Open letter to the creators of Pokémon GO. Help us — yes, I’m being serious.

Is it just a game creating real-life zombies, or a platform for civic engagement?
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) | Released July 15, 1983

I distinctly remember the moment when I traded my Nintendo NES — yes the original — for a skateboard. It was 1986, I was 10; yes I’m that old. Skating was my thing. At the time it was all the rage, but I ultimately chose it over NES, because I wanted to be outside, experiencing the real world even if it meant real blood from skinned knees.

Life comes full circle in a personal stroke of serendipity. Nintendo has done a lot since I traded away my NES. They’ve explored mobile gaming long before smartphones or other portable systems existed; remember the Game Boy? In the interest of my personal safety (and anyone who might be around me) I no longer allow myself onto a skateboard, but Pokémon GO gives me a new view on gaming in real life.

To get some facts out of the way: I know Nintendo doesn’t own Pokémon GO outright, but the investment relationship works for my personal story so bear with me. It’s relevant to note that Niantic spun out of Google in partnership with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company less than a year ago!

Pokémon GO daily time spent in-app on Android | Image credit: 7Park Data
Pokémon GO daily time spent in-app on iOS| TechCrunch July 13,2016

Pokémon GO is quite the phenomenon. An absolute explosion by all of the traditional app adoption metrics. The game surpassed the king of the hill, claiming 2X the daily use of Facebook and more time spent than any of the major social networks.

It also raises profound questions about how we can harness the power of the people for civic good. What if Pokémon trainers, were simultaneously reporting graffiti, litter, a pothole, or the condition of park turf to the city department responsible for fixing it?

Currently we see Pokémon GO as a game or a trendy toy, but the consumption of mindshare is real. The game drives even more mobile use, impacts surrounding industry and — like anything that captures so much attention from humanity — has as much potential for good, as has already been proven for bad. The intersection of the game’s virtual streets with the physical world creates tragic outcomes when people forget to manage the reality part of ‘augmented reality’. Some bad actors and downright criminal creeps have already exploited zombie-like fanatics for their own petty crimes, and more tragically resulted in loss of life right here in San Francisco.

Pokémon GO players walk along Market Street on Wednesday in San Francisco. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

For better or worse, the engagement is real, addictive, and not confined to the world that exists inside the gaming engine. Despite being immersed in their mobile devices, people are hitting the streets in droves to find Pokémon and coming together to do it.

A Pokemon Go crawl crosses Dolores Park on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 in San Francisco. Photograph: Beck Diefenbach, Special To The Chronicle

On July 20th, San Francisco claimed the world’s largest Pokémon GO crawl on its city streets. We don’t have the official number of participants, but over 9,000 people expressed interest in attending on the Facebook event page. Who knows how many actually attended, but as I walked around the city that day I saw huge crowds, retail shops advertising related promotions, and a buzz on the street you could feel — not to mention helicopters hovering over Market Street to capture images of the action!

As a civic technologist leading the technology vision for the birthplace of this and many previous gaming phenomenon, I wonder how we can harness this for civic good. How can we leverage the frenetic growth of the game to make San Francisco a better city? Crazy to try to connect those dots? Maybe.

Imagine what a crowd of 9,000 members of any city could accomplish, pounding the pavement voluntarily working for the betterment of the community. They could collect trophies and bragging rights, whether in the form of Pikachu or anything else that mobilizes them in the moment, all while doing a great civic duty. Imagine if in the process of playing a game, students or visitors could learn about the history of their community by visiting city sponsored Pokéstops.

What if gamers, simply playing their favorite game could analyze background video, identify the problem and send us the data. What about using user counts to measure crowds on public transit? Ultimately we could even help shape behavior, by putting Pokémon on alternate routes encouraging users to voluntarily avoid highly-congested routes. Instead of burdening the user with having to consciously identify the problem and interrupt their gameplay to find our special app to report it, we could use visual fingerprinting to identify and report common civic problems.

These are just a few ideas that simply using the current game in a slightly altered way would provide a major flow of data into the service organizations of the city and other community beneficiaries.

If we think bigger, it seems the potential is not the game itself, but rather the platform that’s using augmented reality to motivate a highly-engaged base. What if the platform allowed local governments to add a digital layer to any streetscape? We could intentionally leverage it to communicate planned street closures, permitting applications for businesses, or a whole host of things we currently struggle to communicate for better interactions with our constituents. Allowing us to reap some benefit of the game’s popularity, offers an immense opportunity for good.

I don’t claim to be the soothsayer of civic technology, but what is exciting and obvious is that the people who spun up this core technology and developed a huge cult-like following for augmented reality, accomplished this success in only 9 months! Maybe this is an indication that they are on to something big, and might be the team to help craft the future.

For years, industry publications like Government Technology and StateTech have told stories about the potential of mobilizing civic engagement through technology.

Many civic technologists and entrepreneurs like CitizenLab talk about the gamification of civic engagement and the democratization of data and service creation and consumption. CIOs, CTOs, and innovation gurus inside government organizations are also talking about gamifying their service experiences to try to increase both the efficacy of our programs and public participation in government.

I believe that time is here. I’m hoping that many of those brilliant minds, from every corner of the globe, will see the potential I do. I’m hoping they rally to leverage this movement for civic impact and not dismiss it as a child’s toy.