Thursday, 19 April 2012

SimCity - showing the future of data visualisation - and not just for gaming

SIMCITY


When talking to people about managing knowledge as a resource, it is helpful to frame this in the context of the difference between data, information, knowledge and insight. This can be a fairly esoteric concept, so I pitch it using real-life examples; for example, the resources you might use in choosing a new book to read. The ISBN catalogue number and RRP (data) isn't much help in itself, but other titles by the same author, best price, whether it is in stock certainly give you useful information. Amazon reviewer ratings will give you reader ratings and comments (knowledge). Best of all still is getting the opinion of someone you trust who has read it (insight).

There are a growing number of really smart examples of how data is being made more accessible through visualisation techniques. I've talked about Hans Rosling's brilliant temporal visualisations of health data before.

This video 'SimCity Insider's Look - Glass Box Game Engine' shows how things have progressed in  using data in clever and engaging ways. I just love the way that 'units' and 'agents' impact behind the scenes in response to decisions you make. These are not just direct (perhaps more smoke from increased factory output) but a result of sophisticated sets of rules governing 'agents' and 'units' that together create economic, social and environmental feedback and unintended consequences. Just like life really. This example shows how a decision to pump more water from the aquifer impacts pollution, health and the local economy.

It struck me that this game engine is doing something rather special - shortcutting the link between data and insight, through visualisation. The player doesn't need, or want, to know the 'unit' information rules or agent data, that lie behind the gameplay. He or she can see the impact of a local decision - the dirty plume of smoke from the power station chimney.

The increasing amount of public data being made available in 'open data' formats, coupled with brilliant and engaging visualisation tools is good news. Particularly good in terms of making sense of the sometimes overwhelming amount of data being collected and being made available to us.

We've come a long way from that original SimCity.

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