The Social Apps Lab is developing initiatives which use the power of games on mobile to encourage citizens to participate in the search for solutions to urban social issues.

The Social Apps Lab uses mobile games to solve urban problems

Games have a major impact on our psychological state. From age 7 to 77, transforming traditional habits into games often brings unexpected results. For example, gaming on e-commerce sites helps the retailer to engage more closely with customers and unites fan communities. In the educational sphere, games for children can get them interested in a subject. The Social Apps Lab has grasped the productive side of gaming and has decided to use it in the service of cities and their inhabitants. The Social Apps Lab is an interdisciplinary initiative, supported at the University of California Berkeley by the Center for Informational Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), the Division of Social Sciences, and the Division of Arts and Humanities. The aim of the Lab is to create games for mobile apps which encourage citizen participation in solving various urban social problems, and to use data generated during games-playing in the analysis of these issues. 

Using the power of mobile games

Mobile games create high levels of engagement from participants. Combining mobile and games is a way of harnessing the participative momentum and creative energy that a person expresses when s/he plays. The Lab aims to build mobile games that will generate new opportunities for research and help to study the impact of the resulting data on the city. The Social Apps Lab’s research efforts focus on the contemporary city because, say the web pages hosted on the CITRIS site,  “it is the catalyst and relay of so many significant social issues and because urban populations have the highest concentration of cell phone use.” The Lab has several key objectives: enabling data collection that can be used in research into urban social problems, encouraging citizen participation, improving knowledge on a range of urban dynamics, and contributing to the civic education of the communities which use the apps.

Understandingand encouraging solutions to urban problems

Aside from the gaming aspect, the Social Apps Lab’s approach is interesting in that the design and production of the mobile apps themselves emphasise teamwork. The Lab tackles many different types of problem. Last year the favourite themes were public health, citizen participation and social engagement. For example, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California Merced campus and the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, the Social Apps Lab developed a gaming app designed to recruit local residents to identify sources of asthma due to urban pollution in Oakland, among other cities. CitySandbox, another application which the Lab has developed, is intended to create opportunities for residents to voice their concerns about any problems in the city and create ways for the community to get involved with local government bodies to fix the problems. Users can post questions they have about their city for other people to view and comment on. Thus CitySandbox not only increases citizen involvement in local issues, but also helps citizens to make their voices heard.

By Clémence Coursimault
Journalist analyst