With support from the Knight Foundation, Drexel professor Frank Lee is helping people learn about open data in Philadelphia with an interactive urban planning simulation game.
In hopes of helping more people understand the political, economic and sociological forces that shape urban communities, game designers from Drexel University are turning Philadelphia’s open data into a SimCity-style urban planning game. With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Open Data initiative, Drexel’s game, called Simulated Interactive Management of the City of Philadelphia (SIM-PHL), will be set in the city’s Mantua neighborhood, an area that is part of a national initiative to support and restore marginalized communities.
“In the midst of this tremendous social inflection point, and a long-overdue examination of how our institutions have been used to empower and disenfranchise people, initiatives like the Knight Foundation’s — that not only daylight data, but also encourage citizens to engage with it in a way that helps them gain an intimate understanding of the invisible forces that have brought us to this point — are incredibly important for our society to learn and grow,” said Frank Lee, PhD, a professor in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and director of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio, who is leading the SIM-PHL project.
Lee’s city-simulator game is built on a database of real property values, incident reports and zoning maps in Philadelphia. It uses public data, made available by the City of Philadelphia at Atlas.Phila.Gov, to inform residents about the impact that real estate development can have on things like rental rates, food distribution, crime, population flight, political struggle, gentrification and other forces that shape urban neighborhoods.
“Despite the significance of real estate data in the lives of the average Philadelphian, these data remain inaccessible, either by design, or because little effort has been made to present it in a format that engages the public,” Lee said. “SIM-PHL presents this vital data in a fun and engaging format where users can explore these complex, local sociological issues through play. Because the game draws from real Philadelphia maps and data, it lets players experiment with the city as a responsive ecosystem of phenomena that drive prices, rather than as an impenetrable, unrelated set of buildings and real estates.”
Players will take the role of city manager with the goal of using yearly allocations from the city and fluctuating state funds to build a safe, successful and sustainable neighborhood that maximizes the happiness of the residents. Decisions about residential, commercial, industrial and recreational zoning; single and multi-family housing; and preservation of open spaces and historical sites — decisions regularly facing city and community leaders — will factor into the outcomes of the game.
“These are all difficult decisions and they all have serious ramifications for citizens,” Lee said. “If by playing this game people gain a better understanding of the real effect of policies, they can become even more effective advocates for their communities.”
Additional challenges will come from incident reports, all drawn from the city’s database, including contested zoning requests, damage resulting from natural disasters, and various political oppositions and industry pressures — all while seeking compromises that work for the community.
The Mantua neighborhood, where the game is set, is part of the community served by Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships and its efforts as a partner in the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Program. This longstanding relationship will help to guide the design of the game and enable it to accurately represent the changes and challenges the neighborhood has faced throughout its history.
“Drexel has worked for some time to become one of the most civically engaged universities in the country, part of that mission is making it easier for people to become informed citizens,” Lee said. “If this project is successful, it will equip our community with the knowledge it needs to become engaged in ways that I hope can effect meaningful change.”
Lee has a history of using urban landscapes as teaching tools. He recently led a project where local middle-school students designed and built arcade-style video games that were played using the LED array of the 29-story Cira Centre office building in University City.
Working with Gossamer Games, an award-winning game design company with roots in Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio, Lee plans to release SIM-PHL for Android and iOS devices in 2021.
SIM-PHL is one of seven projects, three of them in Philadelphia, funded by the Knight Foundation’s Big Data Challenge. The goal of the initiative is to enhance civic engagement by developing new models of public trust around big data, while also exploring new ways to capture community sentiment. These projects are intended to spark civic dialogue and help residents be a part of developing solutions for community challenges. Citizen engagement with data can also foster greater government and institutional accountability, according to the Knight Foundation.
“These projects meet residents where they are — on platforms they recognize, and in the cities they know -- to show that we can engage residents with data and create more responsive communities,” said Lilian Coral, Knight’s director for national strategy and technology innovation. “Utilized well, open data could help local governments effectively tackle major community issues, such as the health effects of lead and pollution, or growing gentrification in communities.”
For more information about the Knight Foundation’s Open Data initiative and the other projects being supported by it, visit: kf.org/opendatawinners