Stormwater Sentries

ARTICLE | Dec 9, 2015

In each month’s Transformations, we will highlight an article that includes a focus on one or more of the 44 trends from our Next Big Things report. The following article from Falls Church shows how a city is embracing the Digital Citizen to educate and engage citizens. What trends are you seeing in your community? Let us know!

Due to financial and time constraints, his department has found it difficult to develop a robust outreach program that goes beyond the minimum requirements of the permit. He is continuously looking for new and innovative ways to educate the public about stormwater pollution. He is eager to help develop a game called Stormwater Sentries.

What is Stormwater Sentries?

Stormwater Sentries is Facebook game — similar to FarmVille — where players are in charge of a virtual town. Players can dispose of litter, water plants, and pick up after neighborhood pets. The goal is to minimize stormwater runoff and water pollution. 

Players can install rain barrels near the downspouts of homes to catch water that can be used later to water plants.  Players can plant a rain garden to soak up rainwater and filter it, resulting in less pollution. Players can swap out paved walkways for pervious pavers to absorb water. In-game challenges guide players to make eco-friendly changes to the neighborhood.

How It Started

In 2012, a City resident put Widstrom in touch with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee, who was interested in creating an educational video game focused on stormwater pollution.  The EPA would support this project in concept and initially the team thought they had financial support too.  EPA staff was interested in Falls Church because of its size — 2.2 square miles — and its location, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and EPA headquarters. 

If the pilot was a success in a small locality such as Falls Church, the EPA hoped to expand it to other localities. The timing was excellent for the City, because it was about to roll out a Stormwater Utility Fee based on impervious coverage.  The Stormwater Team believed a game would be a great way to teach residents about stormwater management and also serve as an introduction to the upcoming Stormwater Utility Credit Program.

At the outset, the team was composed of EPA policy analysts, a Falls Church City high school science teacher, and a civil engineer.  After a few meetings and conference calls, the team quickly realized they would have some major hurdles to jump in creating a video game: time, technical knowledge, funding, and procurement.

Finding Time

Widstrom knew designing and building a successful video game would take a lot of time and commitment.  While the team all had the support of its immediate supervisors, it came with the understanding that this would be a side project and day-to-day duties would not be ignored.  As a result, early research and preliminary design took nine months to get traction. At first the team only met consistently once, sometimes twice a month to discuss game theory and the work plan. During that time, the team lost and replaced a few members who could not meet the commitment due to workloads.  Team continuity was a concern with so many changes going on, however they managed to keep a few core members that served as the champions of the project.  This proved to be an important part of why they were able to get the project to production.

Technical Knowledge

The early project team was diverse, with members specializing in water policy, human behavior, education, and engineering. But no one had experience creating interactive software.  This limited them to designing only the concept and core functionality of the game.  As you would imagine, tasking governmental academics to design a game produced ideas that were detailed and, quite frankly, dry.  It became clear that they needed assistance from professionals — but hiring a game developer would come at a significant cost.

Finding a Funding Source

Innovation is not a word commonly associated with government agencies. This is likely due to the sometimes deliberately slow pace of the public process. One such example of this is the procurement process, where services of a given price tag must be open and competitively solicited. They knew this would be a major hurdle, mostly due to the time commitment involved in creating the Request for Proposals and interviewing candidates.

While the team had organizational support—designing and building a game with public funds was a separate topic, when the price tag was estimated at $100,000. They learned it was unlikely that they could find the funding within the agencies’ budgets.  Over the next few months, they researched grant opportunities and eventually created a partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.  The non-profit conservation group focuses on water quality issues throughout the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed. It was able to locate a $50,000 grant for the project. 

Finding a Developer

With concept and preliminary design in hand, the team solicited several companies that specialized in developing academic games. Only a handful of companies were interested, because they lacked sufficient funding to do the game that they were proposing.  After interviewing three firms, the team selected Timmons Group, an engineering firm, and game development studio SRRN Games. They were also local and saw this as a great opportunity to work within the community. 

Developing the Game

At the first meeting with our game developer, it became obvious that the funding was going to drive the design of the game.  Costs dictated the platform, mechanics, graphics, and content.

The initial game concept was to develop a virtual Falls Church, where users could install best management practices (BMP) like rain barrels and rain gardens throughout the city to see how these improved the local streams.  Due to cost, this was scaled back to a more generic setting. However, the team was able to expand the number of BMPs to choose from since it was relatively easy and inexpensive to add.  They also shifted the target audience to only high school students, because they felt this group would most likely play the game as part of a classroom teaching tool. They settled on designing a Facebook game much like the popular and addictive Farmville.

To keep players interested, they designed a rewards system using challenges. The completion of a challenge rewarded the player with additional coins (an in-game currency), allowing them to grow and improve their virtual community by purchasing items like a rain barrel from the in-game store.  Players can also use coins to purchase fun and interesting items to decorate the town and make it unique.

They also added a maintenance function where a player’s community only thrives if they keep up with the everyday tasks that frequently crop up such as mowing grass, pulling weeds, and picking up animal waste. These actions directly affect the players’ overall statistics positively if done often or negatively if done sparsely.

Rollout

Two years after its inception, the team launched Stormwater Sentries on Earth Day 2014.  The official rollout included a presentation at Falls Church City’s George Mason High School. Students provided the design team feedback based on their experience playing the game.  Overall, the feedback was encouraging as students said the game allowed them to apply what they’ve learned about stormwater.

Conclusion

In Virginia, teachers are required to include information about stormwater runoff and pollution as part of their curriculum. The game proved to be successful at reinforcing the idea that what humans put on the ground has an impact on the environment.  Hopefully over time, the game will be a supplemental tool to help students learn about stormwater management, and the students will then take the strategies they played in the game and put them into practice at home in real life.  At the very least, it will continue to serve as a way for teachers to creatively teach students how everyone can help in the effort to reduce pollution and manage stormwater runoff. 

With additional funding, the game could be expanded to include new levels and challenges.  Right now, the content is fairly limited and could be played through within a few days.

If you’d like to clean up a virtual town of your own, head over to Facebook using the address below (no Facebook account needed to play): https://apps.facebook.com/stormwatersentries/

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