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: http://www.publicworksgroup.com/videos/bridgetour1.wmv)

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 http://www.govgrid.org 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!


    Web 2.0 and Public Works Presentation

    Today, I am giving a presentation at the 2008 APWA Congress; my topic – virtual public works. My portion of the presentation will focus on the use of Web 2.0 tools in the public works and government sectors. Representatives from TEEX and World2Worlds are also participating. You can check out my presentation at this link. Those who would rather view the document in more of a book-like format can click here.

    There is also a video that goes along with the presentation showing engineering and public works related sites in Second Life. I will post this later and add a link to this blog.


    We have a Wiki!!!

    At our first engineering meeting this year, Theory Shaw visited and suggested we develop a wiki for the projects that we were planning. What a great idea! He has been involved with the architecture group’s wiki and generously offered to set up a wiki for us. Wow, what a great guy. Our new wiki is located at http://publicworksgroup.wikidot.com/start

    There is a listing of some of the projects we discussed along with a section for collaboration on real life public works issues.

    Some of the projects include the following ideas:

    Construction of a “Code House.” This house will be set up to illustrate the International Building Code in 3-D. When completed, you will be able to walk through the home and either see the code visually or obtain notecards with code information. Most of the home has been constructed, but we have to start placing the code-related items in it. Right now it is located up around elevation 500. Let me know if you are interested in working on this project!

    Another project has been under construction by TEEX Clary who is with the Texas Engineering Extension Service. I want to make sure he has the first stab at announcing his project so I won’t give too much away here, but he has done an incredible job at building a 3-D training tool related to issues that all of us in transportation face. Stay tuned for more about this project or visit the island to see what is going on. You can also IM him in world and ask him to show you around.

    We are also working to develop design tools for real life work. My last blog covered one of these. Some of the others I have been thinking about are related to building 3-D models of ADA compliant ramps. If you had a box of sample intersection designs, it might make it easier to visualize or explain to others your design concept. Or you could alter a basic layout to more accurately reflect your situation. If we all collaborate and make the basic tools, then we will all have them available to use when we need to begin a design.

    SL also offers us a great opportunity to educate the general public about our field and related issues. So far I have set up some Powerpoint displays related to emergency preparedness. This month I also developed a radon awareness training tool – An Introduction to Radon – and put all the components into a kit that anyone can buy for $0L. The kit includes the slides for a powerpoint presentation, two 3-D models of radon collection systems, and a notecard.

    The other cool gadget I have started getting excited about is the “holodeck” tool. I have to admit at first I thought this was a little too much of a gimmick, but after looking into it more, I think this tool could be very powerful. Everyone who builds in SL knows that prim limits are a problem so making many displays may not always be possible. Well with the holodeck, you could make a “scene” that illustrates how to wire a 3-way switch, what areas need to be glazed in a home, etc, and then put them all in a holodeck. The user of the holodeck then chooses the display he/she wants to see and only views one display at a time. This is another project, I think our group should explore so if you have any display ideas or want to work on building some, let us know!

    The way I look at it all is that maybe we can’t directly import our drawings into here yet but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring ways to use the existing capabilities to develop products we can use.

    Passive Radon Collection System