FEATURE27 May 2014

Join the dots

Impact

Watch Dogs, a game released today about a digital vigilante wreaking havoc in a hyper-connected city, is set in a virtual world that’s closer to reality than you might think.

Aiden Pearce is a dangerous man. Armed with a smartphone, he’s able to control the world around him: hacking other people’s devices to peer into their personal lives; to tap into government communications; and to turn the city of Chicago’s transport system to his advantage. Need to make a fast getaway? At the press of the button, Pearce is able to make sure all traffic lights in front of him are green.

Pearce isn’t real, thankfully. He’s the star of a new video game, Watch Dogs. But the virtual world he inhabits isn’t that far removed from our own. “Smart cities are no longer a fantasy. It’s real and it’s happening all around us now,” says Jean Guerin, EMEA digital marketing manager for Ubisoft, the publisher and developer of Watch Dogs.

As if to hammer home the point, Ubisoft worked with digital agency BETC to build a website called WeareData, which pulls in live feeds of public data and overlays it on 3D maps of Paris, Berlin and London.

Users are able to watch trains criss-cross the cities, to see Instagram photos pop up in the places they are taken, and to see what people in various parts of the towns are tweeting about at any given moment.

It’s a scarily effective means of conveying the game’s central conceit: that there’s all this data out there about us, just waiting to be taken advantage of – whether for good or ill.

All mapped out
In Watch Dogs, Pearce is able to hack into private data, but the information on WeareData is all open source and publicly available.

It includes data about the city itself: transportation (underground, public bicycles), telecommunications networks (mobile networks, wi-fi spots), electrical equipment (CCTV cameras, traffic lights, ATMs), and statistical information per area (average net income, unemployment rate, crime rate). On top of that are the data about people, derived from their public social activity on Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare.

Explaining how the site works, BETC digital account director Euge?nie Valletoux says: “A web service system is used to pick each bit of information and display it on the map whenever a user activates a filter. Some categories of data update automatically, such as the train traffic and the public bicycle system – which are plugged into dynamic APIs – or the social data, since they are generated by the users everyday and updated on the website almost in real time. Other categories come from annual statistics reports so they need to be updated manually.”

And were the developers shocked at how much information was out there for anyone to see? Ste?phane Xiberras, BETC Paris’s chief creative officer, admits he found it “very scary”. “Today, we live in a world that sometimes isn’t far off from the despotic future described by George Orwell in his book 1984,” he says.

Guerin was less fazed. “We knew data was everywhere – on the social networks for a start. We believe the surprise is more on the users’ side, when they discover that data they thought was private is in fact completely public.”

WatchDogs cover 190

Watch Dogs is released today on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U and PC

WeareData serves to highlight the fact that “reality is closer to the fiction than most people think”, according to Valletoux. “Today, you cannot directly hack someone you meet in the street, but you certainly can learn a lot about them through a simple search on the web,” she says.

The Central Operating System (called CtOS) that Pearce uses in Watch Dogs to turn Chicago into his own personal plaything might not exist yet, says Valletoux, but all the data are here, ready to be pulled together. That said, Guerin stresses that Watch Dogs is, first and foremost, “a video game, designed to bring fun and enriching experiences to players. It’s not a documentary, an essay or an opinion on the digitalisation of society”.

However, Guerin does believes that Watch Dogs will spark discussions among players about the extent of the data available and the power gained by those who are able to wield this data.

And that’s what WeareData is all about, he concludes. “It’s about letting the website visitor experience the tremendous feeling of power, of omniscience – and, therefore, responsibility – that Aiden must feel, thanks to his control over data. Players will be able to experience this feeling without boundaries when they play the game, but we couldn’t wait to give them a first taste.”

Oversharing?

Stats uncovered by the BETC team during the making of WeareData

Every 60 seconds:

  • 27,800 photos are posted on Instagram
  • 1,875,000 things are ‘liked’ on Facebook
  • 200,000,000 emails are sent

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