Measure Local, Share Global: There’s an app for that

Okay, so I have a little problem. Since 1985 I’ve been a committed, out of the closet, Macoholic. I wrote my architectural thesis on an Apple IIe. Don’t do the math — I’ll be fifty this year.

A couple of months ago one of my business partners, Howard Blackson, suggested we find a way to use our iPhones and iPads to collect the urban DNA we use in writing form-based codes (another problem of mine — I’m a code geek). Understanding how to write standards that produce the types of places people love the most is my professional passion. So imagine my excitement on April 1st to find that Project for Public Spaces had a blog  post titled “The Placemaking Revolution Comes to Your Pocket.” I followed the link hoping to find something for my iPhone that would be useful in our work but, of course, it was their April Fools joke. And it was pretty darn funny. But I digress.

Extracting the DNA of place: Cincinnati.

The first step in the process of place-based DNA extraction is something we geeks call a Synoptic Survey. We photograph and measure all the things that make up the character of a place we’re looking to emulate: height, setbacks, whether it’s a porch or a stoop or a shopfront, the type of yard (if any), sidewalks, street trees, parking and travel lanes. You get the idea. Then we translate the data into code that can ensure new development that’s in character with locally-favored patterns and places.

Over time, we’ve amassed a wealth of data on wonderful places all across the U.S. and Canada. For municipalities and practitioners working to retrofit conventional suburbia or enhance the character of modest places offering little in the way of built models, such aspirational DNA could be a tremendous asset. But how can we make it available?

Much of our work is built upon the open source form-based code template, the SmartCode. It has grown dramatically in the last five years through the development of modules that can be added to the base code in response to local needs. Much like iPhone apps. With this open source idea as inspiration, we wondered, how can those of us who do similar work begin to share our libraries of information? So I started working on my first iPhone app.

I have a good friend, Lawrence Abeyta, who’s a successful app developer. He cautioned me it could cost many thousands to develop something from the ground up that would do exactly what we wanted. He suggested using the FileMaker database, Bento, as the basis for our app since it’s so user-friendly, financially accessible (after all, we want students to be able to afford it), and adaptable. Another major asset of Bento is that it was written to be shared. It has a wonderful, swarm-driven template exchange and is designed to easily share both your templates and your libraries.

What I’ve developed is the v.1 of a Synoptic Survey app. The images below illustrate how it looks on the computer screen as well as your iPhone. iPad 2 images coming soon, or at least as soon as I can get my hands on one of the peskily hard-to-come-by tablets. You can collect data in the field, including images from your phone, automatic GPS coordinates, and all your measurements, then bring them back to the studio and sync with your computer for whatever your final product will be. You can export into GIS and standard reports. But perhaps one of the most exciting features for us is the opportunity to share these libraries with others.

Synoptic Survey desktop view 1. Click for larger view.

Synoptic Survey iPhone view 2. Click for larger view.

The accumulated DNA of the world's most loved places. In the palm of your hand. Click for larger view.

For centuries, we created deeply endearing and enduring places with little more at our disposal than observation and memory. Today, we still possess those very same skills. Plus, now we have an iPhone. Let the sharing begin.

–Susan Henderson

The Transect Codes Council has a website where the SmartCode and all its app-like modules reside. We’re hoping in time to have the place-based DNA library available there as well. The caveat is it will take a while to do all the data entry to move our existing libraries into the new format. If you’d like to try it out, drop me a line and I’ll send you the template. Feedback much appreciated.

News of innovation and implementation comes often. If you like the idea of form-based codes in general, and the SmartCode in specific, and would like to stay on top of what’s happening, consider liking it in the more modern, technologically connected Facebook way.


  1. Really looking forward to app… Congrats Susan!

  2. Excellent work!!! Really looking forward to seeing it on my iPhone!

  3. Brava, Susan!!

  4. That is a great idea. Looking forward to it.

  5. Geoffrey Mouen says

    Looks great Susan. Nice work. Can we get Bento, Template Exchange and your v.1 of a Synoptic Survey app to get up and running now? The students and Rollins College will eat this up. Thank you.

  6. Another terrific contribution. Great work Susan!

  7. Susan Henderson says

    Geoffrey – I’ll email the template to you directly. Glad you think the Rollins College students might enjoy it!

  8. Michael Hathorne says

    GENIUS! Can’t wait to use it. Let us know when it’s officially available.

  9. John Anderson says

    Sounds very promising.
    Beyond the benefits of using this app for synoptic surveys, could it be adapted to catalog building types?

  10. Hi John. Absolutely. That’s a great idea. We just do the edgeyard, sideyard, rearyard courtyard normally since that’s what we’re coding. But it could easily accommodate building types. Email if you’d like a copy.

    And for everyone else who’s expressed interest, the template is available now. Just email your request since I want to keep track of where it goes. However you do have to purchase Bento from the Apple App Store. When you have that installed, it is the operating system for the template.

  11. Wonderful idea! Look forward to trying out the app.

  12. Neal Payton says

    Great job, Susan. Can’t wait to use it.

  13. Sounds great, Susan! I love this kind of stuff! Look forward to watching it develop.

  14. Susan, looks great. Note-taking during the SS is pretty cumbersome. Some of us late-50s folks with poor closeup vision may still stick with the clipboard and printed forms, or voice recorder, but I’m sure most people would prefer this.

  15. Very fun using the iPad version in Atlanta last week! Way faster than transcribing, matching photos, maps, etc. The whole experience was ever so slightly less wonky. Albeit more geeky.

    Sandy, the cool thing is that you can change the template with a click, so that it’s more legible in sunlight. The gray on black quickly changed to black on white. And then you can rebrand later to project colors before printing.

  16. Susan Henderson says

    Cool new update on the iPhone app! We’ll be test driving it at the CNU 202 session: SmartCode Calibration SWAT Team on June 1 from 9 AM – 12 PM. We’ll have it on iPhone and iPad and use it to collect the data for our Synoptic Survey during the walking tour. Sign up for NU 202 C to try it out:

  17. John Wegter says

    And for those of us who are not Macgeeks, when can we expect the Droid version?

  18. Susan, this is great! I look forward to the iPhone version. Wish I could be at the Congress this spring to see the test drive.

  19. Christi Elflein says

    Great idea! Will you be linking the locations to a map so if we are anywhere in the world we can pull up the map and see if where we are standing has already been measured?

  20. Susan Henderson says

    Hi Christi – That’s a great idea. There are already Google maps for form-based codes, but to have a separate map linked directly to the library of Synoptic Surveys is brilliant. And the two sets of maps could cross link. We’ll put that on the to do list. Thanks!

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