I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.
That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. A recent story in the LA Times entitled claims that “‘Sim City’ inspired a generation of city planners.”
As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”?
Apparently it’s quite difficult – not from a technical perspective, but from an organizational development one.
Technically, government agencies have the vast majority of the data Sim City offers to viewers, such as information about geographic information like zoning and elevation; statistical information like crime rates and population, educations rates; and infrastructure monitoring like traffic rates, electricity use, water flow rates, etc. But bringing it all together to give the residents an intelligible, (relatively) real-time dashboard for seeing their city operate clearly just isn’t a priority.
Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, we don’t have to wait for our city to organize this information for us. We can begin to do it ourselves.
Here are a few of the features that would make “SIMNYCity” such a valuable contribution to civic life.
Interactive Community Maps
The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.
Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.
We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.
When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.
Moving Beyond the Vote
Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be noncompetitive. This means that a very small group of Democratic party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.
We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes.
These are just a few interfaces Sim City has for making cities and their government more legible, and interacting with them more enjoyable. The technical hurdles to implementing similar interfaces for the city are certainly significant, but not impossible to overcome. Planning Labs, a digital service organization within NYC’s City Planning agency is building open source software and open data resources that could power many of the complicated mapping elements. Furthermore, New York City’s Open Data law mandates that much of the information we’d need from the government to build such a system is being published to the city’s official Open Data Portal.
Exploring what that data is and how it can be connected together to build the type of deep data resources needed to power interfaces similar to Sim City’s is the next step – and it’s work we’ve begun to do through our MyGov.NYC project, which connects nearly a dozen (and counting!) city datasets together to create data-driven government agency profiles. Our primary goal with this project is to make this information easier for civicly minded people, especially journalists, to navigate and use for their work. This process also gives us uniquely sharp insights about what data is and isn’t available. By understanding those gaps, we can develop a list of data we’d need to build Sim City style interfaces for New York City.
Expect a report on that in the not too distant future…