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Pokemon Go Challenge Brings Civic Tech to Citizens

Boston's Participatory Pokemon Go program engaged citizens and helped spur policy discussions about our augmented, smart future.

Kids in Boston spent the summer playing Pokemon Go — on purpose and with purpose. For the organizers of this citywide contest, playing is vital. But it doesn’t stop there. The experiment could generate widely divergent stories about how kids spend their summer vacations — playing a game, pioneering augmented reality, redefining and reclaiming public spaces, previewing what’s next for smart cities, and advocating for inclusion and social justice.

Wider in scope than even the most ambitious sports or code camps, the initiative bears the name Participatory Pokemon Go, a wink and a nod to participatory budgeting through which the public directly decides how to spend part of a public budget. The Pokemon Go variety of “participatory” gives the public — in this case, youth — the power to literally create a new sense of place through location-based mobile technologies. More on that in a moment.

Pokemon Go’s introduction in July 2016 made real — and phenomenally popular — what had been the almost theoretical world of augmented reality. At its peak in that first month, the game attracted 28.5 million active daily users — a time when cities alternately embraced its potential for public engagement (San Francisco), regulated it (Milwaukee County, Wis.) and cautioned against its distraction (Prince William County, Va.). A year later, the number of active daily users has fallen to 5 million. That still provided a large, viable test bed for Boston’s experiment, described by its planners as “a youth-led, citywide creative communication to promote equitable representation of Boston neighborhoods in the popular mobile game.”

The summer challenge focused on identifying and pitching potential PokeStops with a view to having Pokemon Go maker Niantic add up to 100 meaningful locations to the game that resonate with local players. Niantic is a partner in the competition, together with the city of Boston, ENGAGE Boston (a nonprofit promoting youth civic advocacy) and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College.
Professor Eric Gordon directs the lab, and his research is focused on locative computing — the intersection of augmented reality and located data. It is, ultimately, the stuff of a smart city, which can only succeed by reclaiming public spaces, both the physical locations and the data associated with them.

“What we’re doing with Pokemon Go is meant to draw attention to the fact that people are interacting with data points,” Gordon said. “We’re just talking about Pokemon Go, but I’m hoping this opens up a dialog for youth and for people who haven’t really considered the implications of smart cities to actually think about what that might mean for their communities and for their cities. I see this project as one of the first steps to having a truly participatory dialog around smart cities and the implications for the future of our cities.”

Gordon said that surfacing locative data in these ways makes clear how the same kinds of inequalities of the physical world are mirrored or even amplified at the data level. He hopes the Pokemon Go challenge can help begin policy discussions about equity, privacy and security. He worries that, to the degree these conversations are taking place at all, they are being driven by commercial interests. “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.”

Moreover, he said, “the public sector has a role in opening up these conversations, not just so that we can receive more efficient services, but so that we can receive services and benefits that directly impact people in communities across that city.”

At the same time, Gordon doesn’t want legitimate concerns about privacy and equity to alarm policymakers even as they come to terms with something else that makes public agencies nervous: playing games. “I think we ought to recognize [the phenomenon of game play as a] symbol of the smart city, but also symbols of the playful city that we should acknowledge and grasp onto and make something really meaningful out of.”