these tools. That is something we need to figure out for ourselves. To paraphrase the words of Don Murray, a leader in the evolution of technology in the real estate industry: Technology will not replace planners. Planners with technology will replace planners.
For now, just beef up next year's technology budget.
Lewis D. Hopkins, Douglas M. Johnston, R. Varkki George, "Computer Support for Sketch Planning," Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management On the Edge of the Millenium, Proceedings of the 6th International Conference, September 1999.
On the web.
Siemens Pocket Reader: www.pocketreader.com.
Kodak FIS 265: www.kodak.com/go/FIS265.
HP CapShare E-Copier: www.capshare.hp.com.
QuickLink Pen: www.wizcomtech.com/products/quicklink.html.
WAP Forum: www.wapforum.org
Palm Pilot: www.palm.com.
UCLA Advanced Policy Institute: api.sppsr.ucla.edu.
USC Campus TommyCam: www.usc.edu/uscweb/cams/tommycam.
Maxwell/CalTrans San Francisco Traffic Cams: traffic.maxwell.com/sf.
Kensington VideoCAM: www.kensington.com.