The SIMs come to government

Managing the complexities of simulated worlds has long been a favorite past-time with computer gamers. Think of the complex software-generated virtual worlds of the Sims or Civilization. Now National Science Foundation researchers are using the simulation concept to help municipal governments work through growth problems.

UrbanSim, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, has been used by planning personnel in Honolulu, Salt Lake City, the Puget Sound area, Paris and Taiwan, according to university researcher Alan Borning, who helped fellow researcher Paul Waddell develop the software.

Borning spoke at the fifth annual National Conference on Digital Government Research, held last week in Seattle. The conference is a forum for participants in the National Science Foundation's Digital Government Research Program to share ideas and present research.

The UrbanSim software, like the series of commercial games it is named after, models the growth of complex environments, based on the input of a wide range of factors. The software can be used to predict the effects that some planned action might have in an urban area, given a series of variables in land use, transportation and environmental impact.

Salt Lake City for instance, used the software last year to gauge the effect that a proposed highway would have on traffic congestion and housing development.

'We got thrown into the middle of the maelstrom,' Borning said.

City planners and the public were embroiled in a controversy over whether or not to build a new highway alongside the city. Through a series of scenarios, the software showed that the traffic congestion would ease should the road be built, but it also would probably cause more development sprawl on the edges of the city.

Although the results were not surprising, it did show the software could accurately model complex conditions, based on a wide array of factors, Borning said. The software used such datasets as the expected number of vehicles in the city and the average number of hours each motorist experienced during rush hours.

Borning admitted the software still must be polished. Unlike the commercial sim games'in which users interact with the program through a three-dimensional world'the user interface of UrbanSim is still menu-driven. As a result, trained computer system administrators are best suited to running the program. The research team is also developing a graphical user interface more suited to less computer-savvy users. That version of the software will be out in about a year, Borning said.

UrbanSim uses the open-source Eclipse integrated developer environment as a foundation. Within Eclipse, users load in performance data from one or more databases, such as predicted traffic levels over a five-year period. The program checks the consistency of the data and then runs it through one of about 10 urban planning models. These models are small programs that predict outcomes based on accepted economic or urban planning methodologies.

Through the use of the Python scripting language, the results are then passed to applications that can offer graphical representations of the generated models, such as an Excel spreadsheet or a mapping program.

UrbanSim was developed with a series of grants from the National Science Foundation, totaling around $4 million, Borning said. The Federal Highway Administration also contributed to the development of the software. The software, which is open source, can be downloaded.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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