Ingress and crowdsourcing civic data

Sometime earlier this year I started playing the smartphone augmented reality game Ingress. It’s basically a giant, global game of capture the flag where two teams fight for control of “portals” which can be anything from street art to historic buildings. The innovative aspect of the game is that it requires you to physically go out into the world and interact with these places – you have to be standing within a few metres of portals to interact with them, and hence the game gets you out of the house and walking around. Although you could play the game as an individual, you quickly come into contact with others on your team to coordinate, and in the process enter into a friendly community.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the game is that quite a bit of it is crowdsourced. People who play the fame (“agents”) go out into the world and submit points of interest (POI) and a photo to the people who make the game, who then after a period of months either accept or reject your submission. You can also submit new photos of existing portals. So over time you gradually see the streets in the game fill up with more and more portals to interact with, and new interesting photos of monuments and buildings etc.

This crowdsourcing aspect of the game got me thinking of the potential for an Ingress-like game for reporting and interacting with real world objects in a way which actually benefits society. In other words, what would happen if you were to create a hybrid of Ingress and fix it apps which many councils around the world already offer for citizens to report on problems in their neighbourhood?

The basic idea would be that you boot up this app on your phone, and are immediately presented with a map of your surroundings – perhaps a few hundred metres in every direction. The data could be pulled from Open Street Map. As you move around, the centre of the map moves and you can see different things. On the map are a number of different POIs – nearby parks, town halls, etc. The types of POI visible could be changed depending on your preferences. The point is that you could select things on the map around your current location to submit to the app as problems (with accompanying photos). E.g. a street light might be out and in need or repair, there might be rubbish everywhere, plants may be overgrown and in need of trimming on public land, there might be grafiti etc. Once your problem has been submitted, it could appear on the map to others who are also around there. Other people could take additional photos, confirm the problem exists, add more details, or report that the problem had already been fixed or did not appear to exist at all.

The possibilities are pretty much limitless in terms of what you could do with an app like this. You could crowdsource photos of monuments, or create missions where people had to do a number of things around the city. I think it would be really good if it was game-ified such that people felt tangible progress as they “played” the game more. It would essentially gamify being a good citizen, and allow councils and governments to have the power of heaps of helpful people all over the place.

Existing apps which allow people to submit problems in the city, are a good start, but I think they could be way better. Obviously it would be a huge amount of work to put something like this together, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Uber arrives in Wellington

Uber recently launched in Wellington. It’s a service where you use an app on your phone to arrange a location for a pickup, and a driver comes and takes you to your destination. Uber intially started as a luxury car service, but eventually ended up launching UberX, which is essentially a normal taxi service except provided through their app. It’s a big and fast growing service: it’s available in 130 cities, and the company is worth around $18 billion USD.

I had my first ride (for free!) from the airport into town the other day, and apart from the driver taking a while to set off to pick us up, it was a great experience. Judging by the car and the ID pass on the dashboard, it looked like our driver used to be a taxi driver, which seems to be the case for most of the Uber drivers in Welly. I think they have about four drivers in Wellington at the moment.  Continue reading “Uber arrives in Wellington”

The Circle


I read Dave Eggers’ somewhat new book, The Circle recently. It’s a sort of technological-dystopia set in the near future, where a Google-like company is essentially taking over the world. While I found the book interesting and quite good, although somewhat absurd, what I found remarkable is how often the themes are coming up in news articles. Continue reading “The Circle”

race, ethnicity, and racism

In light of Jamie Whyte’s recent comments about Maori privilege, I thought I would put up one of my old essays about race, ethnicity, and racism (excuse the awkward structure!). I think it’s bizarre that in this day and age we’re even talking about “race” (as opposed to ethnicity) at all.

For a bit of further reading on the whole situation see Giovanni Tiso’s excellent essay, as well as Morgan Godfery’s thoughts about political racism in New Zealand.
Continue reading “race, ethnicity, and racism”

The parliamentary prayer

Andrea Vance writes that New Zealand’s parliamentary prayer is up for review again:

Parliament could get a new prayer after the election in September.

A review of standing orders, the rules that MPs must adhere to, was published this week, putting the prayer back on the agenda.

The review recommends MPs be asked their views on changing the prayer read by the Speaker at the opening of a sitting of the House.

The wording of the present devotion has not changed since 1962. MPs voted in 2007 to retain the prayer, after a petition asked that it not be specifically Christian.

“We acknowledge that not all members identify with the practice of reading a Christian in prayer at the opening of a sitting of the House, although it is a tradition of very long standing,” the review says. …

In my view, the parliamentary prayer is long overdue to be changed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the prayer, it’s read each day by the speaker before the sitting of parliament.  This is it:

Almighty God, humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We’ve had a prayer at Parliament since the first session of Parliament in May 1854. It seems silly that in a society as diverse as New Zealand, we still have a Christian prayer. Our public institutions should reflect the New Zealand population at large, and this archaic prayer alienates people from other religions, as well as the growing proportion of New Zealanders who aren’t religious at all. According to the 2013 census, only about 43% of New Zealanders are Christian, and I’m sure a significant proportion of those Christians would feel uncomfortable foisting this prayer on the rest of us. As Allan Davidson has argued:

Tradition is in tension with our growing multicultural, secular society. Finding public rituals that express what we hold in common today is something we should be striving for rather than perpetuating words and practices which reinforce exclusion.

The issue was last looked at by Parliament in 2007, when sitting MPs voted to retain the current prayer, presumably because “we can’t mess with tradition!”.

There seems to be pretty widespread support from people such as Green politicians Gareth Hughes and Keith LockeDavid Farrar of Kiwiblog, media consultant Bryan Edwards, and the Catholic archbishop John Dew to reform the prayer.

From here, I think we have a few different options for reform. We could change the wording to something more inclusive (preferably non religious), we could introduce a system with alternative prayers on different days, or the prayer could be scrapped altogether.

Update: The Speaker David Carter, in his finishing address for the 50th Parliament on 31 July 2014, went out of his way to say something about the Parliamentary prayer at the end of his address. Here’s what he said:

…if I am fortunate enough to continue this role I intend to progress three particular challenges. Firstly, modernising daily prayer in a manner that is acceptable to the vast majority of members of Parliament, [laughter in the House] but with strongly held views this may not be as easy as it sounds. …

That sounds promising! But I guess it all depends on what parliamentarians, with their “strongly held views” think…

Further reading

Updated 24 September 2014

University specialisation

“[Robert Stout] went on to elaborate how, in the interests of economy, each [university] college could specialise: Otago in medicine; Canterbury in engineering and agriculture; Auckland, being a maritime city, in astronomy, navigation, mechanical engineering and the like. ‘So far as Wellington is concerned, it is the seat of Parliament and the seat of the Court of Appeal. This city might be prominent for its special attention to jurisprudence, to law, to political science, to history.’ It was a vision that would prove remarkably prescient.”

Victoria University of Wellington 1899 ~ 1999: A History

I happened across this history of Victoria University on the NZETC website. In this passage, Robert Stout is speaking in a parliamentary debate about his vision for a university college in Wellington. (Originally there was one ‘University of New Zealand’ with different ‘colleges’ around the country – eventually they got split up and each called a university in their own right.)

It seems sort of quaint in this day and age to think about each university in NZ specialising in certain subjects, but in some ways it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think the way universities are currently competing against each other for students, and gradually expanding the subjects on offer over time, is rational at all. For instance, do we really need six different universities offering law? There’s some argument for allowing people some choice in where they study, but to me that seems like an extraordinary duplication of resources.

Universities at heart are public institutions – even if they’ve been made to compete for customers under the current model. Maybe we should think about the Government playing a bigger role in reducing overlap between the institutions and reinvesting that money into a better quality education for everyone.

low turnout

There’s been heaps of discussion recently about the low voter turnout at the recent local government elections, and the reasons behind the inevitable trend downwards. (Except, it seems, in Wellington and a couple of other places where turn out has increased somewhat!)

Why is voting so low, and what can we do about it? Continue reading “low turnout”

recurrent bubbles

“…once a crisis is under way, even drastic cutting of central bank interest rates and massive injection of liquidity may have limited effects in stimulating credit markets and investment. The main effect may turn out to be the mother of all bubbles in the next several years, ending in a bigger crash. This underlines the importance of not letting bubbles develop in the first place.

…the crisis shows the hazards of an economic growth model based on the growth of finance and housing, and on the international system’s tolerance of large external deficits.”

Robert Wade writing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

Reading this passage got me thinking about whether we have fully thought through the consequences of our responses to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

It is argued by some that the GFC itself was partly caused by very low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve in the wake of the dot com bubble (among other things). Inflation was low, so Alan Greenspan kept interest rates low throughout the early- and mid-2000s. These low interest rates contributed significantly to the consumer debt and housing bubbles underlying the GFC.

How are we to know we aren’t going down this road again? Looking ahead, what are the consequences of an expansionary monetary policy for the future? How are we to know that through quantitative easing we aren’t creating yet another asset bubble, that might contribute to another financial crisis some time in the future?

Edited 8 October 2013

why we should be worried

People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.

We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.

Journalist and novelist John Lanchester has written a great long-form piece in the Guardian about mass surveillance and privacy in the UK. It’s interesting to see a view of the secret Snowden documents from a sort of layman’s perspective, and I particularly like his idea of a digital bill of rights.