Op-Ed: How San Jose Amplified Viva CalleSJ with Pokémon Go

In mid-September last year, the city of San Jose incorporated a unique element into its open streets program, Viva CalleSJ.

Through a newly developed partnership with Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go took over the streets for five amazing, playful hours. Over 130,000 people from the San Francisco Bay and beyond converged on the 7.3-mile route to catch one million Pokémon.

Quickly approaching the 50-year age mark, I had a vague idea of what augmented reality was, and had heard about Pokémon Go even though I hadn’t played myself, when I received an email from my friend, Danny Harris of the Knight Foundation. Danny wanted to connect the Viva CalleSJ team with Vikram Grover and the Niantic team.

Danny mentioned that synergy was ripe for a great partnership. I then shared the potential partnership with the younger members of the Viva CalleSJ team. The excitement in their eyes spoke volumes. That is when I realized the popularity of augmented reality and partnership potential.

Thus began our six-month planning process to bring a one-of-a-kind element to Viva CalleSJ. Working with the folks at Niantic was amazing. We shared a common vision of bringing people to local parks and the outdoors. It was a learning process for both teams.

I went from a complete novice, to downloading the game and playing it daily in order to better understand the user experience. The team from Niantic learned about the power of open streets and creating a temporary 7.3-mile long urban park.

Pokemon GO

The question I kept asking was, “Will people show up for Pokémon?"

On the event day, we began closing streets and coordinating traffic control at 4am. We began at one end of the route and worked our way through to make sure things would go smoothly and everything was in the right place.

At 4:15am. I parked my car in Japantown and began walking towards an intersection. Although it was still dark, I could see a group of young adults looking at their phones as they huddled under a light post.

I shouted, “Good morning! Are you ready for Viva CalleSJ?” They yelled back, “What time do things start spawning?”

Turns out they were players from Stockton, a two-hour drive from San Jose. They wanted to be the first on scene, so they woke up at 2am.

As the day continued, over 35,000 unique players logged onto the game during the hours of Viva CalleSJ. The day before the event, our website temporarily crashed due to the high traffic. We received emails from the United Kingdom and Canada residents who were visiting San Jose to participate in Viva CalleSJ.

In all aspects of evaluation and customer experience, the addition of Pokémon Go was a massive hit with participants. We learned valuable lessons around the popularity of the game and its draw, and looking forward to continuing our partnership with Niantic.

And if you are wondering, I still have the game on my phone. Mystic Level 20.

Ed Solis, is a recreation superintendent for the city of San Jose. Viva CalleSJ, produced and managed by the San Jose’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services, is the city’s open streets program. It draws thousands to walk, ride, skate and play in car-free streets. This column first appeared on NianticLabs.com. Interested in writing an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].

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