Virtual Worlds: The Next Level of Government

Crowd by davidChief on FlickrIn small numbers, people can usually self-govern themselves. But as the number of people in a group grows, better control is needed. So history has shown anytime a large number of people start hanging out in a particular place, a government structure is formed. In our world today, we have nations which then have further divisions of government down to local or neighborhood levels. And while most of these levels of government are considered public, a small number are privately held and yet still considered a governing body by upper levels of government. So applying this to virtual worlds, have these digital places evolved to the point that another type of government level needs to be formed?

I would expect many people, particularly those who have not yet ventured into a virtual space, would scoff at the idea of creating a new type of government subdivision for computer-generated worlds. During my first few years of hanging out in places like Second Life, I had not considered the need for governance. But during those years, I observed many parallels between the growth of Second Life and the development of a city. And recently, the discussions surrounding the struggles of Linden Lab to address the needs of Second Life "residents," have me more closely analyzing the governance idea.

Although I don't think Linden Lab started Second Life with the intention of creating another governmental entity, it is interesting to see elements of local governance in the early days of the grid. Philip, the creator of Second Life, was labeled Governor Linden, and the users were called residents. Experiments in zoning took place on at least one of the first sims. And the subdivision and sale of land and payment of tier (tax) for that land is an emulation of land ownership in the U.S.

Second Life has gone through phases regarding these issues: tier is still paid and users are still residents, zoning has been created on a much larger scale with the division of adult, mature, and PG spaces, Philip is no longer referred to as Governor although public land is still held by Governor Linden. And as the Lab struggled to determine their policies in these areas, similarities between the problems faced by Linden Lab and those we face as city officials grew. Today there are demands by residents for better functioning infrastructure and platforms through which to voice opinions. Businesses are continually pushing for economic tools, incentives, regulations, and opportunities. All issues faced every day by those of us working in local government.

Server Farm photo from Sugree Phatanapherom on FlickrPost-Victorian water mains by Lars Plougmann on FlickrAt this point, Second Life has evolved to where the primary differences I see between its digital space and the physical space are in the type of infrastructure and the international population. And even the infrastructure, while different, still has many similarities to the operation and maintenance of infrastructure in the physical world because it is part of that physical world. Cities have water mains and roads; Second Life has computers and code.

So, the most challenging difference I can see is the International aspect of the Second Life population; governments in the physical world are based on geographic boundaries. Cyberspace has no geographic location in the physical world. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access places like Second Life. So if a digital space became a governmental entity, into which governmental structure would it fit and in which country? And whose laws govern each person's behavior in that world?

If I travel to another country, I follow that country's rules and yet I am still bound by some of the laws in my own country. If I visit a digital space, I follow the terms of use for that world no matter where it is based in the world. Yet, because I am in the U.S., the U.S. government could argue I need to also follow laws of this country because I am using federally regulated bandwidth to access that world. So some might question, if there are already terms of use for visiting virtual worlds, why aren't those rules good enough?

Terms of use seem to work well for regulating behavior in digital spaces when user freedoms and choices are limited. For example I don't see Blizzard dealing with the same issues facing Linden Lab. Both companies have created virtual worlds, but the MMORPG offers a more structured space with well-defined and limited abilities for its users. While in Second Life, the users have many more freedoms and choices. I compare the MMORPG to a museum I would visit in a city like Chicago. My museum visit is structured and defined by the rules and environment created by that museum. While my behavior and actions in Chicago are only bound by the laws of the city, state, and U.S. government.

City Hall by Editor B - Bart Everson - on Flickr

Even with the growing similarities between digital and physical places, governance in virtual worlds is probably not on the immediate horizon. People are still just getting used to the idea of a digital world. But this concept of a virtual world functioning as an actual place could help companies like Linden Lab better understand what they have created. And as the Lab is finding out, running local government is not easy. But it is an age-old practice with thousands of years of models and literature available for guidance. Maybe what Linden Lab needs now to sort out all their issues is someone with a background in public administration.


A Brave New Grid – Post 2: The Virtual Plan

Ontario Build in Second LifeIn the first post of this series, I explained my decision about moving my efforts related to building government/public works/engineering sites in virtual worlds from Second Life to OpenSim. And I invited anyone interested to read along or visit as I make this move. From here on out, I will continue to write about the thoughts and processes an agency follows to create and operate a virtual site:

Just like any good story, this one starts at the beginning—back before an agency even sets a digital foot into the virtual arena. Today many agencies might not have even heard of virtual worlds while a few others have heard of them but not yet thought about leveraging this tool to deliver value to citizens. But, eventually someone, either staff or citizens, will bring up the possibility of using virtual worlds to enhance service delivery. At that point the agency must decide whether to ignore the suggestion or investigate virtual solutions. If the agency decides to go forward, the first step is to create a virtual plan. Here are some ideas about how an agency would go about developing their plan:

Developing a Virtual Plan

Create a Project Team

Assuming an agency decides to venture forth, my first suggestion is to form a project team. Team members should be comfortable using online technology, possess good assessment skills and articulation, and have a comprehensive understanding of the agency’s general structure, goals, mission, and strategy. It would also be helpful to include a few community stakeholders on the team such as members of the agency's leadership, residents, business owners, and leaders in community organizations.

Set Goals and Strategies

The team’s first order of business is to determine what the agency would want to accomplish with the use of virtual worlds. These goals should align with the overall goals and strategies for the organization. This is also a good time to think about the targeted audience—who will visit this virtual space? Below are some suggestions for both virtual spaces and related audiences:

  • Engage local citizens.
  • Attract potential tourists and deliver visitor information.
  • Recruit potential employees, citizens, businesses.
  • Plan proposed development and receive input from citizens and developers.
  • Present 3D representations of code and ordinance requirements so residents/business owners can more easily understand and access regulations.
  • Train employees.


Decide on Software and Hosting

In order to develop, access, and maintain these virtual spaces, the agency will need to acquire a software package and possibly a hosting plan. Although virtual worlds may seem like a brand new tool, they function in a manner similar to a traditional Website. By this I mean that the agency will use development software to create the world and the content within. Then others will use a software program to access the agency’s site. And just like a Website, the digital space will require a computer on which to reside. Therefore, the agency will need to determine if their virtual space will be served out from their own computers or through a host.

Here is a list of the more common solutions currently in use for enterprise and government purposes:

Virtual world development can be complex so it’s critical the team identify features and requirements for each software package from cost to performance to ease of use and support. This is where tables and charts come in handy. Here are some suggestions to consider including in the analysis:

Developer    Purchase and Annual Cost    User base    Technical Requirements    Security     Scalability    Backup Capabilities    

Database Requirements and Compatibility     Storage Requirements

The team can assess each program by assigning a ranking for each feature and requirement. For example, if a low number is chosen to indicate a more beneficial choice, then the purchase price could be categorized by the following numbering system:

1 – $0 to $999

2 – $1,000 to $4,999

3 – $5,000 to $9,999

4 – $10,000 and greater


Technical requirements could be simplified into the following categories for ranking:

1 – Basic computer system costing less than $1,000

2 – Average computer system costing between $1,000 and $2,000

3 – Moderate computer system costing between $2,000 and $3,000

4 – Loaded computer system costing more than $3,000


Categories and rankings should be chosen to best describe each agency’s assessment of needs and capabilities. After assigning a rank to each category and adding up all the points for each feature and requirement, the team can rank the software packages.


Visit Virtual Worlds

Next the team should download the virtual tools and spend time in virtual worlds created by each software solution under consideration. It’s helpful to document observations and first impressions because this can offer insight into how the agency’s user base will experience their first visit. Team members might also visit existing government sites in virtual worlds. Usually people managing these sites are more than willing to share their experiences with others.


Establish a Virtual Site Policy

Visiting virtual spaces can also help the team formulate a virtual space policy for staff and visitors. For employees this policy can address their appearance, communication procedures and guidance, hours of work, and other issues related to representing the agency in a virtual space. For visitors the policy will cover how they should conduct themselves, what they will be allowed to do in the space, how they can dress, if they can access all or just a portion of the space, and consequences for not following the rules.


Develop Virtual Site Designs

After spending time in each world and interviewing managers of existing sites, the team can begin formulating a more specific idea of what they will want to create for their own agency. A framework for each can be designed to meet the agency’s goals and to fit within the constraints and structure of each software package under consideration.

Based on the type of build desired and the goals the agency wants to achieve, the team will develop alternative designs for the site. At this point, designs do not have to be detailed. Simply showing a square labeled “Central Business District” can indicate a design that includes a 3D representation of the agency’s downtown. The most important step is to make sure the designs include elements that allow the agency to achieve their stated goals.

Greenies from Second Life

Choose the Development Team

The team must next consider whether the agency can build the virtual site with in-house staff or if a consultant must be hired to perform the work. If the work can be down by agency employees, the team should identify members of a potential development group and their corresponding skills. In making this decision, the team needs to keep in mind not only staff abilities, but the availability of content for each virtual solution. Some worlds, like Second Life, offer extensive ready-made content and building tools that allow most people the ability to create an acceptable space. However, other software solutions require more extensive software skills and offer little to no content.

If a consultant will be hired, the team might want to research potential companies experienced in the creation of virtual worlds. It is important to identify which software tool each company has experience with and visit sites they have created. Interviewing past clients can offer insight into whether the company has the desired experience and understanding to handle a government agency’s requests and needs. Also check to see if the company has retained the employees who created past builds or if you will be working with a new and less experienced staff. Another important consideration is to check with past clients to make sure the company met deadlines and came within budget.

Establish Operations and Management Procedure

Once the site is established, there will be management needs. So the plan should include a section addressing how the site will be staffed and managed during the first few months and then for the long term. Decisions to be made in this step could include if the agency is going to staff the site with existing full or part-time employees or if new employees will be hired. Virtual sites are open 24/7 so the agency also needs to decide on what hours staff will be available at the site. If the agency intends to host events, the hours and staffing for these along with a proposed list of events should be included.London Re-creation in Second Life

Agencies also prefer to assess operations on a regular basis. If the site is created, this assessment needs to become part of the overall operation and management plan of the agency. With this process in place, the project team can be utilized on a regular basis to review the site on an annually and submit a report indicating how well the site is meeting the goals and objectives laid out in the plan. This procedure can also allow for amendments and changes to be made through an established process.


Compile the Plan

At this point, the team can begin compiling the virtual plan. The plan should include the following elements:


  • General proposal and description of what a virtual site is intended to accomplish


  • Specific goals, objectives, and strategies and how they fit into the overall agency plan including references to targeted audience/user base


  • Listing and discussion of available software solutions with a summary of the team’s findings (a more detailed report can be included in an appendix)


  • Proposed virtual site policy


  • Concept designs


  • Suggested development team


  • Timetable for execution of the virtual plan


  • Marketing and/or advertising plan including intended channels to be used


  • Short term and long term management of the site including staffing proposal


  • Assessment procedure


  • Budget for software purchase, development, and management


Once a draft of the plan is complete, it is advisable for the agency to host a few public meetings to get input from residents, businesses, and other community stakeholders. Comments should be discussed, and if appropriate, incorporated into the plan. Minutes and comments from all public hearings should be added to the plan as an appendix. The agency's attorney also needs to review the plan at this point and offer any needed revisions.

When the report has been finalized, the team can present the plan to the agency's board or council for formal approval.



Related reading and resources:

"Virtual Spaces: Enabling Immersive Collaborative Enterprise, Part 1: Introduction to the opportunities and technologies" IBM article


A Critical Lesson from the Gaming World

World of Warcraft ScreenshotThe momentum for using games in a workplace environment seems to be building. The topic is showing up in conference programs, blogs, forums, and now in a TEDTalk. People are realizing what the game industry figured out long ago – it’s possible to create something that consistently encourages and trains people to perform specific tasks for hours upon hours. And they are asking, how can we transfer this to the work environment? Others, like Jane McGonigal in her TEDTalk, are asking, how can we leverage this to make our world a better place? (You can watch her video embedded at the bottom of this post.)

A Teenager’s View
This is a particularly interesting topic for me because of a few reasons. First, everyone in my family is a heavy to moderate gamer, and second, I see many ways gaming could be used to train and educate government staff, elected officials, and citizens and enhance workplace performance. So we watched Ms. McGonigal’s TedTalk as a family (I know – a total geekfest). Afterwards we discussed her comments. I was particularly interested in my 16-year-old son’s thoughts. He fits the demographic of which she spoke.

His belief was that a game designed to educate or “do good” would not be as attractive as “regular games.” He thought no one would play a game that made the education or public service component too obvious. My husband and I agreed that for it to work well, the game would have to do a good job balancing game elements found in popular games with the underlying purpose. He did echo McGonigal’s comment that he didn’t feel he could do much to change the real world, and that is why he thought most people would not play a game to purposely make the world a better place.

The Critical Lesson
But from our discussion also came one more significant reason we feel people play games. And it’s a reason I have not yet heard mentioned. We feel it is because the game is impartial in its distribution of rewards. And this we feel is a vital if unrecognized component.

Many of us have at least one experience in life where we gave it our all, tried very hard, and accomplished something outstanding that everyone agreed met the requirements for a specific reward – maybe it was an “A” on a paper, or a school award, or a placement on a board or committee. But we never got that reward. And why is that? Usually it was because a teacher didn’t like us, or we weren’t the most popular person in the group, or we didn’t fit into the right crowd. Whatever it is, we have learned that rewards in the real world are not impartially or fairly handed out.

But the computer is always impartial and fair – if an Orc in Orgrimmar gives you a quest with the promise of earning a new shiny sword, he gives you that sword when you complete the assignment. He doesn’t decide not to give it to you cause he heard you hang out with Night Elves or you don’t belong to the right guild.

So perhaps this is another critical lesson from the gaming world, you can motivate people to invest time and money and effort if you are fair and impartial in the distribution of the promised rewards.


A Brave New Grid – The Decision

Last month I decided to close down the Public Works Group island in Second Life. Over the last 2 1/2 years, the island allowed many people the opportunity to see and explore how virtual worlds could enhance the public works industry. The site also provided a place for people to meet and experience virtual worlds in a relatively safe place – the only exception being the occasional disruption from people intent on causing problems in Second Life.

Summary of accomplishments
TEEX Bridge TourOne of the first projects launched on the island was the Bridge Maintenance Tour built by James Matney, project manager for TEEX. This build was a great example of how someone could simply set up an educational resource in virtual worlds.
(Link to video of the bridge tour:

Another prototype of an educational resource was the Code House, a virtual single-family residence allowing for the 3-D visualization of the building code. Since the house was built, there have been at least two other examples of this educational concept constructed in Second Life. One by the Planning Portal in the UK and one by the FAS.

Public Works island also hosted the founding of MuniGov – an online community of local government professionals established by Bill Greeves and myself. Meetings for MuniGov were held on the island from about Sept 2008 until the closing of the island. Last year in April, Public Works hosted the trade show and after conference activities for MuniGovCon09 – the first virtual conference for government.

So What is the Deal?
Those are just a few examples of the many accomplishments and activities supported by Public Works island. So, you might be wondering, if the island was providing benefit why close it down. One of the key reasons is cost. Because public works is a primary function of local government, this field along with government in general must pay close attention to costs. For a virtual world tool to be embraced and used by local government, the cost must be acceptable not only to those managing government but more importantly to taxpayers.

Another reason is accessibility and perception. While firewalls can easily be configured to allow access to a virtual world, some IT government professionals are hesitant to create these openings due to security concerns. This is not helped by the fact that mainstream media has portrayed Second Life as just a crazy game with people running wild leading those not familiar with the technology to disregard it as a serious business tool.

Last year, members of the Emerging Leaders Group for APWA researched the use of Second Life as a viable tool. While they saw many benefits of the technology, they shared in the concerns expressed above. (Here is a link to the group’s report, Communicating with APWA Membership, New Media Evaluation.)

While I was aware of these issues when setting up Public Works island, I did think that eventually Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, would see the value in offering solutions to local government and would end up addressing cost, perception, and accessibility issues. However, based on their actions and decision over the last 2 1/2 years, I am no longer convinced they will move in this direction.

Onward Ho!
While I still see value in exploring and using Second Life, I realize that local government needs a different solution – one that costs much less and that can be better controlled. Fortunately there is such a solution. Opensim software has now been developed to a point where local government can launch a stable and cost effective virtual world using this alternative. The other benefit of OpenSim is the use model of this choice parallels the existing Web hosting model already implemented by many local governments.

So the Public Works Group virtual world initiative has moved on to create GovGrid – a government-focused virtual world. This initial world or grid now consists of four islands that initially will host the following uses:

  • Orientation/Tutorials/Help Resources
  • Sandbox where members can learn to build virtual objects
  • MuniGov outpost
  • Research and Development
  • Other government agencies, groups, and vendors working with government can set up space in this grid knowing that there will be a government focused community. The OpenSim solution also allows for control features designed to meet security and backup concerns.

    So What’s Next?
    If local government is going to use this technology there needs to be some type of guidance provided to help agencies understand and set up their own virtual space. I thought by sharing my efforts in establishing GovGrid, I might be able to help others who make the decision to move down this path. So instead of setting up everything and then inviting people in, I am inviting everyone to watch as I begin establishing the grid and creating the content. I will also continue to blog about the progress of GovGrid through future posts.

    You can register at the GovGrid Web site at which should then allow you to access the registration for creating an avatar on GovGrid. Then follow the instructions for accessing the new grid. Remember things are still under construction, but feel free to wander around, check things out, and ask questions. And if you work for government or for a company or group that does business with government, you are invited to eventually become part of GovGrid by setting up your own virtual space on the Grid.

    See you in GovGrid!


    Measuring Success of Virtual Spaces

    Baseball Park in WinterIn order to reach a valid conclusion about the success of a virtual space, we need to understand the reason that space was created. If someone knew nothing about baseball and visited the large barren, snow-covered baseball complex near me that no one has entered for the last 7 months because it has barricades across the drive, they would say what a waste of space. Why would anyone spend millions of dollars to create that? But isn’t this the same conclusion people are making when they decide sites in Second Life and other virtual worlds have failed because they don’t see people there 24/7?

    Instead of analyzing success based on the site’s ability to perform its function, they are basing success on the same method used to analyze Web site performance – by site visits and page views. But this is not the correct method by which to measure success of a virtual world.

    It is important to understand that virtual spaces are not just static Web pages; instead, just like the baseball park, they are spaces built to perform some function. We have a local government group, MuniGov, that meets on a regular basis in the virtual world of Second Life.MuniGov Meeting If you visited our site, there would most likely be a group of people there only during our meeting times. The site also serves as an area of exploration in the use of this technology. Has the site been successful? A quick random visit will not give you this information. Instead you would have to attend a meeting and talk to members. By doing so you would find that our site has allowed many people to learn and better understand this technology. It has also allowed us to share ideas and practices for improving our job performance. And several of our members have been awarded grants to pursue research and learning of government-related issues using this technology. These efforts enhance and improve delivery of real government services. Could this be considered a successful use of the space? Yes, and this is only one example from our group’s use of virtual worlds.

    The other challenge in establishing a true measurement of success in virtual worlds is developing a good general view of 3D communities. And to achieve this understanding, people must adjust their perception of spaces. This is not easy because it takes more than one visit into a virtual world to allow this to happen. I was reminded of this recently when I talked to someone who had only visited Second Life for a few hours. This beginning experience is not intuitive or comfortable. It’s easy for people to decide they don’t like this feeling and then never return. But most worthwhile, life-changing efforts begin the same way. And we only reap the benefits if we have motivation to push past the discomfort. In the end, only people who have made the transition and become familiar with these spaces can really understand what is happening there.

    The bottom line is being able to analyze the success of a virtual space is more complex than showing up, seeing no one around, and deciding the site is a failure. The longer I spend time in virtual spaces, the more analogies I see to our offline world. Which makes sense; both are built and used by the same people. But because of this, we need to quit relying on articles and blog posts to analyze our 3D worlds. Instead, we should follow our offline examples and develop comprehensive virtual plans and studies modeled after the same process of analysis we have for community plans. It’s how we’ve been measuring for years the importance and vibrancy of places where we live and hang out so why aren’t we using this approach for 3D places?


    Microsoft Tags Go Live

    Back in May I was hoping someone would make a business card that could cause a computer device to go directly to a Website. @pbroviak Tweet May 2009While this technology might have been possible back then, it did not seem readily available to a regular person like me. But no more! Microsoft has come to the rescue creating a cool little tag that transmits information, including Website URLs, directly to a mobile device.

    So how does this very awesome and incredibly cool Microsoft tag work? Well you merely have to register on their site, create a tag, tell it what you want it to convey, then render an image file. This file can then be placed anywhere it fits (or anywhere you can legally place it). I am going to put some on business cards, but I noticed that even an image of the tag on a computer screen triggers a mobile device into action. Here is the one I made to trigger a visit to my main Website. If you have a mobile device with a camera, go ahead and download the app at, then start up the app, and point your camera at the image below. Then shoot on over to the Microsoft Tag site to make your own! (And a huge thanks to Microsoft!!!)
    MSTAG PWG Website