Second Life has potential for public sector, says analyst

Governments have been taking tentative steps towards establishing a presence in the virtual world. And while the business case may yet to be proven, there is potential for the public sector to utilize virtual applications such as Second Life, says analyst Alison Brooks.

Second Life is the increasingly popular online universe created entirely by its “residents”.

Brooks, senior analyst for government insights at Toronto-based IDC Canada, says that there’s some piloting of Second Life going on across the world with the U.S. government using it for immigration and educational forums. “The Center for Disease Control uses it as an educational tool,” she says.

Brooks says that governments are never usually the first to get into the game or adopt a technology, and tend to hang back and pick up something that’s already been tried and true, so it will take time for governments to move into the virtual world.

“The other important thing to consider is that the future customer…is the type of person who no longer has an off-line kind of thing, it’s always on, 24/7, so the citizens of tomorrow really are Web 2.0 types,” says Brooks. “But it’s inescapable, it’s coming and people need to figure out the utility of how to utilize those things.”

She adds that over time the increasing popularity of virtual worlds like Second Life with the younger, more tech-savvy generation will change the way that government does business internally and how it delivers its services.

One of the organizations that is embracing the virtual world is Canada Post, which launched an online community dubbed Maple Grove on Second Life in November of 2007, according to their direct retail strategist, Paulina Sazon. “We built a community that is really not far off from what Canada Post’s role is in the community across Canada in the sense that at the heart of Maple Grove is a post office,” she explains.

“Similarly in small communities the post office is regarded as the hub of the town, so it wasn’t really much of a stretch when we were thinking about whether or not Canada Post would make sense in the virtual community.”

Sazon adds that while Maple Grove is an online community for Canadian retailers to connect with online consumers, “It’s also meant to be an area for Canadians to connect and to really network and socialize with each other.”

She says that Maple Grove has had over 15,000 visitors since its launch.

While there may be potential for government in the arena of providing information and marketing, Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio argues that there are too many risks for governments to utilize the virtual world for service delivery.

“Behind every avatar is a person, but you can’t identify the person, so if you start thinking in terms of using Second Life for service delivery, how do you identify and authenticate people?”, says Di Maio, vice-president of public sector research for Gartner in Milan, Italy.

He says that part of the allure for organizations to be on Second Life is the “cool” factor. “One of the latest things we’re seeing in the U.S. is Second Life being used to recruit people for IT departments.”

“It’s interesting because it’s a way to address the people who are no longer satisfied with a two-dimensional Web, but are pretty much into the game generation, the 3-D generation, so it’s just an additional channel,” says Di Maio.

He notes that for presence in Second Life, there is currently no standard code of conduct, which poses a lot of unknowns as to how government employees should appear and behave in their avatar forms.

“It’s very complex to come up with a code of conduct that finds the right balance between decency, the governed tradition and the “cool” factor – anyone who tries that is at a loss at this point in time.”

In addition to providing information and retail/marketing, Second Life also lends itself to HR recruitment purposes, which could be of potential interest to government agencies, notes Brooks.

She points out that there is a huge demographic crunch occurring within government in terms of the people that are available in an HR sense.

“There’s going to be a huge hiring boon soon and those people that are coming in are going to be traditionally younger,” says Brooks.

“Forty per cent of their staff (government of Canada) are retiring, and in the next little while there’s just a virtual vacuum of people they need to attract,” says Brooks. “There’s no way it can’t be shifted over to that younger generation en masse if they play their cards right.”

Using the virtual world for recruitment is something that Sazon says Canadian government agencies are expressing interest in, because they realize this could potentially be a very ripe ground for HR and job fairs.

“If you’re looking for somebody who is tech-savvy, such as a computer IT programmer or graphic designer, it’s almost like a virtual resume in some cases because these people are essentially building cities and applications,” she says.

Related content:

Why Parliament needs a Second Life

Second Life island becomes platform for Italian politics

Looking ahead: Five application trends for 2008

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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