Jul 12 2023

How Can the Metaverse Help State and Local Governments?

Cities now use metaverse tech for urban planning, while experts eye applications for citizen services.

Citizens are doing more online than ever, from renewing driver’s licenses to applying for benefits. People like the convenience of online interactions; it beats standing in line.

At the same time, “these activities lack human interaction and can become frustrating when you have a unique situation and can’t find an answer,” the National Association of State Chief Information Officers notes.

For state and local governments, NASCIO suggests a way forward: “What if we could bring back the positive side of the human interaction that we have lost, but still do all of this from home or the office? Enter the metaverse in state government.”

An emerging tech vision, the metaverse leverages virtual and augmented reality, the Internet of Things (IoT) and other advanced technologies to create a more immersive and personal digital experience. It promises to deliver real-time interactivity and a heightened sense of user agency. While citizen services in the metaverse aren’t quite at hand yet, some cities already have been using metaverse technologies for various projects.

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The Metaverse and City Planning: How Can It Be Used?

Cities and counties can explore the metaverse as a means to improve planning, operations and citizen services. They can develop a digital twin, a model of roads, structures and other resources that simulates the real world in minute detail.

A digital twin could aid in planning, for example, by modeling the impact of new traffic flows. It could drive resident-facing benefits as well.

“Maybe someone is new to the community and wants to rent a pavilion at a park. Well, the county has five parks and 15 pavilions. Right now, counties have static photos that you can click on,” says National Association of Counties CIO Rita Reynolds. “What if you could offer a 3D effect, or even put a wedding party in this pavilion to see if it will actually fit 300 people?”

Metaverse city planning could be used to drive economic development as well. “You could give businesses thinking of investing in the state a more immersive experience. Give them a tour of the state so that they might want to come to invest in real life,” says Amy Hille Glasscock, NASCIO program director of innovation and emerging issues.

LEARN MORE: What is the metaverse, and what does it means for your business?

How Can the Metaverse Benefit State and Local Governments?

Experts describe a number of possible reasons that state and local entities might want to invest in metaverse-related efforts.

“The metaverse is the internet on steroids,” says Todd Richmond, IEEE member and director of the Tech + Narrative Lab at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Supported by virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the metaverse “will be more immersive than the internet, there will be a different kind of persistence in the experiences that people create. It will be more like an online gaming experience, an immersive first-person interaction,” he says.

All this offers a way “to make access to government better for more people and to make that access more equitable,” he says.

A government metaverse could drive deeper, more meaningful interactions. “The ability to truly interact with one another online has been promised for years, but the technology and vision to turn it into reality is finally here,” says Lena Geraghty, municipal practice director of sustainability and innovation at the National League of Cities.

“Cities already are deploying metaverse technologies such as augmented and mixed reality, the Internet of Things, digital twins and blockchain to help them with municipal functions ranging from tourism to resource management,” she says. “We will likely see increased exploration of the metaverse as a tool to improve and expand resident engagement and streamline digital government services.”

To take advantage of those opportunities, state and local entities will likely need buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders.

“The enterprise technology office would be involved, putting in place a roadmap and some architecture and governance,” Glasscock says. “It will hopefully be not just the CIO but also the security officer and the privacy officer, as well as the business relationship managers. There are a lot of stakeholders who should be involved when metaverse projects are being planned.”

Todd Richmond
Having a cybersecurity person goes without saying these days. You also need to have somebody on the team who’s thinking about how this information may be weaponized.”

Todd Richmond Professor/Director, Tech + Narrative Lab, Pardee RAND Graduate School

How Can State and Local Governments Secure the Metaverse?

The metaverse likely will bring together technologies such as AR and VR and IoT data modeling, all tied together through extensive use of cloud services. It will be important to ensure that all of that is kept safe from prying eyes and bad actors.

“You’re going to want to make sure that it’s secure. You’re going to want to think about privacy,” Glasscock says.

For example, with IoT sensors deployed throughout a city, device hacking becomes a major concern. Bad actors might try to access the sensors to manipulate the data in order to sway public opinion or drive a particular outcome, a practice known as narrative red-teaming.

“If there are sensors in some part of town and people want to manipulate that data, they may be able to do that,” Richmond says. “If you start to make information available, there will be people who will weaponize it and who will change the narrative or spin up false narratives. And now it’s backed by government data. Invariably, data can be misconstrued in a lot of really toxic ways.”

To secure their metaverse efforts, IT leaders will need to strategize early and be thoughtful in their implementations. “As you’re developing your interface, be thinking about what it is that you’re trying to expose, and also be thinking about the security issues,” Richmond says.

The metaverse will require rigorous security solutions, including multifactor authentication, advanced firewalls, threat detection technologies and data analytics, Forbes notes. In addition to applying protective technologies around their metaverse applications, it also makes sense for IT to enlist a wide range of talents in support of metaverse cybersecurity.

“Having a cybersecurity person goes without saying these days. You also need to have somebody on the team who’s thinking about how this information may be weaponized. Then you can create inoculation. You can put messaging out that gets ahead of those people who may try to turn this into toxic narratives,” Richmond says. “You really need storytellers as part of your team.”

DISCOVER: Digital twins help cities study operations of infrastructure systems.

Using Digital Twins Can Support Better City Planning

While the metaverse is still at the leading edge of local government technology trends, some municipalities are already putting it to the test.

There are efforts underway to put the 40-square-mile metro region of Orlando, Fla., into a virtual model. The Orlando Economic Partnership has partnered with a gaming company “to develop a 3D model of the area — from its downtown core all the way out to Space Coast on the eastern edge of central Florida — that the city can show off to potential investors in its bid to grow as a tech hub,” Bloomberg reports.

In New York City, a digital twin is helping to support transportation improvements in a project started by Columbia University. The city “uses real-time data obtained through sensors placed at various locations … to optimize the flow of traffic at key intersections,” according to The Metaverse Insider.

Santa Monica, Calif., meanwhile, is embracing metaverse technology to create more immersive resident engagements.

The city has developed a play-to-earn game “that provides digital collectibles and rewards that can be redeemed at local retailers,” The Metaverse Insider reports.

People can use the app to explore the city while searching for tokens and rewards. “This enables local businesses to benefit from incoming traffic. Some rewards include extra photo filters within the app as benefits.”

This gamification of municipal metaverse applications may encourage residents to get to know their city a little better.

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