The Time for a Comprehensive Plan for Second Life is Now!?

Today I read a great article about digital citizenship, Digital Citizenship and the Forward Edge Transference, written by Mike Langlois, LICSW. In his post, Langlois discusses many similarities between online and offline behavior. This was interesting to me because as a local government employee, I've also recognized many similarities between offline communities and online spaces. But my focus usually tends to be more on how the community functions as a whole. Langlois is in the psychotherapy and social work fields, so his perspective seems to be more targeted at the individual and interpersonal level. But both of our observations meet at the same very important point in all this – people are viewing, approaching, and behaving in these online spaces as though they are in an actual place. They rely on and feel loyalty and obligation to the digital space where they hang out, and this sense of responsibility extends to the people there with whom they interact.

The significance of these observations to offline and online governance should not be underestimated. It will eventually have major impacts as digital populations increase. One example is the current sign of unrest among the population of the virtual world of Second Life. If this were occurring in an offline community, the solution would be to develop a comprehensive plan. And if we acknowlege that people in a digital space are behaving as they would in an offline space, there is no reason to believe we should not apply this same solution to Second Life. If we do not, past experience in the offline world has proven we risk diminishing the success of our community.

While a comprehensive plan is not a cure-all, the practice of going through it and the final document can go a long way in helping move a community forward. These plans are viewed by professionals to be so important that grants are commonly offered to help fund their development. Unfortunately at this time, grant providers have not yet come to the same awareness as some of us that digitial spaces also need these plans. So moving forward on a plan for a virtual community would have to be self-funded or be developed through volunteer efforts. 

Another challenge in developing a comprehensive plan for a virtual space like Second Life is that there are no models to follow. But due to the similarities between online and offline spaces, I believe it would not be too difficult to modify a typical plan to meet the needs of a virtual one. Because I feel so strongly about this, I went ahead and developed a proposal for implementing the comprehensive planning process in Second Life. And I went so far as to have it peer reviewed by an experienced planner. Then feeling confident it offered a well-thought out approach and reasonable solution, I emailed it to Rod Humble. Of course, in the back of my mind, I didn't really expect a response and never received one. I just don't think a private company wants to believe they have anything in common with government. And many private managers or CEOs probably aren't very familiar with how local government actually works and why.

The problem with Linden Lab not choosing to at least consider this solution is that in an offline space, I don't think development of a comprehensive plan is usually undertaken without the "city" being involved. So I am not sure if it would be possible or worthwhile to attempt this without the involvement of Linden Lab. But I do believe this type of exercise and plan would help  address many of the current concerns in that particular virtual world. And I think some group needs to provide the lead that many online communities might eventually have to follow. So I decided to post the proposal here and ask if anyone in the Second Life community sees value in this or believes it would be worth the time and effort or even a discussion or if it is even possible to implement on our own. If not, I suppose it will eventually be another online company that in the future forges this path.

Second Life Comprehensive Plan Proposal 2012


Are Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds the Coffee Houses of the Future?

Last year when I attended the APWA Expo in Denver, one of the speakers shared his view of how the rise of coffee houses played a major part in the advancement of mankind. It seems that prior to the introduction of coffee as a beverage, most people just drank alcohol. 

Medieval Tavern

And if you're familiar with history, this probably doesn't surprise you because as you know, back then, the other alternative, water, was usually contaminated and unsafe to drink. Unfortunately while alcohol at moderate doses did not kill as water might have, it definitely was (and still is) a depressant. So people really were not too motivated or even had the presence of mind to innovate and discover new ways of doing things. Then along came coffee and the establishments in which people congregated to drink this new beverage. I suppose in a way it could be looked at as a wakening of the population. People discovered others with similar interests, and they learned about or developed new ideas. To me this seems similar to what I see occurring with people today – but this time it's not driven by a change in consumption of a beverage, but instead is being advanced by a change in consumption of media. And it seems to be particularly accelerated in the virtual world community.

Just about everything new that I have learned or been exposed to over the last 5 1/2 years has been because of my involvement in Second Life and other virtual environments. But when I try to explain this to people who are not involved in this technology, I don't think they really understand why this is possible or the incredible rate at which learning happens in that environment. Probably because I do not explain it well enough. But I was thinking about this today and realized perhaps I should be comparing it to the coffee house story to get my point across. But in my example, television would take the place of alcohol. This is because, like alcohol in the past, television has kept our population complacent and accepting of the status quo. The hours spent sitting in front of that box kept us from reaching out to each other and discovering and sharing new ideas or inspiring each other to reach beyond what we know today.

Cafe in Second Life

In my example, the technology making virtual worlds possible would be the new "beverage on the block." And the immersive 3D environments where all this takes place have become the new "coffee house" where any of us from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can meet, share ideas, learn, motivate, and inspire each other to expand our horizons. I would compare the community congregating in these new meeting houses to those who first started hanging out in coffee houses in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Just like the traditional coffee house, some days you might just find everyone sitting around enjoying the company; other days there's an excitement or buzz in the air because a new topic has been introduced, and people are excited about its potential to change our lives. All of us who spend time there usually leave with much more than what we brought to the table. And the people who have not yet realized what's in the coffee house or what it offers, avoid it and follow their traditional habits not really knowing or understanding what is really going on in there.

In a way, I suppose other online communities and environments could also be considered to represent virtual coffee houses. Just like not only Starbucks serves up a great cup of coffee, so too online tools other than virtual worlds offer technology and a platform where people can meet and share. Over time, I like to think that as coffee houses eventually evolved to become ubiquitous and frequented by a large number of our population, virtual worlds will one day become a common hang out spot for public discourse, discussion, and expression. I wonder if people will look back at this time in history and be able to attribute our future advances to the rise in technology and 3D immersive environments.




What is Government’s Role in Community Events?

Once again I've been intrigued by the similarities between online and offline communities with the topic this time focusing on the handling of community events. And I wonder how much the "real" and "virtual" communities can learn from each other. If you work for a city, your experience is probably very similar to mine – you regularly assist your employer in some capacity in hosting either annual or special events and reviewing and approving community events hosted by others. Usually events held on private property need only meet ordinances and laws, and there is no formal notification or approval process involving the city. However, events held on public property are covered by rules and usually require city approval.  In order to provide this approval, some cities only require notification and perhaps a certificate of insurance while others ask for all or some of the following: application form, fee, maps, insurance, agreements, and assistance.

Community events on public property

Where I currently work, all departments are involved in handling event applications for something that will be held on public property because all of us have a potential to be impacted in some way. Although there are some events requiring no city services, most of the time some level of police or fire oversight or protection is needed. For larger events, public works provides barricades, water, garbage pickup, or electricity. The entire process for us is managed by our economic development department, and we do not charge a fee for our support services. The city itself rarely hosts an event all by itself – we do have a few official "city events," but these are usually managed by our local chamber of commerce – not by city staff. We just don't have the employees or funds to support the planning and management of major events. Instead we tend to focus our efforts on activities that promote local businesses. One example is our "Fall in Love with Downtown Geneva" – a month-long contest held in February that involves asking people to register at local businesses to win prizes. Each week our city council picks from the entries and announces the winners at the council meeting. 

LaSalle Fest Celebrations

Celebrations aren't always fun and games

My event-handling experience with my last employer, the city of LaSalle, was much different. During my time there we really didn't receive many requests from others to host activities on public property. 

The city itself hosted one main, official city event each year and had been doing so since about the mid 1970s in various forms and locations. But during most of my 16 years working for the city, the 4-day event was held each August in the city's main park. From what I remember, each year, this event ended up creating a major disruption to that facility and the surrounding neighborhood. The celebration also took an enormous amount of time to plan, set up, manage, and host. Fortunately for our city, the main planning and management of the actual event was handled by volunteers. But even so, it still required a lot of support from our city staff. For that whole week leading up to the celebration and for several days after we really could work on nothing else because we had to get the park ready for the activities and clean up afterwards. And even though so many people put in long hours and hard work, citizens regularly complained about the celebration. Eventually the complaints got so bad that for the last year of my time there, the elected officials decided to no longer host the event. And from what I could tell, the neighboring communities seemed to have similar experiences.

Events in a virtual community

Second Life's 8th Birthday Celebration

So because of my background in local government, I've been very interested in observing how Linden Lab, the owner of the virtual world of Second Life, has been handling their community events. The activities taking place in this environment offer experiences similar to those we find in our offline lives with the exception of having a physical presence. However, there are a few benefits available not normally offered in an offline activity – because everyone has a profile that can be anonymously accessed, it's easy to check someone out before approaching them. Also, because of the chat and other communication tools, it's easy to have a real conversation even while attending an event with music – unlike what is possible in an offline venue with music. Another of the many benefits I have found related to events in Second Life is the ability for organizers and hosts of these events to register and advertise events held on private lands. This is helpful because if you are sitting around your virtual place wondering what there is to do, you can just click open the search and see what events are taking place. You can even set an event to notify you before it is starting if you are logged in. (Although I wish there was a mobile app for this so I could get notifications on my iphone.) The registration setup is very easy and quick – I sometimes wonder if this is a service cities could model for their own communities. You can check out Second Life's event listing here:

In addition to the offering of tools to support private events, Linden Lab has chosen at times to host their own events. Most, like the celebration hosted by my last employer, relied on significant participation by volunteers for assistance with organization and management. And like what happened where I used to work, this year Linden Lab seems to have made a decision to pull back and not host formal events. In particular the company recently announced they will no longer provide the public space and hosting of their annual birthday celebration. Instead they are asking people to use their private event notification system to let people know about privately-hosted events held to celebrate Second Life's birthday. I am not sure why they made this decision, but as you can imagine there have been mixed reactions from the community. Some are upset and believe Linden Lab should be more involved in the community and show their support by hosting these types of events while others believe it is better to leave celebrations and events to the community itself. What is fascinating is that this is exactly the back and forth we hear from citizens in our offline communities.

Lessons learned

The take away from this is what most of us in government have come to realize: there will always be some people who want their "government" more involved while others want it to back off and let the private sector lead. So where is the balance? What is government's role in community events? My philosophy with local government has evolved to where I believe each agency needs to deliver the services expected and requested by their community as long as their members are willing to fund those services and if the law allows the government to provide those services. The difficulty is in determining just what should be provided because not every community will choose the same services and there are so many conflicting opinions. For offline communities, this decision is usually made by councils who regularly consider requests and vote on policies and ordinances to meet service requests. And if a community is well run, those officials make their decisions based on feedback from members of the community so their decisions reflect the will of the people.

But what is an owner or creator or manager of a virtual community to do? To be successful, they can take a page from the city management book and follow the same process a city would and create a comprehensive plan for the community. This plan, developed with input from the community, provides the guidance needed for community development and management and decision-making. The recent commotion about event hosting is only one more sign that this virtual community has reached a point every city eventually faces if there is no plan for the community's future. And any community developer will tell you that failure to plan the future is planning to fail – even in a virtual community.




National Highway Institute Using Virtual Worlds for Bridge Training

Although this was posted over on Govloop, I thought I'd repost here because it is so relevant to the public works industry. For some time, we've been advocating for the use of virtual worlds for training, design, and networking in our industry. And now it seems there is finally a sign that the technology is not only being implemented, but also accepted. Although there have been some uses in the past that we've highlighted here in this blog, this time the class is being delivered by the National Highway Institute – a hallmark institution with a long history in the industry. And if the interview embedded below is any indication, it looks like the use of virtual worlds might quickly become a standard training method among engineers and other professionals in the industry. You can also check out and sign up for the NHI classes at this link: It sounds like the bridge class will be ready to go in the near future.



Here's a link to the full interview: Meredith Perkins talks Virtual Worlds with Chris Dorobek


Modeling Stormwater BMPs in Second Life

Jered Spitteler's Virtual Stormwater Basin


Recently I met another civil engineer who works for a county in the State of Washington. He contacted me through the virtual world of Second Life where he is known as Jered Spitteler. Jered has been building a model in Second Life of one of the rain gardens maintained by his agency. Fortunately I had a chance this weekend to meet him at the virtual site of the basin he built. When I first arrived, Jered explained that he has re-created the basin and immediate area, including two homes that lie on each side of the property. Immediately inside the gate of the fence surrounding the parcel, there is a sanitary sewer lift station which belongs to a private franchise utility. The basin, along with its slopes, lies beyond taking up most of the area inside the fence. For now, Jered has placed some information near the top of the slope so people can learn about the best management practices currently in use at the site. However, he said his agency is researching the possibility of implementing a permaculture approach to improve maintenance of the facility.

The ease of modeling something like a stormwater facility in Second life is beneficial for educational purposes – both engineers and citizens can visit these sites to learn how and why best management practices are implemented and how they should be maintained. But it's also useful as a tool for engineers like Jered and myself to use for visualizing a design or concept. And, as Jered pointed out during my visit, because it's more than just a CAD drawing on a computer, engineers like us can contact each other and schedule a virtual site visit like Jered and I did today to discuss ideas and share experiences and walk through the design.

Jered said he has shown his build to his co-workers who thought it was pretty cool and had potential to be used for other projects. I think we both believe at some point in the future walking through our designs in a 3D environment will be a common task in the engineering process. If you are an engineer who is already in Second Life and are interested in seeing Jered's build, I'd encourage you to contact him for a tour. And if you haven't yet ventured into a virtual setting, but are interested in checking out his site, I'd be happy to schedule some time to help you first get familiar with Second Life. Just send an email to or DM or ping me on Twitter: @pbroviak.


Business Sim Released by Public Works Group

Public Works Group Business Sim


Over the last year or so I've worked on creating a 3D environment as a representation of the ADA Toolkit for Local Government. Last December I submitted the build in the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge. The winners were just announced this week, and my entry was not one of the finalists so I began the process of taking down the build so I can work on something else. But before I secured my demolition permit and completely cleared the site, I removed the ADA-related materials so only the buildings and landscaping remained. Then I saved it as an OAR file. Those of you who work in the Opensimulator environment are probably familiar with this file format. I am offering the build as a download for anyone who might need a build to support a business or e-learning use or anything else you can think of. Here are the main highlights in the build:

  • Main Landing/Welcome area
  • Three forest/park areas
  • Roads through business area
  • Hedge Maze
  • Four commercial buildings, one with a parking lot

Most of the content and images were created by me. However, I have incorporated a few items from Linda KellieNebadon IzumiVanish Seriath and possibly a few other people. All of the items used that were created by others were released for use under an OpenSource or Creative Commons license that would allow me to release them for free under a similar license through this build (any original notecards regarding the licenses can be found in the objects created by others). So have fun, and I hope the build proves useful for others. 



This file is released under a Creative Commons, noncommercial, share-alike, attribution license (basically meaning that you just can't sell any of the build or repackage it under your own name or brand – you don't have to attribute to me or the Public Works Group if you use the build.)