Tech in the Commons: A Toolkit for Place-Based Nonprofits
Case Study – Free Library of Philadelphia
What the citywide nonprofit learned about civic engagement from Pokémon Go.

Yes, Pokémon Go is still a thing.

The augmented reality game for smartphones exploded in Summer 2016and while its popularity has certainly dwindled, it still had 65 million active monthly users a year out (and still prompts meetups in Philadelphia).

The game can obviously bring people together. But can it be used to increase civic engagement? One of Philly’s most prominent institutions, the Free Library of Philadelphia, thought so.

In Summer 2017, the Free Library got connected to Pokémon Go parent company Niantic through Knight Foundation to set up short-term Pokéstops, or real-world landmarks where players can collect virtual items, at five library branches:

  • Tacony LAB in the Northeast
  • Queen Memorial Library in Point Breeze
  • Fumo Family Library in South Philadelphia
  • Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library in West Philadelphia
  • Parkway Central Library in Logan Square

The goal: introduce people to their local library branches, if they weren’t already using them — “a yellow-brick road to a library” — as well as nearby community assets, said Joel Nichols, library administrator for data strategy and evaluation at the Free Library.

“To encourage more people to interact with and explore our city’s public spaces, we need to meet them where they are,” Patrick Morgan, Knight Foundation’s Philly program director, had said that summer. “By combining the draw of Pokémon GO with an invitation to get to know Philadelphia, this initiative taps into the power of technology to promote civic engagement.”

The seeds of the project were planted in 2016 when the game first gained popularity and more people than usual were walking around outside, playing.

“Obviously we at the library noticed it, and a bunch of librarians around the system started organically taking part” by making signs advertising the library’s Wi-Fi and open bathrooms and otherwise encouraging players to come into their branches to catch Pokémon, Nichols said. (Read his recap of the program here.)

By the time the Niantic partnership was introduced the following year, those early librarian adopters were asked to identify nearby landmarks as potential Pokéstops, such as the Keith Haring mural at 22nd and Ellsworth streets near the Queen Memorial branch.

Corresponding in-app messages would appear from the Free Library when users approached the stops. One example:

“Did you know that Marconi Plaza was designed and built as a grand entrance to the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition? This event marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Find out about this and more at the Fumo Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.”

The branches could also turn on “lures” during certain hours to coincide with library programming, encouraging players to visit the stops while they were hosting, say, a teen gaming club meeting, and all library visitors were invited to take physical “sightseeing” maps with nearby Pokéstops and other landmarks.

So, did the initiative meet its mission? Kind of.

Anecdotally, library users were excited about the initiative, Nichols said. But he’d hoped the Free Library would get access to user data from the app such as how many Pokémon were caught at each stop or how many miles users walked — indeed, how many people the initiative actually reached — which Niantic wasn’t ultimately able to provide. Still, this was very much a pilot, and the Free Library is in talks to work with the game maker again.

There are some lessons here on launching augmented reality pilots for smaller nonprofits without the Niantic hookup:

  • Be authentic — The Free Library’s creative staff network included librarians who’d already been playing the game and working it into their programming. They lent their expertise to inform the initiative’s rollout and made it more than a marketing grab.
  • Keep it short — The pilot ran only from July 10 to Aug. 11 of 2018, which allowed the library system to test it and move on if it didn’t produce value.
  • Consider its limits — “We’re very sensitive to the fact that many of our [library] users don’t have smartphones” or, if they do, unlimited data, Nichols said, though the latter group could still play on library Wi-Fi. That’s where the analog activations such as the physical maps came in handy.

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