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Pokemon Go! and the Problem With Data

As public interactions are driven by data, government has an obligation to make that information accessible.

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Within weeks of its release, the augmented reality game Pokemon Go! broke nearly every internet statistic. It quickly gathered more daily users than Twitter and more of people’s daily time than Facebook. But that’s not even the most noticeable feature of the new phenomenon. Pokemon Go! players must physically move around the city collecting resources and battling other Pokemon with their phones. While augmented reality technology has been around for a decade (I wrote a book about it in 2011), Pokemon Go! represents its breakthrough into the mainstream, and a reminder for those invested in the shape and governance of municipalities that there are many things beyond physical space that motivates movement and interaction with cities. 

For those who have never played Pokemon Go! there is no doubt you have encountered the new hordes of mostly young people meandering through the city, heads tilted downward to their devices, engaged in the quiet joy of hunting virtual objects. And for those people who have played, you understand how f streets, services and buildings have become  hidden treasures and sites of intense competition with anonymous opponents. Not to overestimate a single product, but I would venture to say that the scale of Pokemon and its inevitable successors marks a shift in the texture of urbanism. In many American cities, it just feels a little different to be in the city.

But why does this matter for government? Outside of traffic safety, and perhaps tax revenue, why should we care? Because like parks, plazas and sidewalks, the virtual layer of data that is driving Pokemon Go! is part of the public space in our cities. In July 2016, nearly 6 percent of active Android users in the United States were playing the game daily. That’s a lot of mostly young people moving around the city motivated by the data they’re accessing on their phones. Juxtapose that statistic to a study done in 2009 that found that 46 percent of state park directors across the country reported declining youth activity. So just like it is the business of government to assure access to parks and other public space infrastructure, so too is it the business of government to assure access to the data that will be driving more and more public interactions.

Pokemon Go! is owned and operated by the U.S.-based game company Niantic. It partnered with Nintendo, the owner of the Pokemon brand, to create Pokemon Go! Before this, Niantic was best known for an augmented reality game called Ingress, which had much the same game mechanic as its more famous successor. The Ingress player would wander through the city, collecting resources and securing territory, all facilitated by geolocated data and the phone’s camera. In Ingress, the locations of portals were contributed by players of the game. A fairly extensive network of portals was sourced by players over several years, so when Pokemon Go! launched, Niantic used these user-generated Ingress portals as Pokestops. Pokestops are like the game board. They are the actual physical locations where players gain valuable pokeballs and other resources to enhance their play.

Here’s the problem. Ingress was played mostly by young, middle-class males, and Pokemon Go!, because of its breakthrough success, has moved well beyond this population. The result is the creation of a playing field that is constructed by a small, privileged subset of the population. And as soon as the new game launched, with rather surprising meteoric success, Niantic closed off the crowdsourcing of portals because the technical system just couldn’t accommodate the demand for it. The result is what the Urban Institute recently referred to as Pokestop redlining. Pokestops are concentrated in mostly white, often tourist-heavy areas in cities, even though players come from a much wider and more diverse demographic. So while redlining in the mid-20th century was the intentional exclusion of minority populations from owning property in certain urban areas, this new form of data-driven redlining ostensibly has the same result. The difference is it’s enforced by code, not policy, and disguised by “natural market forces.”

This is a business problem for Niantic and something they are attempting to address now. They are motivated to make their product available to as many people as possible. But for Niantic, the cost of exclusion is only the possibility of underdeveloped markets. However, this is also a civic problem and something that city government needs to more actively engage. As more and more people are seeking out public space (all those spaces clearly under the jurisdiction of government), augmented by data (all those spaces currently under the jurisdiction of the private sector), how data is sourced and made accessible is of public concern. That some people are excluded from interactions because of the existence or non-existence of the data that facilitate those interactions is a violation of the public’s trust. If it is the public’s interest to assure the accessibility and usability of public parks, then that interest must also include the data and virtual interactions that overlay them.

Beyond augmented reality games, we are seeing an increasing interest from the private sector to invest in all forms of urban sensor data. Sensors and geo-located data are mostly referred to as the Internet of Things or the Smart City. And while Pokemon Go! is a high-profile example of this, its implications are more than fun and games. Everything we do in public space, from catching virtual creatures to walking down the street looking into shop windows, is generating data and serving as the raw material for present and future augmentations. There are efforts to use sensor data to inform transportation planning, consumer services, and even public health policies. Government can’t turn a blind eye to this increasingly important use of public resources. It needs to be an active, generative partner with private industry to guide how location data is collected, displayed and used. Whether this takes the form of city-wide advisory councils or positions within municipal government is still unclear. What is clear is that as the private sector continues to explore how the public will value data, government needs to assure that data has public value.
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