Playing with open data in virtual worlds for real benefits

Christopher Gutteridge and Lucy Knight

Open data can be fun and educational. That was the message of the final session of Open Data Camp 5, day one, as Christopher Gutteridge explained how he came to combine his twin passions of Minecraft and open data.


“The story of this goes back quite a way. I kept going to an art gallery on the Isle of Wight, and I wanted to join in. So, I decided to build the seafront in Minecraft,” he said.

“I got OpenStreetMap, and traced it, and then modelled it in the Minecraft world. I printed it out in 3D and put the prints in a gallery. And people paid for them! You can still buy them if you go to Ventnor.”


Since then, Gutteridge, who works at the University of Southampton, has used increasingly sophisticated data sets to underpin his Minecraft models. So, he obtained Lidar data from Hampshire county council, to model its trees and identify those with tree preservation orders.

Then detailed coastal information from Southampton’s Oceanographic Institute to model the coast. Then, very sophisticated datasets of London to create 3D Minecraft models that can be manipulated in real time.

“We have given this to children, and one little girl came in and spent all her time correcting the things I had got wrong,” Gutteridge said. “I had built the white cliffs of Dover in green blocks, and she turned them into white blocks with green carpet. Which was just awesome.”

He is now building a model of Plymouth. Lucy Knight, from Devon county council, explained that this has 20 builders, who are coming up with wilder and wilder ideas. For example: “If you stand in a bus stop, it will teleport you to where the bus is going.”

From virtual reality to real reality

It’s not just about fun. These projects have real-world benefits: “It gives people a real connection with place,” Knight said. And taken into schools and other organisations, it encourages them to come up with great ideas for improving it.

Gutteridge is also getting into Minecraft archaeology; and reviving another idea – open data gamification, or using some of the common tropes of games to add further layers to the Minecraft models.

For instance, Knight said, areas that people felt were dangerous might be built in darker colours; while popular trees might have tree spirits pop out of them. Or tokens might be scattered around a city, to see how people would navigate it while collecting them.

The key point, Gutteridge concluded, is that by using accurate mapping data to underpin the models, it is possible to both encourage people to interact with open data; and to start making changes in the real world that it represents.

Also, he added, he can easily generate models of towns in England. Just get in touch. If nothing else: “They make impressive but very cheap Christmas presents for difficult friends and relatives.”

Follow Chris on Twitter at: @CGutteridge

3 thoughts on “Playing with open data in virtual worlds for real benefits

  1. Minor corrections:
    – I didn’t 3D print the Ventnor model, I used a 3D raytracer (Chunky) to make high quality images and had those canvas printed.
    – I’m not directly involved in the Plymouth project, but they used my software to create the base for their current work. I am just a fan keeping tabs on their progress.

    City maps available for free download here:
    Map building tool here (only does LIDAR for England, sorry)

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