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How Pokémon Go is improving your city

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Millions of new eyes—and feet—on the street

Augmented reality games can make cities better places—for free
Pokémon Go

This story was originally published on July 15, 2016. It has been updated alongside the 12/12 release of new Pokemon in Pokemon Go.

For the past seven days—has it really only been a week?—Pokémon Go has transformed millions of people’s relationships to where they live. But another remarkable phenomenon is underway: Just by getting people to embark upon those journeys for Jigglypuffs, Pokémon Go is actually making cities better places—without any major financial investments from those cities themselves.

The charming vignettes of a video game uniting strangers on sidewalks (and luring them into lakes) seem cribbed from some utopian vision of the future. You’ve heard all the stories, and if you live in a relatively densely populated area, you’ve likely experienced them yourself. Players gathering in public places, talking to neighbors they hadn’t met before, discovering buildings they never knew existed, making a few very awkward discoveries, and probably shedding a few pounds in the process.

Some of these things—like thousands of young people swarming a city park of their own free will—represent the kind of civic engagement that cities have previously tried to achieve with well-funded improvements. But the notable thing about Pokémon is that this all has happened with no public health initiative, no marketing campaign, no infrastructural changes. Pokémon might be a fun complement to an already bustling urban center, but it’s a downright gift to cities that have been struggling to get people to explore their downtowns.

Just the fact that more people are out there using the sidewalks is an obvious benefit. More eyes (and feet!) on the street are always a good thing—for safety, for vibrancy, for economic activity. But it goes beyond that. Pokémon Go now counts nearly 21 million daily users. 21 million! That’s a figure that will likely surpass the daily users of Google Maps in the coming days. Imagine that: For 21 million of you, a game layer over a map of your city just became more usable than the map itself.

Now just imagine another layer—the geodata that 21 million daily users are generating by playing the game. Although early alarms were sounded about how much information that Pokémon Go is collecting from users, it’s really not any different from using any app that tracks your location. And that’s a serious chunk of civic information that’s incredibly valuable to the cities where people are playing.

In fact, that’s why Google was the incubator for Niantic Labs, the now-independent company that created Pokémon Go with Nintendo, as well as its predecessor Ingress (which is like Pokémon Go but with a post-apocalyptic freedom-fighter vibe). Since 2011, people playing Ingress all over the world have wandered their cities on on foot, amassing a location-based cache of pedestrian accessibility. This data actually helped Google launch turn-by-turn walking directions for Google Maps.

Pokémon Go could do the same, and more, contends Peter Marx, the former chief technology officer for the City of Los Angeles (he left his role last week and notes that these opinions are his own, not made on behalf of the city). "There have been several ever-more-incredibly fun alternative reality games that have the potential to offer interesting and useful data to cities," he says. He points to how the geotagged locations used by Ingress have helped cultural affairs departments track the status and popularity of public art pieces, since so many of the "portals" are located at statues and murals, just like PokéStops.

But Marx also reminded me that there are plenty of civic "games" we’re already playing —we just don’t think about them that way. "Some of the apps changing city life are cleverly disguised as games—think of Waze and its social media, points for reporting collisions and potholes, and its connecting transportation to people." Waze, in fact, did start as a game—or at least that was the way that its developers got people to use it. The earliest version had drivers gobbling up icons like Pac-Man, which were purposely placed on streets that Waze needed more data from. It worked; now Waze is used by more than 50 million drivers worldwide and provides incredibly detailed real-time routing information.

The gamification of civic improvement is also something that’s of great interest to Ben Berkowitz, the founder of SeeClickFix, a city service request app that’s used by almost 300 cities nationwide. The "search and destroy" functionality of filing 311 reports through an app is so similar to catching Pokémon that Berkowitz is already thinking about how the two could work together. "If there was an open API for Pokémon Go where we could feed SeeClickFix issues to the dataset, citizens looking to capture the nearest Pokémon could discover how the city has improved the public space," he says. What else could players spot as they’re walking the streets?

Due to the immersive experience, some people are using the app not necessarily to nab Zubats but as a kind of neighborhood guide to find interesting things around them. "I learned more about Los Angeles street art than I had in the last 20 years," says Eric Spiegelman, president of LA’s Taxicab Commission. "You think you know a city backwards and forwards, and then a stupid little game based on a toy brand you were too old for when it came out in the 90s comes along and says, ‘Here are 30 things you didn't know about on this one street.’"

City leaders are already looking at ways to capitalize on this phenomenon, with some cities going to great lengths to promote the locations of their PokéStops. National parks are organizing Pokémon hikes and cultural institutions are holding themed tours that throw in a bit of education on the side. Transit agencies are probably the biggest winners in the civic realm, because it’s much easier (and safer) to spot Pokémon while riding buses and trains instead of driving.

After Angelenos started tweeting their transit-accessible Pokémon discoveries at the official Metro account, LA’s transit agency created a separate Twitter account just to track and promote Pokémon play. "We want to get out ahead of this and encourage people to play along with us," says Anna Chen, Metro’s public information officer. But there’s another good reason to promote Metro as Pokémon-friendly—it is totally possible that this many players could boost transit ridership.

Gaming apps are trendy by nature—remember, say, Candy Crush?—and their popularity is always fleeting. So what happens when we’ve moved onto the next Pokémon Go? I think it will only get more exciting for cities. This is the first certifiable hit in the augmented reality world and there will be many, many more apps like this on the way. There could be future games that are more about history, or food, or civic engagement; layers upon layers upon layers of urban experiences.

In fact, this actually turns the whole urban planning concept of placemaking on its head. The value of a place no longer relies on friendly amenities or capital improvements, and it actually changes depending on which game is loaded up on your phone.

There’s one more tangible benefit from Pokémon which is already starting to become obvious. Last Friday, as the country reeled from yet another episode of hate-fueled violence, seemed like horrible timing for an app like this to drop. Perhaps the fact that people needed a frivolous diversion from the news was what made Pokémon so popular in those first few hours. But there’s also something to the fact that this was a game that drew people out of their homes and forced them to play in public. Pokémon isn’t going to solve our equality issues, but it might help in some small way to bridge divides by luring us into different communities and encouraging us to talk to strangers.

Riding the bus yesterday, I watched two groups of teenagers animatedly trading notes on where to make catches. A week ago, these kids would have likely sat side-by-side in sullen, smartphone-induced silence. Instead, I watched a girl, her eyes gleaming, as she gave her new friend directions to a nearby park.