A Second Life for government?

The Department of Innovation Universities and Skills Social Media Manager, Steph Gray, asked an interesting question the other day about second life and examples of government use. I have to admit, I’m not a particularly big fan of the platform. Whilst I think there are potential applications for government in virtual worlds, take-up is still in its infancy and there are a lot of other ‘social media’ applications that would benefit from government use.

Who am I talking to, and when?

To date, I haven’t been able to convincingly argue why we should use Second Life as an engagement or policy development tool.

Previously, one of the more heavily used arguments for not using second life had centered on discussions involving a lack of available or inflated statistics.  Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life still claim the virtual world is ‘inhabited by millions of residents from around the globe’. This is a strange contrast to their August 21 economic statistics which indicate a population base in excess of 14 million unique ‘resident avatars’ but an active user base over the last month of less than 850,000.

Whilst the semi-active user base would normally be enough for me to suggest a ‘pass’ on the platform, this isn’t necessarily always the case for government, and there are some existing examples of public sector deployment that are worth a look at.

Current examples

The majority of public sector examples seem to be justified through a ‘look aren’t we clever’ approach, presumably backed by a business case that seeks to capitalise on being seen as an innovative early adopter of new technologies.

Despite the decreasing PR punch of being an early adopter in Second Life, one area where this approach may remain viable is through a unified government ‘in-world’ presence. Public diplomacy would seem an obvious choice.

Embassies have a strong presence in second life – two good European examples are Sweden and Estonia (though both were beaten to the ‘first-in Second Life’ tag by the Maldives).  These European examples seek to promote cultural and linguistic attributes of their countries. Estonia has also incorporated some transactional attributes within their embassy and visitors are able to to commence the application process for a ‘real-world’ visa.

The Australian State of Victoria has also developed a second life presence, Melbourne Laneways, which is co-hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The three month trial was designed to gather information on the viability of Victorian business operators establishing a presence within second life.

Key risks

One of the key risks suggested in the Melbourne Laneways project evaluation was the resentment of some second life users of real world companies ‘invading’ their fantasy space. John Edwards and Toyota are among some fairly big names to have been victims of ‘griefing’ attacks, which normally occur on unsuspecting or novice users. Dr Iain Coyne of the University of Nottingham has researched the practice of greifing:

…In Second Life it appears that the power imbalance between a griefer and a target is focused on knowledge and experience. A new resident (newbie) may be targeted because of their naivety and inability to stop the griefing. As one participant put it: ‘information is power…experience matters”

Which is all well and good if you are an experienced user, but I imagine it would be cold comfort to those of us unable to stop a patriotic nigras griefing attack involving avatars that include Hitler in pink hot pants or a legion of Super Mario’s from invading an organisations, all-important ‘world first’ Second Life announcement.

Despite the threat of second life trolls and the likelihood of needing a consultancy to manage the exercise (for all but the very experienced user) there are some examples emerging that highlight where the platform may be useful.

Where it seems to be working

Aside from establishing an embassy presence in Second Life there are some educational examples where government in conjunction with academic institutions seems to be making inroads.

Bertalan Mesko’s blog, Science Roll, recently featured work being done by Imperial College focussing on medical training applications in second life.

Similarly the British Council is using second life to enhance its interaction with teenagers and encourage global language learning.

These are just two prominent examples, a more comprehensive list with a focus on UK higher and further education is being put together by the Eduserve foundation.

Looking at the examples above, it occurs to me that a potential opportunity may exist for the UK Government to provide an environment for civil servants in conjunction with the National School of Government. To me this type of use would seem sensible and potentially avoid some of the   residential requirements of many of NSG’s courses.

Moving right along

To sum up what is an unusually long blog post for me, I’d recommend the following steps if asked to develop a second life presence within your organisation:

  1. Assess if you are able to use the platform on existing in-house IT infrastructure.
  2. Attempt to quantify if your audience uses Second Life and the amount of resources you will need to manage the platform.
  3. Seek alliances with existing government users of the platform
  4. Where disparate or multiple government use of the platform exists, try to unite them in one context

As Dan Herman over at the Wikinomics Blog suggests:

The key is thus to take Second Life for what it still is, a relatively unique niche space, whose utility for engagement should be targeted on its ability to pinpoint a population of Web 2.0 saavy users, and most important, in a visual and quasi-physical manner.

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6 responses to “A Second Life for government?

  1. Great post Justin. There do seem to be examples when you go digging for them, but I think whether the platform offers value is very much a case-by-case thing.

    For example, I think the idea of Second Life as a virtual training environment instead of a costly or impossible real-world environment is a nice one – like the plumbing courses being run by the College of North West London:

    http://excellence.qia.org.uk/162063

    But with so many public sector players out there, surely it’s time for some Island Convergence in the spirit of rationalising our online presence? 😉

  2. Pingback: Health News in Second Life: Government and Virtual Patients « ScienceRoll

  3. I work for a municipality in the US and have spent the last year and a half exploring how government can use online and virtual tools. So far I see a lot of potential, first of all, because many of these tools can be implemented at a very low cost.

    There is also the benefit of finally being able to connect in an engaging manner. All of us in government face very similar issues and problems, and by connecting we can find solutions faster and better compare our ideas and results. Until now, there really was no good interface to allow all of us from all over the world to interact in this way.

    We can also use the tools in worlds like Second Life to create and share those ideas and concepts with each other and with the public. I can tell you from working years in government, people really don’t seem to understand what we can and can’t do as a city. I look forward to seeing tools like Second Life used to educate the public about government, its role in our society, established standard rules and laws and how they affect all of us, and even how to better navigate and work with government.

    There are many other benefits, but if we can use virtual worlds to accomplish just the items I mentioned above, we will be way ahead from where we are today.

  4. Pingback: FutureGov » Useful links » links for 2008-08-26

  5. Pingback: Pack of Sensations » Blog Archive » Health News in Second Life: Government and Virtual Patients

  6. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "wikinomics" - JabberTags

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