Open data can change the gaming industry, says one grad student who co-developed TaxiCity. The Web-based driving game uses Silverlight, Bing Maps and the City of Vancouver’s Open Data Catalogue

Vancouver grads build game with government data

A group of Vancouver grad students are believed to be the first to use open government data for game development with TaxiCity, a Web-based driving game.

TaxiCity lets players take on the role of a taxi driver, pick up passengers and deliver them to landmark destinations in downtown Vancouver, said Dashan Yue, a graduate student at the Center for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver.

Yue co-developed TaxiCity with six other students. The game was created in three months using Microsoft Corp.’s Silverlight development platform, Bing Maps and the City of Vancouver’s Open Data Catalogue, he said.

The students used multiple data sets from Vancouver’s open data catalogue to generate the maps in TaxiCity, such as block outlines, parks, building shapes and the centre midline strokes on streets, he said.

Players “actually drive in downtown Vancouver,” said Yue. “All the docks, all the buildings are actually real.”

The team also developed a Silverlight game engine, which they released as an open source project because they wanted to “give something back” to the open source and open data communities, said Yue. 

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Open data offers “significant benefits” to game developers, he said, and could potentially change the gaming industry by reducing the time and cost involved in creating virtual worlds.

Creating a virtual game world requires a lot of artists working on 3D models and generating other digital assets, but with open data, large areas can be created with minimal human effort by having a computer process that data, he said. “There are already several games that want to try to incorporate real-world scenes,” said Yue.

TaxiCity won second place at the FTW! Coding Competition at the Make Web, Not War conference in Montreal this year. Open government expert David Eaves acted as an advisor on the TaxiCity project and said the game is “more of a pure R&D experiment.” 

“It begins to show us some of the really complicated things that could become possible if cities shared their data,” he said. The game “also takes a step closer to being able to create games where you actually race around the City of Vancouver, which could be fun from a game perspective,” he said.

“It also takes it a step closer to actually having truly immersive virtual environments to represent cities that you could begin to experiment with,” he said.

From a municipal government perspective, Eaves doesn’t see immediate short-term benefits to working with game developers, but having people “pushing the boundaries around research and development of this technology positions us to be in a good place as this stuff begins to mature,” he said.

Over the longer term, one benefit is “moving to a place where we actually can create two or three representations of our cities, which means governments can show citizens what changes will mean,” he said. 

“Microsoft has been involved in Gov 2.0 and open government for at least a couple of years, and in particular, we’ve been very active with open data projects with the City of Vancouver and the City of Edmonton,” said Mark Gayler, technology strategist for government, Microsoft Canada.

Shortly after Vancouver published the first version of their Open Data Catalogue in the fall of 2009, Microsoft ran an internal competition at the Microsoft Canada Development Centre and five applications came out of that, he said.

One was VanPark, an app that used Vancouver open data to help people find and track parking during the Olympics. “It was an interesting mashup in that it combined open data sources and commercial data sources, which made it particularly useful,” he said.

Microsoft also worked with Nitobi Software to develop VanGuide, a Web and iPhone app that integrates with Twitter for navigating around Vancouver and annotating landmarks. “It was a good showcase to demonstrate how cloud, open and mobile technology can all work together combined with social networking,” he said.

When Edmonton made the decision to publish public data sources in early 2010, Microsoft worked with the city to develop its open data catalogue, he said. “What is very interesting about the Edmonton data catalogue is that the data is hosted in Windows Azure,” said Gayler.

The interface allows developers to switch between different programming protocols, depending on their preference, he said. “It makes it a very nice way to encourage developers to look into the catalog and encourage them to build their applications in a variety of different standards,” he said.

One of the components of Edmonton’s Open Data Catalogue uses Microsoft’s Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI), he said. “This was an open source solution developed by Microsoft programmers to help people load data and access data on the new Windows Azure platform,” he said.

Other Microsoft initiatives include the open source project hosting Web site CodePlex and the Open Data Application Framework.
 
Microsoft is supporting open government efforts for a number of reasons, said Gayler. First, most government organizations have a considerable investment in Microsoft technology and often ask how they can use that infrastructure and technology platform to provide open data and open standards capabilities to citizens, he said.

Second, there is more and more desire for technology platforms to be open to hook into other things, he said. “People want mobile capabilities, so it’s important that whatever technology or platform you provide, it can hook into whatever mobile or social networking device an end user may have,” said Gayler.

Third, Microsoft sees the rise in the use and adoption of cloud computing, he said. “What we see then is a neat convergence of open government movements and desire to make the business of government more open and transparent, combined with advancements in technology and technology platforms enabling them to be more open and interoperable,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.
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