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Hacking Cities With Open Data and Minecraft

BY David Eaves | Tuesday, February 19 2013

For all the talk of the smart city and the incredible opportunities it offers, I'm a big fan of Dan Hill and both his critique of that label and his call for smart citizens. It is one reason why I'm interested in both tools and organizing structures that lower costs to letting citizens hack their cities — not in the literal sense — but in the participatory sense. If the tools become more accessible, then maybe — just maybe — we'll have more people become smart citizens.

Indeed, my own public policy wonkery began in a similar way. I remember being 12 years old and playing SimCity, trying to figure out ways to make my city better, more enjoyable. Of course, this did nothing to teach me about the difficult dynamics of community and alliance building that is essential, but it did teach me some basics about how the organizations that govern cities think, and how they view the city and about how I can speak their language. All powerful tools to have, made possible because access to an abstraction of this world of policy became available in a $40 video game.

It is one of the reasons why I'm so excited about how a new set of low cost tools — Minecraft and open data — seem to be increasing the opportunity space for people to rethink their city. It is hard to imagine simpler software — for those able to get to a smart phone or computer — than Minecraft. Having seen my friends' three-and-a-half-year-old play it, it perhaps defines ease of use. So imagine my surprise when Lou Huang — a 2013 Code for America Fellow — connected me to this fantastic blog post by MoJang, the creators of Minecraft, in which they describe a Swedish initiative which lets local residents use Minecraft to "edit" their neighborhood. As described by MoJang:

'Mina Kvarter' (english: My Blocks) is a project initiated by Svensk Byggtjänst with the aim to build a sustainable future for the million programme housing and townscape. Basically, to make these places attractive to live in.

What does this have to do with Minecraft you may ask? Well, one corner stone of the 'My Blocks' project is to give the people who live in these areas the opportunity to be part of shaping their future neighborhood. That's where Minecraft comes into play; giving people a tool to visualize their ideas of how they want to change their part of town. Volunteers from the Minecraft community have already built replicas of these areas on servers where citizens are invited to remove, build and reshape constructions, parks and roads etc.

In November Mojang announced that it would do a similar project partnering with UN Habitat to recreate 300 areas around the world — such as Undugu playground in the outskirts of Nairobi — so that residents could play and "edit" their community to offer feedback into development plans.

Of course, these tools may could be getting easier still, thanks to intrepid developers and open data. Over at TopoMC Jack Twilley has built tools to help recreate real world geographies in Minecraft using United States Geological Survey data. And Max Ogden, a 2011 Code for America fellow, has created voxel.js, an open-source clone of Minecraft that renders entirely in the browser. More intriguing, however, was a module Ogden created that allowed you to use Google maps to recreate a city block, including building outlines, in his Minecraft clone. While still crude this development could eventually eliminate the chore of recreating your neighborhood in Minecraft.

It is not hard to imagine a future where a seven-year-old shows up at city hall and demos his alternative version of what a development or rezoned project might look like.

None of this eliminates the need for all the hard work around reconciling differing perspectives and organizing communities that necessarily takes place when trying to figure out how a neighborhood should, or should not, evolve. But these tools can increase the imagination space and give people new ways to explore what is possible, and like me when I was twelve, get them more interested in wanting to be part of those conversations as well as free up time so that they can develop the more difficult soft skills that are so essential in any such process.

Exciting times.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to The Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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