Crafting a city – Interview with the co-designer of a virtual Brighton

How would you like to walk around a computerized photo-realistic version of Brighton? Well BlockBuilders, a public consultation company formed by two Brighton-based web developers is allowing you to do just that, via the medium of the popular computer game Minecraft. The company was formed just under three years ago by Brighton university graduates Joe Palmer and Megan Leckie, and has gone on from strength to strength, winning awards and plaudits along the way.

Their latest project – a scale-sized, realistically mapped, 3D version of Brighton, is an ambitious attempt to engage young people and encourage them to become active citizens through digital technology. I spoke with Joe Palmer on a lovely April morning to find out more.

Joe Palmer pic edited

How did the project come about?

It was a university research project called Young Digital Citizenship that I took part in at my final year of university. It was funded by the Nominet Trust, working with Community21. The idea was to get young people engaged in becoming more active citizens through digital technology. They were looking for different programs and methods to put together a digital toolkit, and as part of my studies I came across Minecraft, and saw it as a useful platform for engaging young people. So me and my colleague Megan setup this company after we graduated and have gone from there really.

How long has it taken, overall, since you started with this idea to get to where you are now?

We setup as a company in August 2014, so it’s coming up to three years now.

Did it take you the full three years to plan and build?

No, this has been a fairly recent project, it came about through funding we received from Innovate UK, and we received that funding last February, and the idea was to develop a way of engaging the public through using geospacial data. So the model we’ve created has come from that.

St Peter's Church

 In terms of designing it, how long does it take to get something like an entire city done?

Well it depends on what resolution you want it in. The way we’ve structured our funding is that to run it through our data processor and our work space and everything, it could take around a couple of weeks to a month. Whereas if we were building it by hand it would take forever. So a lot of the process is done digitally, to save us time. The map that we’ve currently created took about 23 hours of rendering on the computer.

How much of the city have you got so far?

We’ve got a low-resolution model of the whole city, the issue is that we’re using open-source data, so basically data that’s not fully got resolution in all the areas. So for example, the buildings on the seafront are lifted to the heights of the actual buildings, but in the rest of the city, all of the other buildings are flat, because they don’t have the data there. So if we’re able to get the funding, we’ll be able to put that resolution through and the city will be the proper size.

Palace Pier scenic

What’s the feedback been like so far from people?

We’ve received lots of good feedback, It’s early days, but I think we’re 7% funded now or something, so we’re getting there with it, slowly but surely.

How much money do you need overall to get the project completed?

About £7,000 would get us to the stage where we could get a fully low resolution model done. And then we could start hand-building it and creating it. If we hit £100,000 then we’d hand-texture the whole of Brighton, that’s the idea. We’ve structured it in a way that will hopefully get something produced. We’ve set a deadline for the funding for the 7th May so we’ll see what happens.

The Amex (2)

Once you get that funding and if it all works, what’s the plan for the future?

In Brighton specifically, the aim of it is to first of all, put it up on a server and allow kids at home to play on it. So they’ll be able to use it and just mess around with it, and explore the city in a different way, which is quite a nice thing. That’ll be free for them to use and they’ll be able to just log on and play. The idea is that we’d do different build days and run different activities in that. We’d also use it for the various developments that we’re working on around the city, so it would form the basis of our engagement and approach. Then we’re also looking to then move on and model different cities around the UK. So we’d look to do London, Newcastle and so on.

Brighton (2)

Eventually would you do all of the UK?

That’s dependent on a variety of things coming in, but that’s the plan, we’ll see what the feedback is like and go from there.

You can check out the project and contribute funding here:

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