Has Pokemon Go spawned a new way of boosting civic engagement?

Commentary: Last month 9,000 people took to San Francisco's streets to hunt for the mythical creatures from the smartphone game. The city's CIO suggests governments find a way to put that engagement to use.

I distinctly remember the moment when I traded my Nintendo NES — yes, the original — for a skateboard. It was 1986, I was 10, and as much as I loved my NES, I wanted to be outside, experiencing the real world, even if it meant real blood from skinned knees.

Nintendo has done a lot since then. It explored mobile gaming long before smartphones or other portable systems existed — remember the Game Boy? But Pokémon Go, which was created by Niantic in partnership with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, gives me a new view on gaming in real life.

The new mobile game has become quite the phenomenon, an absolute explosion by all of the traditional app adoption metrics — claiming twice the daily use of Facebook and more time spent than any of the major social networks. It raises profound questions about how we can harness the power of the people for civic good. What if Pokémon trainers were simultaneously reporting graffiti, litter, a pothole, or the condition of park turf to the city department responsible for fixing it?

It’s true that some bad actors and downright criminal creeps have already exploited zombie-like fanatics for their own petty crimes, and more tragically, resulted in loss of life right here in San Francisco. But for better or worse, the engagement is real, addictive and not confined to the world that exists inside the gaming engine. 


Just last month, the world’s largest Pokémon Go crawl took over San Francisco’s city streets. We don’t have the official number of participants, but more than 9,000 people expressed interest in attending on the Facebook event page. As I walked around the city that day, I saw huge crowds, retail shops advertising related promotions, and a buzz on the street you could feel — not to mention helicopters hovering over Market Street to capture images of the action!

As a civic technologist leading the technology vision for the birthplace of this and many previous gaming phenomena, I wonder how we can harness this for civic good. How can we use the frenetic growth of the game to make San Francisco a better city? It it crazy to try to connect those dots? 


After all, imagine what a crowd of 9,000 members of any city could accomplish, pounding the pavement voluntarily working for the betterment of the community. They could collect trophies and bragging rights, whether in the form of Pikachu or anything else that mobilizes them in the moment, all while doing a great civic duty. Imagine if in the process of playing a game, students or visitors could learn about the history of their community by visiting city-sponsored PokéStops.

[Read More: 3 counties use Pokemon Go to attract residents to government services]


What if gamers, simply playing their favorite game could analyze background video, identify the problem and send us the data. What about using user counts to measure crowds on public transit? Ultimately we could even help shape behavior, by putting Pokémon on alternate routes encouraging users to voluntarily avoid congested areas. Instead of burdening the user with having to consciously identify the problem and interrupt their gameplay to find our special app to report it, we could use visual fingerprinting to identify and report common civic problems.

These are just a few ways that using the current game in a slightly altered way could provide a major flow of data into city or community service organizations. 

If we think bigger, it seems the potential is not the game itself, but rather the platform that’s using augmented reality to motivate an engaged base. What if the platform allowed local governments to add a digital layer to any streetscape? We could intentionally use it to communicate planned street closures, permitting applications for businesses, or a host of things we currently struggle to convey to our constituents. Allowing us to reap some benefit of the game’s popularity offers an immense opportunity for good.

I don’t claim to be the soothsayer of civic technology, but what is exciting is that the people who spun up this core technology and developed a cultlike following for augmented reality, accomplished this success in only nine months. Maybe this is an indication that they are onto something big, and might be the team to help craft the future.

Many civic technologists and entrepreneurs like CitizenLab talk about the gamification of civic engagement and the democratization of data and service creation and consumption. CIOs, CTOs and innovation gurus inside government organizations are also talking about gamifying their service experiences to try to increase the efficacy and participation in our programs. 


I believe that time is here. I’m hoping that many of those brilliant minds, from every corner of the globe, will see the potential I do. I’m hoping they rally to use this movement for civic impact and not dismiss it as a child’s toy.

Miguel Gamiño is the chief information officer for San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @SFCityCIO. This post originally appeared on Gamiño’s Medium page, and was edited and republished with his permission. 

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