The Future of Civic Tech is Augmented Reality (and Vice Versa)

All data displayed in these images is for illustrative purposes only and not real.

It seems every major tech company is preparing for Virtual Reality (VR). Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear have all recently entered the VR market. While each of these products attempt to transport the viewer to a completely new visual landscape, other companies such as Magic Leap are taking a different approach. They are pursuing Augmented Reality (AR) as the new frontier for interacting with digital data.

Both VR and AR presumptively utilize some sort of head-mounted device, but that is where the similarities end. While VR replaces your vision with whatever alternative landscape the device serves up, AR allows the eye to see it’s actual surrounding landscape but with extra visual information layered on and integrated into it.

Court Westcott says, in his recent Tech Crunch Article Augmented Reality Will Make Us Smarter:

“For the first time in history, information will be accessed so fast, via discreet Artificial Reality Head-mounted Displays, that from an outsider’s perspective your actual knowledge base will become indistinguishable from the prosthetic knowledge you are demonstrating or communicating.”

This is a pretty exciting statement, especially for civic tech. If the future is about serving up appropriate information in it’s appropriate context, what other sector of the tech world has more information about the landscape around us than civic tech? With AR, screens become obsolete as the earth’s actual landscape becomes our screen. If your local landscape is already a rich source of civic data, why not expose that data in it’s natural context?

If your local landscape is already a rich source of civic data, why not expose that data in it’s natural context?

The civic tech company I design for, Accela, is currently partnering with Yelp to include the health code scores for restaurants in their reviews. Wanna try out the new burger joint? The reviewers give it 4 stars, but the Health department gives it a 68 out of 100. Let’s eat at Edzo’s Burger Shop instead.

This process works wonderfully for those who have the wherewithal to research their food options ahead of time. But when I am hungry in a hurry and overwhelmed with restaurant choices, I may not take the time to Yelp each one. Imagine using an AR Head-mounted Device. Looking down a street full of restaurants will be far more informative when their health code scores, customer reviews, menus, available tables, etc. are as much a part of their facade as the open sign.

With Augmented Reality, streets and building facades can become the interface for civic data. When data can be displayed in it’s natural context, there would no longer be a need for traditional screen devices.

There are more than 20 million miles of underground utilities in the United States. That constitutes a veritable minefield of potential digging hazards, so much so that the three-digit phone number for digging information, 811, is just one digit away from the emergency number 911. Currently, you call 811, they route you to a local call center, the local call center contacts your local utilities and hopefully, several days later, a representative arrives to mark where you can and cannot dig.

Instead, imagine using AR to instantly examine the subterranean landscape like Superman’s x-ray vision. You could learn instantly that your plans to dig are not viable and can move on immediately rather than waiting several days wading through deep bureaucracy.

Many people think immediately of the dreaded pothole when thinking of civic engagement. Imagine if you could see the city’s plan for fixing it as you gaze on the frustrating pockmark. My confidence in my local government would improve on the spot.

The scheduled fix date takes into account that this article is speculating on future technology (even if it can feel like the next wave of technology will come and go before a pothole gets fixed).

While all of this is wild speculation about the future, one thing is certain: there are countless ways to integrate civic data into our everyday lives that we’ve yet to explore. The future is bright for civic tech, with or without Augmented Reality.