A mobile app allowing gamers in Australia to take charge of a town based on real population data is proving a surprise hit, pointing the way to new digital techniques for public service engagement, its developer has told UKAuthority.com.
"Run That Town" is a town management simulation game created by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) based on real 2011 Census data, available as a free app for Apple iOS.
Players can take control of any postal neighbourhood in Australia and make decisions on developing new civic projects from swimming pools to zoos. At the heart of the game is that real population data, so players must consider the area's gender, age, employment, transport, education, income, and home ownership statistics before making choices. They can also consult with positive and negative campaigners and read the local papers to see how their decisions are being received.
A game lasts up to 10 virtual years, with each turn equalling one month. After five game years (60 turns), a new in-game population Census is conducted, mirroring the survey's real-life periodic nature. At the end of the 10th year - if a player reaches that far without being drummed out of office -a final Census is taken and players' success is judged based on demographic growth, projects completed, in-game achievements and approval rating. Then they are either treated to a ticker tape parade or chased out of town - a touch which, along with the game's stylish graphics and lively voiceovers, puts the focus on fun.
"The game was designed to appeal to a wide audience", Michelle Howe, director of census communication and engagement at ABS, tells UKAuthority.com.
"Emphasis is placed on immediate engagement, catering to a casual audience and drawing people into the game, as well as humanising the gameplay environment and increasing the difficulty and complexity of the game over its length."
The plan certainly seems to have worked: within days of the game's launch last year, word spread about it on game blogs, generating more than 7,500 downloads in six days and propelling it to the top of the App Store's entertainment category. Since then more than 70,000 people have downloaded the game, which maintains a high player rating and a buzz on social media (hashtag: #RunThatTown).
So it is a popular game - has it also worked as a public information tool?
"Run That Town aims to highlight the value of Census data and increase access to, and use of this wealth of statistical information - the best way to understand the true value of Census data is to use it", says Howe.
It may also help increase participation in the next Census, she says. "The ABS relies on the willing participation of people across Australia to complete the Census and... the likelihood of counting a person has traditionally varied according to a number of factors, including their age and sex.
"As has been observed in previous Censuses both in Australia and overseas, young adults are the age group most likely to be missed, with young adult males being more likely to be missed than their female counterparts. So Run That Town also sets out to overcome a growing youth net undercount in the Census, by providing an experience that is tailored to the individual; incorporating the individual directly in game playing and sharing; and helping the public to understand their contribution to Australia's future through participation in the Census."
The bureau is now investigating the feasibility of developing an Android version of the app. And in a parallel digital engagement exercise, it has developed an online Flash-based data visualisation tool called Spotlight aimed at bringing Census data to life by placing it in contexts that are surprising and entertaining. People can see a range of stats based on where they were born, where they live, and what they do, again with the aim of boosting user understanding of the value of the Census.
The bureau's digital engagement work has drawn interest from other agencies in Australia and internationally (the Cabinet Office in the UK invited the project to be a case study at a recent global conference), and it aims to build on its success in planning for the 2016 Census and more broadly in its engagement and dissemination strategies, Howe says.
"Run That Town and Spotlight are the foundation of a future where technology will play an increasingly critical role in the efficient and effective operations of governments and public services, but also as the next wave of citizen-centric, interactive communication channels", she says.
"The availability of trusted statistical information to inform public debate and enable effective decision-making is fundamental to open government and democracy."
Pictured: A screenshot from the Australian Bureau of Statistics app, Run That Town.
Run That Town: http://runthattown.abs.gov.au
ABS Spotlight: http://spotlight.abs.gov.au