Citizen Access to Simulations

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Alan Borning
University of Washington

It can be difficult to understand and bring into public deliberation the long-term consequences of major public decisions, for example, the consequences of building a new rail system or a freeway in an urban area. Simulations can help illuminate these consequences (for example, a simulation of the long-term effects on land use, transportation, and environmental impacts of different choices). To be compelling and useful, the simulation results should presented in a way that they can be understood and used by a range of interested citizens. Further, ideally not just the results, but access to running the simulation, should be available to the public, to allow experimentation with alternatives. To aid in understanding and credibility, the simulation should be constructed in a transparent fashion, so that its operation is open to inspection and discussion.


This pattern is potentially useful to advocacy groups, other community organizations, business associations, and local and regional governments. Using this pattern depends on a suitable simulation and data being available. Another factor (less important but useful) would be the existence of a community indicators program that tracks current trends using indicators, so that the *same* indicators can be used to both track current trends and to present the simulation results. (Doing this is particularly useful in applying the Reality Check pattern [link to Reality Check pattern], in which simulation results are compared with observed, real-world data.


Community Indicators [link to Community and Civic Indicators pattern] can provide an important tool for monitoring current trends in a community. However, we will usually be interested in the values of these indicators in the future, not just the present - and which actions will result in more desirable outcomes as measured by the community indicators. Simulation and modeling can provide a powerful tool for informing such discussions, particularly if the results from the simulation can be presented using the same indicators as selected in a participatory Community and Civic Indicators project. For example, the summary graphic for this pattern shows the population densities in the Puget Sound region in Washington State in 2025 given the current land use and transportation plans, as projected by the UrbanSim simulation system. The results of the work should be made available using the web or printed reports. Using the web has the advantage that definitions of indicators, documentation, and related information can be conveniently linked together. Supporting public access to running the simulation, as well as the results, might be provided in several different ways, depending on the complexity and size of the simulation and input data. Particularly for complex simulations, with substantial data requirements, accessing a simulation hosted on a server via a web interface is a good technique. Smaller simulations might be downloaded and run on individual's computers. This is in general not an easy pattern to use. In addition to developing the set of indicators (including careful definitions and documentation), a simulation of the phenomenon of interest must exist or be developed, including the necessary data and calibration to apply it in the given community. For the example used here (land use and transportation), this typically requires that the local or regional government agency in charge of land use and transportation planning either undertake the simulation work itself, or be willing to work closely with another organization that does so. The game SimCity demonstrates that many people -- including grade school children -- can be highly engaged by what might have been thought to be a dry topic, namely urban planning. While games such as SimCity can provide valuable inspiration and interaction ideas, there are key differences between such games and the simulations suggested in this pattern. First, this pattern is concerned with producing simulations of actual phenomena, for example, simulating a specific, real, urban area, with the intent of producing useful forecasts of its long-term development to inform public deliberation and debate. Second, the interaction techniques available to its users should expose only the actions and "policy levers" available to real citizens and governments (for the urban simulation example, such as building light rail systems or changing zoning). Users of these simulations can't simply declare that an area will be redeveloped (or bring in Godzilla); rather, all they can do is change relevant policies in a scenario in hopes of influencing people in the simulated environment to redevelop the area and residents to move there. Potential challenges to the result include challenges to the accuracy and reliability of the simulation.


Develop a simulation of the system of interest (for example, of urban land use and transportation), and make the results of the simulation accessible to interested stakeholders using indicators. When possible, make running the simulation accessible to the public as well.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Simulations can help illuminate long-term consequences of major public decisions on land use, transportation, and the environment. Citizen Access to Simulations can provide powerful capabilities for informing community discussions, particularly if the results are presented using the same indicators that were used in a participatory community and civic indicators project.

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Envisioning Climate Change Using a Global Climate Model

From the website:

In this chapter, users run the climate modeling software, Educational Global Climate Modeling Suite (EdGCM), to visualize how temperature and snow coverage might change over the next 100 years. They begin by running a "control" climate simulation to establish a baseline for comparison. After this first simulation, they run a second "experimental" simulation. Then they compare and contrast the changes in temperature and snow and ice coverage that could occur due to increased atmospheric greenhouse gases. Next, users choose a region of their own interest to explore. They compare their modeling results with those documented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) impact reports. Through working with EdGCM, users gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the process and power of climate modeling.

This chapter is part of the Earth Exploration Toolbook. Each chapter provides teachers and/or students with direct practice for using scientific tools to analyze Earth science data. Students should begin on the Case Study page.

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