Encouraging governments, stakeholders and citizens to see the benefits of more open approaches to data collection, analysis and distribution is a core mission of the UK's Open Data Institute (ODI). But it's a policy issue that's very rarely considered 'fun'. However, in 2015 two of the ODI’s staff (who also happened to be board game enthusiasts) aimed to change that with Datopolis.

From a crazy idea to a finished product

Datopolis, Ellen Broad and Jeni Tennison’s brainchild, is a strategy board game that is all about open data. Created over nearly 18 months between 2015 and 2016, the pair began by spending a lot of time thinking about game mechanics; as well as teaching important points about the value of open data, the game had to be fun to play, even for non-data enthusiasts.

A central challenge was reflecting the complexity of open data policy issues, while ensuring good game mechanics and playability

The team, along with ODI colleagues and external stakeholders, started experimenting with different types of simulation structure - seeking to integrate the data theme within solid game mechanics. It took about six months to come up with a first prototype. From there, the prototype was constantly refined through regular play testings, on Friday afternoons at the ODI, and then later on externally, at ODI-run events and workshops.

In the end they settled on two final products: one that would be suitable for workshops, including briefing sessions, and the other suitable for any individual, to play privately. And true to the ODI’s ethos, all of Datopolis’ game components are open licensed and available on GitHub, ready to be built on, translated and adapted for different contexts.

Teaching open data values through simulation

Datopolis players use the available data, open or closed, to build fictional applications, services or websites. The key to success when playing Datopolis is collaboration. While players have individual mission cards, they can help each other achieve goals and preserve the environmental health of the imaginary game city, Sheridan. The game aims to change the way people think about data, for example helping people understand its properties and values as an ‘intangible’ asset, or as something happening in silos. Visualising the use of datasets on a board makes it much more easy to grasp, and the frustration when you don’t know the other players’ intentions, illustrates both the danger of silos and the value of sharing. An important benefit of the game and simulation approach is that with a fun experience, often involving teasing people’s competitive instincts, players develop an understanding of complex and often confusing policy issues.

Balancing simplicity and complexity in simulation

A central challenge was reflecting the complexity of open data policy issues, while ensuring good game mechanics and playability, which means simplification. As Ellen Broad told us in an interview, the process of creating a game is similar to the act of modelling the world in a tool: you cannot avoid simplifying systems. On the other hand, judicious simplification enables players to compare their own data challenges to the world of the game, making the game relatable and more efficient in delivering its message.

Thanks to Ellen Broad from the Open Data Institute for taking the time to speak with us.

Photo: A Datopolis prototype in action. Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone photo collection via Flickr.