U.S. Government Presence Grows in Second Life Online World

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Since early 2007, more than 6 million virtual residents of the online world called Second Life have had new neighbors – a handful of U.S. government agencies that are exploring possibilities for education, collaboration and outreach in the popular real-time multiverse.

Agencies that have facilities of varying complexity and interaction in Second Life include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the National Institutes of Health and its National Library of Medicine (NLM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation and many other U.S. agencies also have representatives in this virtual world who attend regular “in-world” meetings of government representatives to discuss Second Life and how best to work with its features.

With virtual residents from more than 100 real-life countries, Second Life is a good place to reach people with a range of messages – about health, science, disaster preparedness, education, current issues and more.

“Second Life provides a new medium, a new ability to communicate with citizens and customers,” said NOAA information technology specialist Eric Hackathorn during a May 4 interview at the NOAA facility in Second Life.

In Second Life, Hackathorn said, “people have the ability to communicate directly with NOAA in a two-way conversation ... behind the corporate firewall. To me, it’s the price of doing business in the 21st century.”


Second Life opened in 2003, created by Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based company founded in 1999 by Philip Rosedale, to create a new form of shared experience.

Its residents own and build the world’s digital infrastructure, including homes, vehicles, nightclubs, stores, landscapes, clothing, games, islands, schools, companies, government organizations, libraries and more.

Anyone can sign up for a free membership by registering with Second Life and creating an avatar – a member’s persona in the virtual world. This virtual world, says Linden Lab, teems with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity.

It even has an economy based on Linden dollars – about 265 Lindens to the U.S. dollar. Millions of Linden dollars change hands every month for resident-created goods and services, and can be bought and sold on LindeX, Second Life's official Linden dollar exchange.


Of all the U.S. government agencies in Second Life, NOAA has the most complex facility so far. On its own island, called Meteora, visitors can experience a hurricane on the wing of a research aircraft, rise through the atmosphere clinging to a weather balloon, stand on a beach during a tsunami, or ride underwater on a NOAA submersible.

NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory developed the site by holding a competition among Second Life design companies and letting Second Life residents help choose the winner.

“Right now we have an island that has a smattering of NOAA’s research,” Hackathorn said, “but NOAA does so much more. Incorporating those activities will take a heck of a lot more land. Ultimately, I’d like to see a NOAA continent.”

Not far from Meteora is Health Info Island, a medical library and virtual hospital initially funded with a $40,000 National Library of Medicine (NLM) grant to a group called Library Alliance in Illinois to provide consumer health information services in virtual worlds.

There are three buildings on the island, said NLM technical information specialist Laura Bartlett, a consumer health library, a medical library and a health and wellness center. Over time, the project will provide training programs, outreach to virtual medical communities, consumer health resources and one-on-one support to Second Life residents.


Another NLM division, the Office of Outreach and Special Populations in the Division of Specialized Information Services, is exploring Second Life as a way to improve access to high-quality, accurate health information in underserved and special populations.

“Second Life and many [similar] tools are becoming very popular,” said Victor Cid, senior computer scientist in the Office of Outreach and Special Populations, “and we believe it is very important to start exploring these tools as means to disseminate information, reach people and collaborate.”

Some government agencies, like CDC, have basic facilities so far that offer two-dimensional information and little interactivity. Others, like the Department of Homeland Security, do not yet have permanent spaces in Second Life but are making use of the digital world.

Jean-Paul Boucher is a contractor with SRA International Inc., a company doing several Second Life projects for government agencies. His avatar wears a shirt with a Homeland Security logo.

Homeland Security, he said, “is holding a virtual conference the first week in June in the auditorium on NOAA’s island for first responders and academics from around the United States.” Such collaboration, Boucher added, is one of the great values of Second Life.

“It’s a tremendously powerful tool set that eliminates the time and space boundaries that normally hold people back from collaborating with each other,” he said. “We see that as another primary focus for the government.”

Additional information about Second Life is available on the virtual world’s Web site.

More information about NOAA’s virtual world is available at the NOAA Web site.