The use of so-called “virtual worlds” technology was explored recently during the 4th Annual Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference, held at the iCollege, (formerly known as the Information Resources Management College) at the National Defense University in Washington.
Eric Hackathorn, a program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, heads up NOAA’s Virtual Worlds Project, and runs his own company working in the nascent specialty of metrics for the 3D web. Right now, he’s considered one of the pre-eminent experts in the use of virtual worlds technologies in the federal government.
He’s one of the feds spearheading “V-gov”, a program designed to give civilian federal agencies a secure virtual world for collaboration.
“We don’t always understand each other’s priorities,” he said in the federal keynote address to the conference. “IT security people…have different priorities than those of us who are trying to innovate and do new things. The same goes for procurement. There are some jobs in government where their goal is to do things in a way that’s safe. And that’s inherently difficult for those of us trying to innovate.”
Hackathorn believes virtual worlds holds open the possibility of responding in new ways to citizens’ (he calls them “customers”) expectations of how government works for them.
“A lot of our audience doesn’t care about the limitations we have in the government. And they don’t have the patience for it. They want transparency, and transparency is more than just publishing a graph.”
In fact, says Hackathorn, the V-gov initiative offers an opportunity to satisfy one of the current administration’s efforts towards a fully transparent government.
“As part of (President) Obama’s Open Government Initiative, there’s a push to publish vast amounts of government data in open standards for public consumption. Everything from census to climate data could soon be online in an easy to use format. Virtual worlds offers the capability to take that data and visualize it in immersive and easy-to-understand fashions.”
Hackathorn told the conference he’s now working on a virtual worlds environment for his agency, NOAA, a “massively multi-player simulation, in which each user controls a small planet. A player invests resources in energy, agricultural production, and other areas, seeing how their choices affect the quality of life across the planet.”
A year ago, Hackathorn says NOAA created a treasure hunt contest in one of the agency’s Second Life “islands”, designed to encourage users to explore areas and resources they had not viewed in previous visits. He told the conference that the contest “boosted traffic to the site by nearly 250%”.