Why playing SimCity 5 teaches us about managing Big Data

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Electronic Arts have just released their latest incarnation to the beloved SimCity franchise; SimCity5.

“What exactly has this got to do with Big Data ?” I hear you ask: everything.

You only have to take a brisk walk down your street to begin to appreciate just how much data we are exposed to on a daily basis, and how all that data is critical in running a city, even a virtual one.

In SimCity everything is simulated but the amount of information is indicative of the complex balancing act that happens around us. Click on a ‘Sim’ and they reveal how they feel. Click on a building and understand the owner’s needs. Power grid, water, utilities, public services, healthcare, resources, taxes; they are all interconnected, powered by a constant stream of actionable data and what affects one affects them all as it does in real life.

This is completely hidden to us and yet happens around us at breakneck speed. Large amounts of data being used to make decisions that affect any myriad of interconnected resources and each impact having to be understood with yet more data.

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In 2012 the Senseable City Lab, part of MIT, conducted an experiment to see just what happens when someone takes out the trash. By attaching transmitters to over 3,000 pieces of rubbish they were able to track where that item went, whether they went to the correct recycling facility or not, and how far they traveled. The results were eye opening as you can imagine from the tracer map above.

But it’s this kind of big data that can help cities manage resources more effectively, reduce costs and carbon footprint. And while the complexity may not exist in SimCity to simulate at this scale, EA has gone slightly further than before.

SimCity 5 is now an always-on multiplayer, meaning that your city is now connected with many others across a ‘region’ that can boom or bust based on the decisions and actions make by neighboring player. You can build a city that provides resources and electricity to the whole region based on mining for coal, but you’ll also pollute the air of every neighboring city around you for example.

Out of all this gameplay there’s a valuable lesson here; SimCity is teaching people through play the interconnection between big data, real-time decision making and the consequences of acting on that data for the good (or bad) of many.

Big Data is not about creating clever and targeted consumer marketing campaigns. Big data is happening all around us, and what Electronic Arts have done is bring that to the attention of everyone who embarks on building a world in SimCity.

And they’ll quickly learn that Big Data is not a game.

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