By Abhijeet Chavan and Chris Steins
Planning (November, 1999)
As professional planners, technology is critical to our ability to perform effectively. Planners depend heavily on information technology (IT) - from office tools like spreadsheets to sophisticated applications like geographic information systems (GIS). Comdex, which bills itself as the "world's largest technology show" is the event where the big IT companies exhibit their latest products and services. We attended this fall's Comdex -- held in Las Vegas in November 1999 -- to bring you the most recent developments in computer hardware, software, and operating systems, and to discuss the impact these trends are likely to have on the field of planning.
Maps play an important role in planning, but digital mapping has long been the domain of GIS specialists. New products at Comdex this fall continue the trend of bringing the benefits of digital mapping within everyone's reach. ESRI, Inc. introduced a new web-based mapping product, RouteMap Internet Map Server, which provides site location, routing capabilities, and driving directions to any location in the US. Internet mapping software makes adding complex maps to your Website an affordable option. Local governments and planning agencies can use this technology to deliver on-demand customized maps and parcel-level information to a larger audience over the web.
Never one to sit on the sidelines, Microsoft Corp. has recently joined the mapping market with their own product, aimed at the business user. MapPoint 2000, which ships with basic business demographic data, works seamlessly with Microsoft Office, making it easy to map an Excel spreadsheet or to insert maps into Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. Although it scores points for its ease-of-use, this product is best suited for entry-level mapping only, due to its business user focus and data format limitations.
Electronic commerce, or e-Commerce, was the single largest focus at this fall's Comdex. Experts argue that the promise of easy, secure, online shopping will make the Internet ubiquitous. The growth of e-commerce is likely to have dramatic impacts for planning. As people become increasingly accustomed to receiving services 24-hours per day, 7-days per week over the Web, they will also expect this service from their local government, opening up opportunities for potential online applications such as submitting forms, paying for non-discretionary permits, reviewing and commenting on community plans, and looking up properties on the Web.
Some companies offer services that may make it easier to incorporate e-commerce solutions. Verisign, Inc. offers new systems for transacting secure transactions. Intel and Exodus provide secure outsource Web hosting services. New transaction processing systems are targeted toward providing a packaged solution for small businesses and local governments that do not have the resources to build e-commerce applications from scratch.
Some planning departments have already incorporated digital cameras into their reporting process by snapping digital photographs of properties and dropping these photos directly into staff reports. A new wave of high-quality digital cameras introduced at Comdex this have dropped in price, take better photographs, store more images, and feature simplified connectivity with desktop computers. Planners would be particularly interested in Kodak's Digital Science Field Imaging System (FIS) 265. When connected to a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, this camera records the geographic location for each photograph taken. Planning departments can benefit from digital cameras, deploying them as effective tools for capturing and updating visual records, especially if this data is to be delivered to citizens over the Web.
New products that were big in Comdex this year were also the smallest. The recent models of hand-held devices promise access to email, personal information, business data, and even the Internet in the palm of your hand. The current market-leader is Palm Computing that makes the popular Palm Pilot unit but others such as the Psion's Workabout claim to be designed specifically for people unfamiliar with computers. Several cutting-edge planning departments are already using Palm Pilots to digitally collect housing compliance information in the field, and then transferring this information directly to a database when they return to the office. Application developers can develop customized mobile-computing solutions around these handheld devices. Data can be entered in the field using these devices and then uploaded to the main database reducing data development time. This opens up several opportunities for applications in surveying, data collection, cataloging and engineering.
Be it Windows or Macintosh, most planners don't often think about the operating system (OS) running on their computers. But developments in the OS arena impact computing budgets so it is prudent to be aware of upcoming changes. Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 2000 (Win2K), is slated to be released in early 2000 with different editions for desktop computing, file/print services, and advanced server applications. You may not need to upgrade right away but it is likely that technical issues will pressure you to do so within the next year. However, this is a major release incorporating complex new features so upgrading should be a carefully-planned decision. Dramatic increases in hardware requirements, compatibility issues, and new licensing policies will have repercussions on your computing budget.
Linux, the OS known for its low software costs and high performance as a server with modest hardware requirements, has garnered a lot of attention recently. This fall, several new products showcased Linux as a desktop machine. Corel Corp.'s version of Linux features a Windows-like interface and user-friendly enhancements. A Linux version of Corel's WordPerfect is already available with the Corel Office suite coming soon. Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, an office suite comparable with Microsoft's Office, is available today as a free download for both Linux and Windows. Many of the applications planners typically use are probably not available for Linux right now but this OS is growing at an incredible rate so stay tuned.
Developments in computing technology have an effect on the tools we use and the services we provide as planners. For example, the importance of Internet connectivity is resulting in residential and commercial real estate developers beginning to install advanced communication networks for an increasingly sophisticated buyer. As more Americans go online they will expect the convenience of accessing information and transacting business with their local government over the Web. As planners, our challenge is to anticipate these trends and create innovative applications with these new technologies.
Internet resources mentioned in this article:
Operating Systemssteins@urbaninsight.com) is principal of Urban Insight, an Internet and Web consulting firm which provides services to the urban planning community.