Quiet Innovations in Second Life: the DWP and the NHS

Part of the Second Health project
Part of the Second Health project

At a time when an increasing number of media stories seem to be denigrating Second Life (and a time when there’s precious little left of an external media presence to counter such stories), we should reflect that a lot of the work that is going on her is quiet and private – and with good reason.

Part of the Second Health project
Part of the Second Health project

Because when word gets out that some serious, sensible organisation – a government department, say – has a Second Life presence – then the media (and the Opposition) leaps in to sneer and denigrate.

Such was the case today when word leaked out that the Department for Work and Pensions had an “innovations centre” – we are guessing a sim or two – in Second Life.

The Department argued that having a virtual meeting place could save taxpayers money in the long run, and it seems that other departments are involved (and presumably sharing the costs).  At the moment this is just a pilot but it has led to predictable sneers from the Conversatives that the Government is “living in a fantasy world”.

Actually, what the exchange shows is that Conservatives are either naive or opportunistic, and quite possibly both.  If the future of the web is through avatar interaction, or a 3D web (and most commentators are arguing that this will become at the very least a significant part of the internet), then running a pilot project now is not just sensible, it is vital if errors made on the first wave of the web are not to be repeated.

NHS Polyclinic: Part of the Second Health project
NHS Polyclinic: Part of the Second Health project

And the DWP seem to have recognised this, in their defence of their project, with a spokesman quoted by the BBC as saying: “We are currently exploring the potential of using Second Life and have active interest from a number of government departments.

“Our new innovation centre in Second Life is a virtual area where both government and private companies can showcase technological innovations, such as low carbon footprint technology.

“We believe it could help make sharing technology more efficient and save taxpayers’ money as meetings, events and shows can be held online at a fraction of the cost and resources.”

The UK National Health Service has been involved in Second Life some time, without making a great deal of fuss.  In a co-project with Imperial College (part of the University of London), the NHS hosts a complex covering a number of sims called (primarily) Second Health where you can tour hospitals and participate in a national health survey. The goal is to communicate complex health messages and to illustrate the future of health care.

NHS Conference site in Second Life
NHS Conference site in Second Life

And that’s not just for random avatars, either.  The NHS hosted a conference aimed at senior managers – Embracing Healthcare Technology and Innovation – in real life and Second Life on February 11th 2009 – and they have described the use of new media as “reasonably successful”.  They are delighted to have had attendees from 12 different countries including: Finland, Singapore, USA, Canada, Norway, Italy, UK, Sweden, New Zealand, Turkey, Serbia, and Australia, and they are looking to improve the sound quality for virtual delegates and interaction between the virtual community and delegates present at the conference venue, all of which suggests that they will repeat the experience.

However, once again, this is something that is proceeding quietly and without external fanfares.  Is this because the external ‘sensible’ media is gone (if, arguably, it was ever truly here), or is it because Second Life is in a phase where private innovation and experimentation is needed before it can be shared?  The Conservative response to the news about the DWP would suggest that.


  1. I also believe in the benefits of a 3d web future, but the UK press has been decidedly against this “fantasy world” project so I guess one thing to learn from this is to take lots of care in how this kind of project is presented to the press & general public. For example with a concrete example of how it can save money or help with nhs procedures for example.

    Also a lot of the complaints were about the money spent for it. It should have been a funded project from various organisations so as to limit taxpayer complaints (which may be very legitimate in areas like health – there are very real priorities), and if it was on opensim, or another open source world, costs might have been reduced..


  2. It’s true that coming up with concrete proposals may convince the public, but, on the other hand, the point of research and pilot projects is to discover what benefits and savings will be possible. You need to research in order to have the evidence to point to.

    The costs are also, in government terms, not vast. If the figures of £20,000 to set up and £12,000 to maintain actually include overheads (such as civil servant time) then they are tiny, and would not, I suspect, be reduced much by moving to an open sim, expecially as more civil servants would be needed to be trained in creation and maintenance or the whole thing handed over to an outside contractor who would most probably expect something in excess of the suggested figures.

    Besides which, open sims do not, as yet, have the proven track record or level of support you see in Second Life. I’ve talked about some of the problems they pose here on this blog – http://tinyurl.com/d36hor and http://tinyurl.com/abupx8, and there are more.

    The brouhaha generated by the government researching the possibilities of the 3d web through Second Life would be as nothing to the fuss if they were seen to be working within an environment which raises so many questions as to IP rights and copyright protection. It would be treated as though the government had decreed that all governmental podcasts were to be downloaded from a pre-sanitised Napster. That’s if the media could raise their game from reporting the potential for sex scandals.

  3. Well, research departments don’t usually make press releases until they have something to show… To some extent this is just immature UK politics poking fun from the sides at stuff the other party is doing, so it’s hard to tell if the labour party actually meant for this news to emerge this way.

    Re your points on OpenSim though. Open source virtual worlds don’t include only opensimulator. How about sirikata and open croquet? Edusim I’m sure has much less space for flying penises than SL main grid has. Opensim is only 2 years old and lacking in features compared to SL, but more use and support (from government projects for example) would inevitably give these alternate worlds a boost.

    I wonder about your statement about Sl potentially raising less brouhaha than other worlds, because I think people, especially in the UK link SL (perhaps wrongly) to wasting time idly buying virtual clothes and to other types of on-line gameplay.

    The UK government is supporting open source and open content always more strongly. I don’t know if they use p2p to distribute, but they do make lots and lots of info available on what they do and how they run. Try http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ for an example.

    If you don’t want unauthorised people to connect to a platform running locally, there are loads of ways of keeping people out, regardless of what software you run.

    Copyright though – is a whole can of worms, and one I can’t really talk about properly in this little white box, but I can say that it’s really not as simple as all information having to be owned and private. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And it’s going to be a long long time before any of the current virtual worlds or game engines can properly deal with a tangled issue like that.


  4. They could have avoided the ‘waste of public money’ charge altogether if they had simply used OpenSim instead, which is open-source and free to use.

    If the main reason for using a virtual world is for virtual meetings to save on travel costs, then openSim would fit the bill perfectly. It would then be entirely under their control, and no information could ‘leak’ out, as is the case with Second Life.


  5. Well, see my comments above about the problems of using Open Source at the moment – although Ale has suggested some interesting alternatives (which I don’t know, I must confess).

    But I think you’re making a mistake on the costs, to be honest. When you factor in the time spent by civil servants in setting up the site and maintaining the site, and the money spent on creating a suitable environment (for it’s hardly going to be a viable experiment if you simply have a green island with no aids such as screens for displaying PowerPoints or for streaming media), then the costs won’t fall far short of the amount suggested by the BBC.

    I suspect that the cost of land in SL is a very small part of the budget.

  6. I dont see why people are worried about IP and copyright within OpenSim. I can copy and paste all the content from this blog, post it into another blogsite and claim it to be mine. All the images can be easily downloaded to my PC from this site. So..why the heck will the 3D web be any different..these IP worries are coming mainly from SL businesses who are finding the piracy within SECONDLIFE are effecting thier SECONDLIFE revenue stream. OpenSim is a 3D web content streaming server, no different to Apache being a 2D web content streaming server.

  7. The reason is that people are making their living from their revenue stream in Second Life.

    These people, by and large, are not big businesses; they are individuals who are perhaps covering tier or a bit over, making a part time living or maybe a slightly precarious full-time living. A few, a very few are making good livings.

    They have put in a great deal of time and work and have brought skill and effort to their creations. Of course they’re right to defend their creations. Of course they are right to determine how or when their creations can be used.

    The argument “It can be done therefore it doesn’t matter” is no more valid in the computer world than it is in the real world. I can walk out of my house and beat up an old woman, take her wallet and spend its contents on what I please. Does that make it right? Of course not. It’s forbidden by law and morally repugnant. Exactly the same is true of copyright theft.

  8. I do not think piracy is good. People who pirate goods are criminal. I was just defending OpenSimulator. I do not think the server technology is to blame. People are being illogical, thinking one server (SL) is safer for commerece than another (OpenSim). They both have wide open doors for pirates. Neither is safer or implementing a stronger level of security. I would not beat up an old lady ‘just because I can’..but unfortunatly someone will 😦 I guess most pirates will stay in SL, because this is where the goods are, and also they can sell the pirated goods easily inside SL.

  9. The safety factor comes in the fact that Second Life have a set of protocols (imperfect as they may be) for addressing the issue of IP violations. Not all OpenSimulator grids have that. In one case, a grid owner told me that it was between the person whose IP rights had been violated and the person who had violated them, and declined to become involved.

    The point is that OpenSimulator grids need to have a clear policy before they will attract large scale commercial users, or government users, or educational users (beyond cutting edge pilots). There’s a lot of learning pain to go through – a great deal of which SL has already been through.

    But if OpenSimulator grids and other 3D solutions are to be open to creativity and to business, some way of tackling these problems needs to be found.

  10. I think you are right that individual grids will have different ways of doing things. This will give people greater choices. I guess we will get ‘pirate’ grids, mainly inhabited by people who endorse copying items and trading them for 0$. Much like the 2D web has choices..i-Tunes or Pirate Bay. People will always be able to choose. I dont think this should put off governments or eduction, Neither gov or edu are very big in making money off of IP. Commercial companies have 2D web prescence, any IP they incorporate into their web experience is trademarked and locked up in copyright law..they wont be put off, they will have the money to sue violators. So, you say SL has built in IP protection..it would seem not, infact I think they (LL) offer no more protection for ‘The small guys’ than running your own standalone grid with OpenSim. LL should do seminars about licencing and strategies for small businesses to protect IP, and also how to pursue offenders. LL have created this micro-payment economy., and LL need to address the concerns of the people who are creating for this market place they created.

  11. I am a UK taxpayer and I am quite happy for them to experiment with this in SL. Private business and government institutions spend fortunes on big conferences and money may well be saved here. I also think that there is value in this sort of venture for public consultations.

    I remember a basic 3D gallery and information site on a computer in a college library. This was years ago and I thought that it was a good idea. Now we have SL and it can host virtual galleries and 3D presentations of information. Think of it this way. If some developer was coming to your town to build a great big shopping centre, and they put up a virtual model in SL. You could check out the roads linking in, see what you thought of the place. Much better than an artist’s impression in the local newspaper.

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