Introducing Planning Mapper

Posted by on Apr 9, 2011 in Blog Article | No Comments

Planning Mapper is a community issues mapping tool conceived as a means of broadening community outreach and providing a way for participants in a planning process to link their comments, thoughts and ideas to a geographic place in their community.  It was created by Houseal Lavigne Associates’ Principal and co-founder Devin Lavigne in 2006. The mapping tool that incorporates a widely available mapping engine (Google Maps) and transforms it into a planning process and allows residents, stakeholders and other participants to provide feedback and input tied spatially to an area or point. In essence the tool provides a way for any resident to create a map of their community, identifying their own issues, opportunities, weaknesses and threats. It is fun and engaging and represents a response to a fundamental shift in the habits and attitudes of residents who seek to do nearly everything online.</p>

Responding to Change
In just the last 5½ years our firm, Houseal Lavigne Associates, has conducted almost 100 different planning studies, 25 of them Comprehensive Plans. A critical component of each and every planning process is to conduct meaningful outreach with residents and stakeholders to ensure the plans, policies and recommendations are rooted in, and reflective of, the community’s aspirations. As a consulting firm we cannot simply push our own agendas and thoughts, and address only what we feel are the community’s priorities. To be successful a plan must be the product of the community, and respond to priorities and issues identified by its leaders, its residents, its businesses and its stakeholders through an effective and responsive outreach process. 

The world around us has changed however, and the widespread use of technology is commonplace. The ability to communicate via the internet is expected.  Social networking sites keep us connected to friends and colleagues, RSS feeds keep us connected to current events, and websites provide a portal to unlimited information.  To be truly innovative and keep a planning process “plugged in”, use of the internet must extend beyond surveys, questionnaires, and calendars.  While these tools are effective and important, our mapping tool allows “charrette style” participation via the internet by providing the means for anyone from anywhere who has access to a computer to mark up a map, locate priority issues and areas, and create the narrative to go along with “their” map of “their” community – an aspect of digital outreach, that until now did not exist.  This innovative tool allows a community to incrementally yet collectively identify and prioritize key redevelopment sites, problematic intersections, community assets, and much, much more.  As an aid in the planning and outreach process, it is proving to be invaluable. 

Easy to use, accommodating of detail, and geared to the individual, Planning Mapper is truly innovative and effective.  In an age where people seem increasingly busy, greater efforts are required to effectively and creatively engage residents and other stakeholders.  The Community Mapper is a leap forward in maximizing an individual’s and a community’s contribution to the planning process.

Moving Beyond the Browser
While the browser based mapping tool is effective for outreach, exporting the data to GIS facilitates a level of analysis that a planner may need to draw better conclusions and perform a more thorough analysis of data.  Through a simple and intuitive process, point data can be exported as a text file and imported into GIS for presentation and analysis. Using the X and Y values, GIS can place points, projecting the data if necessary, in the GIS space where points were placed on the mapping tool. This GIS analysis provides the ability to analyze the points in any number of ways and built spatial relationships with other data, such as census data and parcel information.

Overlays and Other Improvements
Throughout the tool’s development it was rigorously tested for performance and bugs. Several rounds of beta testing was conducted within our firm searching for bugs and other issues. After several weeks of fixes it went live, but not before we improved upon the Google Maps online mapping system. We did this by adding a code compiler that allows us to add GIS data to the maps, making them more relevant and familiar to the users. Through a relatively simple process, GIS Data, such as municipal boundaries, zoning districts, park sites are overlayed on top of Google Maps information. Planning Mapper provides this functionality, converting ArcGIS Shape files (.shp) to KML files (.kml – KML Keyhole Markup Language for expressing geographic annotation and visualization on existing or future Internet-based, two-dimensional maps and three-dimensional Earth browsers such as Google Earth).

An Adaptable Tool for any Type of Study
Planning Mapper was not created with any one project in mind – it was built with every project in mind. Limited by only the geographic coverage of Google Maps, Planning Mapper can be customized to be used in any type of planning study and then some.  Each project can be customized with its own type of points and legend, boundary, title, description, and overlays. To date the tool has been used in a variety of projects, in several different states.

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