Citizen Engagement: Hacking Cities With Minecraft

Citizen Engagement: Hacking Cities With Minecraft

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This post about building citizen engagement looks at two topics which don’t generally get the lion’s share of attention in civic hacking — youth and gaming.

Minecraft is a video game that many young people enjoy. In “Hacking Cities With Open Data and Minecraft” David Eaves talks about using Minecraft to build cities and to build citizen engagement with young people.

“…I’m interested in both tools and organizing structures that lower costs to letting citizens hack their cities — not in the literal sense — but in the participatory sense. If the tools become more accessible, then maybe…we’ll have more people become smart citizens… 

I remember being 12 years old and playing SimCity, trying to figure out ways to make my city better, more enjoyable…It is one of the reasons why I’m so excited about how a new set of low cost tools — Minecraft and open data — seem to be increasing the opportunity space for people to rethink their city…That’s where Minecraft comes into play; giving people a tool to visualize their ideas of how they want to change their part of town… 

…these tools may could be getting easier still, thanks to intrepid developers and open data. Over at TopoMC Jack Twilley has built tools to help recreate real world geographies in Minecraft using United States Geological Survey data. And Max Ogden, a 2011 Code for America fellow, has created voxel.js, an open-source clone of Minecraft that renders entirely in the browser. More intriguing, however, was a module Ogden created that allowed you to use Google maps to recreate a city block, including building outlines, in his Minecraft clone. While still crude this development could eventually eliminate the chore of recreating your neighborhood in Minecraft. 

It is not hard to imagine a future where a seven-year-old shows up at city hall and demos his alternative version of what a development or rezoned project might look like…”

There are five issues to consider when hacking cities with Minecraft:

  1. Youth
  2. Young Women
  3. Open Data
  4. Civic Engagement
  5. Connecting Tech / TIME Community

Youth — Minecraft is popular with many young people. I’m not a Minecraft person, and I don’t know if its popularity has decreased over the last year or two, but there are many youth who still spend a lot of time in the Minecraft world. Having Minecraft-related activities would probably be a good way to get young people involved with civic hacking events.

Young Women — Several moms I know have said their daughters really enjoy Minecraft, which seems to be one of the few video games with cross-gender appeal. In addition to being a novel way to involve young women in civic hacking, it can be a great way to get some of them involved with computer programming. Women In Technology, Wisconsin, might be interested in collaborating with civic hackers to explore Minecraft civic hacking as a useful activity for involving more NE Wisconsin young women in technology.

Open Data — Using GIS open data to create Minecraft cities and regions could result in a new civic hacking GIS platform. There might also be ways to mash up these Minecraft creations with OpenStreetMap to create useful civic hacks or entrepreneurial opportunities. This application of open data may do more to convince some people of the value of open data than any other application could.

Civic Engagement — As the David Eaves article above mentioned, having young people create and modify parts of their city might be an effective way to create citizen engagement. It could also allow young people’s creative ideas to be translated from half-formed imaginative ideas in their brains into a viewable-by-everyone vision of what they think is possible for their neighborhood or city. It’s even possible for stodgy and over-the-hill adults to use this tool to show others their vision for the city or a portion of it.

Connecting Tech / TIME Community — Along with the benefits mentioned above, civic hacking with Minecraft might be a way to connect people in the NE Wisconsin tech and TIME community (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) who might not otherwise meet. It also gives one more reason for local organizations and national companies to support the tech / TIME community in our region.

Minecraft Louisville and Lakecraft are two examples of civic hacking projects involving the Minecraft gaming world.

Lakecraft, is a free Minecraft world model of the Lake Champlain Basin built with real-world data. As it stated in the Lakecraft project for the National Day of Civic Hacking,

Our goal is to gamify learning about the Lake Champlain basin/watershed. To do this we integrated open GIS data into the Minecraft game framework at the first NDoCH. The virtualized Lake Champlain basin has been used in summer camps at our local science center and aquarium to engage youth with a medium they understand, and a topic that is relevant. Work continued throughout the year. For the 2nd NDoCH, we recruited a developer to help us create a plugin to the Minecraft server that will allow us to, eventually, send/stream GIS-based data updates to a running version of the world…”

In addition to the two Lakecraft links above, click here for the presentation “The Potential of Lakecraft.”  Learning from Lakecraft, in NE Wisconsin we could model the entire region, individual watersheds in the region, Lake Winnebago, Green Bay or other ecosystems.

Minecraft Louisville was a project started at a hackathon on the National Day of Civic Hacking, using raw GIS data to automatically create a Minecraft world. Here’s the NDoCH project description:

Inspired by Denmark, we used GIS data as the first step for recreating Louisville within the game Minecraft. We used Kentucky state open GIS 5-foot contour data (Louisville data not open yet) and modified open source Python scripts to automatically create an accurate representation of Louisville, including bedrock, dirt, and grass layers. One square mile by the Ohio River was used as a test, and we will be working to get all 380 square miles into an online Minecraft server in the coming weeks. After Louisville opens more geodata, we will layer on roads, water, trees, buildings, property outlines, house numbers, and parks for the public to explore (and build or demolish) the city in 1:1 detail.”

More info related to this Minecraft city project can be found at:

Civic hackers could start out by recreating one NE Wisconsin city in Minecraft, while at the same time developing the process for later modeling other cities in the area. People from different cities in the region all working on building one city would be a great way to create new connections between those cities.

If you’re interested in leading a Minecraft-focused activity at the next civic hacking meetup or at the next major civic hackathon in NE Wisconsin, feel free to contact me or just start the ball rolling and launch the activity with young people you know.

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