If you can imagine it, there’s probably Minecraft of it. Since the blocky sandbox game was first released, we’ve seen a stunning array of user creations, from haunted mansions to functioning computers and, yes, lots of phallic structures. But this has to be one of the best creations in terms of scope: the whole of Denmark.
What’s even more surprising about the new Denmark world is that it wasn’t made by a Minecraft superfan, but by Danish government workers. Polygon reports that a couple of employees at the Danish Ministry of the Environment made a virtual world, to scale, of their entire country. You can download it from the government website here and play at being a pixellated Hamlet to your heart’s content.
The map was made by Thorbjørn Nielsen and Simon Kokkendorf at the Danish Geodata Agency. I got Nielsen on the phone to find out what had inspired them to build a terabyte-sized virtual block model of their national landscape, and how it’s even possible to make a model that contains so many billions of blocks.
Nielsen said he and Kokkendorf decided to make the world, “mainly because it was possible.” Both had children who were just getting into the Minecraft-playing age, and it started as a hobby project and snowballed from there.
It became an application for the environmental data that the Danish government made publicly available early last year as part of an open data push. One of Nielsen’s main goals as the project developed was to make the public aware of exactly what data the government has, and also alert them to the fact that they’re able to download it all themselves if they wish.
Another area of interest was education. “In the beginning we didn’t really know what the usage was from this, but it didn’t take long until people said education was an obvious use case—that children could use a real world model to build stuff and have it related to the real world,” said Nielsen.
While Nielsen insisted there’s much to be improved upon in their model, and that he hoped someone would eventually “out-model” them, the level of detail is really quite incredible. “We have vector maps for instance; we have buildings, roads, even lampposts—all the lampposts in Denmark are in the model, all the buildings are there,” he explained. Each building even includes its address on a tiny signpost, so residents can find their own homes—and, of course, make virtual improvements, if they so wish.
"We have creeks, lakes, land use boundaries, fences, and a lot of other things I've forgotten!" he added.
Of course, it would be impossible to build such a landscape block by block, so Nielsen and Kokkendorf built their own algorithms to “translate” the data into Minecraft form. “Simon and I, we work a lot with automatising processes within geodata, so we know our way around with data,” said Nielsen, and noted that he’s currently working on a database containing height data that’s 100 terabytes in size (that’s for his serious job, not Minecraft).
They left out a few details because their priority was to cover the whole of the country, rather than make everything perfectly true-to-life: All the buildings’ roofs are flat, though it would have been possible to model roof structures with the available data, and bridges and tunnels are presented as just barricades.
It wouldn’t be Minecraft without people building—and destructing—stuff themselves, and Nielsen admitted that could potentially lead to difficulties. “We are not in the game server business; we are not trained Minecraft server operators in any respect, so we know very well that we are not able to supervise this server 100 percent,” he said. “We can only ask people to be nice to each other.”
There are no TNT blocks included, so you can’t just blow up the whole thing, and Nielsen said they’d be able to recreate parts if things got out of hand. He’s hoping, however, that the community will end up being self-policing, with a passion for creation trumping to the lure of destruction.
Whatever players do with it, the idea is that they’ll at least be a little more aware of what the government's environmental department does. Who'd have thought geodata could be so fun?