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Simming the City
Jamais Cascio, 23 May 05

chicagocrime.jpgIf the Sim is not the City, can the City be the Sim?

Regular players of SimCity will recall that the map of the town where you see the buildings and the little people going about their business is actually not the most important map in the game. The data maps -- showing crime rates, pollution distribution, traffic and the like -- are far more critical tools for figuring out where to put that police station, wind farm, or subway. But what if you could have similar maps for real cities?

The first steps along that path have already been taken, and rely on Google Maps. is a freely browsable database of reported crimes in Chicago. That could be interesting to Chicago residents and visitors, to be sure, but what really sets this site apart from other crime blotters is the integration of Google Maps, showing the exact locations of the reported crime scenes. The data is pulled from the Chicago Police Department's website, the maps from Google's site -- and the combination doesn't look precisely like a SimCity window, but it's certainly evocative of it (the image to the right is an excerpt from the map of attempted robberies between May 1 and May 10).

Similarly, the SimCity map of housing values is evoked by the HousingMaps site, which pulls real estate info from Craigslist and layers it onto Google Maps of US (and some Canadian) cities. And there's a site taking an RSS feed for traffic info and making a Google Map of traffic conditions in a bunch of different cities. Pollution information doesn't seem to be quite granular enough yet to link to city maps -- but this seems an ideal interface for data from pollution-sensing bicycles. And, as we noted recently, there are people scouring the Google satellite maps for environmental damage (another candidate was spotted recently, what appears to be waste runoff into the ocean in Mexico).

With the SimCity model in mind, a wealth of new ideas for GoogleMap applications spring to mind, both directly taken from the game and simply inspired by it. School ratings, fire scenes, public transit outages, Critical Mass events, recent store closures (perhaps mapped against big box retailer locations), LEED-certified and registered buildings... A key step to making a change to a system is seeing its underlying patterns. GoogleMaps may well turn out to be a critical tool for recognizing where action is needed as we reinvent our urban environments.

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I'll toss out a freebie.

How about a map which uses data for operating hours for businesses, cultural institutions, etc, and reflects what is open or closed by simple colors (say red and green). Then, one could locate "hot zones" of activity on any given day at any given time.

Use the zoom in/out feature for more specificity.

A great tool for the insomniacs, both occasional and regular, among us.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 23 May 05

I like that one, Joseph!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 23 May 05

Good idea, Joseph.

There could also be "discussion maps:" on-line maps where people can post/markup/color. I heard about a town in South Carolina, some years ago, struggling with a comprehensive plan. There was a lot of opposition to the entire idea of planning and zoning. Then, maps of the area were put up around town, with signs asking people to mark the location of the places they thought were special, were worth protecting. Virtually everyone marked the same places. An ordinance quickly became quite easy to implement.

A "discussion map" could be like a Wiki.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 May 05

The TV show "The District" did som very good work its first year with data mapping around crime. One of the main characters was a data analyst for the Washington DC Police Department and many programs would show her displaying crime information on an electronic map for the Commissioner and his task force as they tried to run down the culprits.

"The District" came out the same year as the first "CSI" and for my money displayed a clearer understanding of graphics and a more radical sense of the picture frame.

PS: I once emailed Wil Wright about using SimCity for city planning and design, specifically asking him about whether the underlying rules of the game could be changed to fit the needs of different real-life situations. He was interested but non-committal.

Posted by: gmoke on 24 May 05

Very cool idea. We could expand it to include ecosystems and better understand the world-scale dynamics.

Posted by: edward rietman on 30 May 05



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