JEFFERSON CITY — In a matter of seconds, Jedadiah Juran was transported from the state of Missouri to the Sistine Chapel, from 1930s Harlem to the Kansas State Library.
Search. Click. You’re there.
Juran is the Second Life online avatar for Paul Wright, information technology director for the departments of education. Wright and the state information technology team have found real-world opportunity using the virtual world.
“We have had fun explaining to state government what this project is and its potential,” said Jan Grecian, technology specialist with the state's Information Technology Services Division.
Second Life, developed by Linden Labs and opened to the public in 2003, has a virtual mainland and more than 24,000 islands that residents — that is, people who are members of Second Life — are free to explore using a personally designed avatar.
“It’s all about you,” Grecian said. “You can be anyone you want to be.”
The almost 17 million global residents — more than the top five U.S. cities combined — create their own three-dimensional world. They can purchase land, design homes, host parties, take trips and participate in numerous other activities in the virtual world. They can even attend courses for real college credit.
Second Life is a social networking tool that allows users to truly experience the Internet, Grecian said. Similar to sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Second Life brings people together from all over the world. The department chose to use Second Life over other social networking sites because it has been embraced by the business world. Companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM use the technology.
The state's Information Technology Services Division started experiments with Second Life in November 2007, setting up an information kiosk to use for information technology career recruitment.
“We are not just playing around,” Wright said. “We are conducting business.”
The division was the first government entity in the state to use Second Life and recognize its opportunity for recruitment. They started using the technology in order to target recruits from the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 1995.
The federal government has been on the leading edge of this technology, Grecian said. Agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have spaces in the virtual world.
The Missouri Information Technology Division invited avatars to its first career fair in February 2008.
“You can advertise just like you can in real world,” Grecian said. “When we have a job fair that we want to advertise, there are interest groups we can contact and we can put an article in an in-world newspaper.” In-world means something within Second Life.
Two more fairs were held in June and October 2008. People from as far as Spain, England and Scotland have attended the fairs, which are strikingly similar to real-world career fairs.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Wright said. “We’ve learned something new every time.”
The division typically sees 20 to 30 avatars per event. During the career fairs, avatars transport themselves to the Missouri space on Eduisland, an education island. Missouri’s neighbors on the island include a number of college consortiums, technology groups and educational programs.
To date, 847 residents have visited the state information technology community on the island. One or two people, on average, visit the Missouri space on Eduisland a day, according to the division.
Avatars can make their way through the flowering dogwoods, stop to view a spinning Missouri state seal overhead and browse displays about information technology opportunities and facts about the state. The avatars may also sit at an amphitheater to view a PowerPoint presentation.
State employees wearing black pants and Missouri T-shirts greet career fair participants and offer to chat about any questions they may have. Avatars can even pick up a free Missouri T-shirt by clicking on a floating box displaying photos from across the state.
“Just like the real world,” Grecian said, “people like free stuff.”
Serious candidates are asked to contact the division in real life, submit a resume and attend interviews. The division made its first hire from Second Life recruitment in September 2008. Grecian explained when they first met him, his avatar was a suit-wearing kitten. She said his creativity on Second Life reflected his skills and interest in information technology.
There are about 1,400 information technology professionals in all state agencies, and Grecian said there are typically job openings in the field.
Missouri has found a larger virtual home: In November 2008, the Missouri Government Island was established. A plan is under way to use virtual construction machinery, even bulldozers, to make the island the shape of Missouri. This will become home to several state government entities.
“We understand that we are the only state to go out and obtain our own island,” Grecian said.
Using Second Life for the past two years has cost the department about $300. Wright said one day at a college recruitment event could cost just as much. “With one or two hires a year, it’s a good return on investment,” he said.
Funding comes from “anywhere we can get it,” Wright said with a laugh. They work with the division's chief information officer and others in the state when looking for funding sources.
“It raised eyebrows when accounting staff realized we were purchasing an island,” Grecian said. “We did a presentation to help them understand the project and Second Life world.”
As the Missouri island progresses and other partnerships are made, costs will be shared among the agencies.
A Virtual Community Steering Committee was formed in November 2008. The committee has 10 people representing state agencies and organizations with interest in virtual communications. “The committee has only met once, but a charter and online guidelines were established,” Wright said.
The Missouri Information Technology Division has given presentations to other states — in Second Life — about using Second Life. Wright said this is a great way to relay information while saving transportation costs.
In 2008, the department received a Gateway Innovator Award by the St. Louis Information Technology Coalition for its use of the Second Life site for information technology recruitment.
Goals for this year include getting the welcome center on Missouri Island running and encouraging other state organizations to participate. Grecian said the next agency expected to join the community is the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.