Monday, February 9, 2015

Venice Dashboard: the real-time pulse of the city

The Venice Dashboard is one of the many impressive contributions of the 25th anniversary of the Venice Project Center. It represents a departure from the numerous other achievements reachable from the VPC 2.5 web site in its focus on the present instead of on the past.
The Venice Dashboard was inspired by the London Dashboard (part of a series of UK City Dashboards) created at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at the Bartlett School of University College London (UCL). We adapted the concept to the unique situation of Venice, focusing on on such Venice-specific issues as: the cumulative hourly and daily impact of tourism vis a vis the declining local population; flooding forecasts in real time; and local waterbus service announcements.   In the process, we significantly rewrote the original UCL code, and shared in a public repository in the spirit of the collaboration with CASA.

The Dashboard consists of several "widgets" that encapsulate and visualize relevant real-time events of interest to citizens, city officials and visitors alike.  Each widget aggregates data available from a multiplicity of public web sites and summarizes the information in easy-to-digest capsules arrayed on the screen in tiles of varying dimensions.
The data sources used in each tile are listed in the About screens accessible from the pulldown V " buttons at the top-right of each widget (see example of About page for widget shown here).
The simplicity of the Venice Dashboard belies the sophistication of the complex underlying cloud technologies employed to produce the various widget displays, which include: real-time databases stored in JSON trees, javascript and PHP scripts that -- like cron jobs -- are run with different periodicity, paired with d3js graphical visualizations, manipulated using Yahoo Pipes, fed from RSS feeds, APIs and screen-scraped data obtainable from official public web sites.  Indeed, each of the widgets in the current version of the Venice Dashboard is complex enough to deserve its own blog entry (in due time).  Another future blog entry will describe the generalized "dashboard system" we have developed, which allows us to continue to create sharable and re-usable custom widgets and dashboards such as the ones dedicated to Venice Tourism, and many others.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The VPC 2.5 Web site -- the gateway to 25 years of research for Venice

On the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Venice Project Center, we decommissioned our Venice 2.0 web site and created a brand new VPC 2.5 site to replace it.  Everything is now under a new domain,
The new web site is deceivingly simple and purposely minimalist. Kyle Miller and I picked the basic template over the summer, aiming for a googlishly-simple look.  In the fall, Ben Lichtner engineered the inner workings to reflect the progress we had made with the PreserVenice and Bardolino web sites. Kristen Brann, a member of the WPI team in charge of coordinating the 25th Anniversary projects, worked with Kyle to revamp most of the original features in the 20th anniversary site, and, with Benny's assistance, added the new interactive components that make this site at least 10x better than the earlier one.  
Most of the items on the menu bar leverage a hidden JavaScript platform that combines real-time data management (via JSON trees), with real-time retrieval of images and other media from cloud storage (thanks to Amazon's S3 Web Services -- AWS), glued together by our proprietary agent-based approach to the management of City Knowledge.  The beauty is that all of these sophisticated technologies -- based on applied complexity principles developed at the Santa Fe Institute -- are integrated into this innocent-looking web site in such a seamless manner that a visitor to the site would never know the difference.
The Visualizations and Data menus on the 2.5 web site, as well as the Accomplishments and Accolades, all take advantage of the underlying real-time cloud technologies. Venipedia itself, despite its long history as our hyperlocal encyclopedia, is now mostly composed of pages generated in real-time from our backend City Knowledge Console, thanks to our custom-made wikipedia Firebase add-on.  It's impossible for users to tell the difference between an auto-generated, data-driven wiki page and a "normal", manually-made Venipedia page.... Several of the Data (e.g. Bridges, under Infrastructure>Water) and Visualization pages on the VPC 2.5 web site share the exact same data as the Venipedia pages and all are set up to read changes in the underlying database in real-time.  In essence, everything on the new 2.5 web site is designed to work in perpetuity.  As the underlying data are updated, the web site and all related wiki pages and applications will reflect the new information immediately.
There is a lot more to say about the rich content of this anniversary web site, which I summarized in a recent presentation at WPI.  Each of the menu items on this new web site is worthy of a full description and I will make sure I gradually expound on each of them in upcoming blog entries, now that WPI is on Spring break, and I am preparing to fly to Santa Fe to work on 6 new projects with a cadre of 23 WPI students until May.  
Take some time to click around the VPC 2.5 site and stay tuned for more detailed posts about its numerous features!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Venice 2.5 - a year-long celebration

When I started the Venice Project Center (VPC) in 1988, I was barely older than the students.  I was a peer, before I became an uncle, before I became a father figure.
My students are now younger than Nick, my son, who just turned 23.  As we say in Venice: "a lot of water has run under the bridges" since the birth of the VPC.
The age-gap between my students and me has grown quite a bit since then, as a steady stream of over 650, perpetually 20-year-old, WPI students have unwittingly watched me age to the same middle-aged man as my dad seemed to me, back in1988.  A quarter of a century has transpired between the first image and second one in this post.
My dad (Cino) was about as old as I am now when I started the VPC, and on this 25th anniversary year, he turned 79 the day the seven student teams presented their final results.  It was quite a show!
The anniversary only started this year, though, and it will aptly end on Cino's eightieth birthday in 2014, when we hope to round up the silver jubilee by publishing a collection of our answers 25 Questions that people may have about Venice and its Lagoon.
The Jubilee year has started with a bang with the 2013 fall program (WPI's term B13).We had a very talented group of students and they did a marvelous job of summarizing and visualizing 25 years of research.  The results they produced are really impressive -- if I may say so myself -- and are all on display in the revamped Venice 2.5 web site.  I summarized the 25th Anniversary results (thus far) in a presentation I recently gave at WPI.  There is a hidden side to what we did that I exposed in that presentation.  A technology that is my personal holy grail...
I promise I will gradually write a blog post about each of the extraordinary achievements of this year's cohort of WPI students.  They each deserve a custom-tailored kudos.
Given the great start of the Anniversary, it will be a tall task to top this year's quality of outcomes, yet we will try to outdo ourselves next fall (as always), so we can end this year of celebration with an even bigger bang.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Annual Report 2013

Well, another (Chinese) year has passed and lots has happened in-between my sparse posts.  The WPI Annual Faculty report was due January 31, on Nick's 23rd birthday, which happened to also be Chinese New Year (of the Horse).
Despite an innate aversion for form-filling, I find this yearly WPI ritual quite useful.  It forces me to take stock of one year's worth of academic and professional activities.  I resist doing it until it's almost due, but in the end it is rather satisfying...  It's like a compendium of blog entries, only more focused.
So, looking back at the entirety of 2013, here are the highlights:
Amidst all that, I was able to visit two of the trifecta of James Turrell exhibits (in NYC and Houston).  One of the highlights of my year was a 4-day cul(ture)inary outing to Verona, Mantua, Parma and Modena with my good friends Chrys Demetry and Rick Vaz, who very recently tied the knot and became officially married.  Congratulations!

Over all, despite all the adversities that life can bestow upon you, I managed to make the best of my past year.  Things are looking up, after the amazing work that was done at for the Venice Project Center's 25th anniversary, that I just summarized in a presentation at WPI last Thursday.  

My personal life is also slowly improving.  Nick is getting motivated...  Change is in the air.
2013 was a better year than I had made it out to be, however I am confident this coming year will be even better...

Enjoy 2014, the year of the Horse!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

PreserVenice app

The WPI Venice Project Center and the UNESCO Venice Office announced the release of our PreserVenice web site and smartphone/tablet app.
I am very proud of the efficiency and elegance of the end result, which allows us to showcase the extraordinary wealth of information we have collected about Venice's public art.
Most of the credit goes to Ben Lichtner and Kyle Miller, who were responsible for the technical and content aspects, respectively. This project would have not come to fruition without the support of the UNESCO Venice Office.  Big thanks go to Yolanda Valle-Neff, director, and especially to Anthony Krause, head of the UNESCO Culture Unit, who had the vision to support this worthy initiative.
The innovation we have introduced with this project is mostly invisible, and it is based on City Knowledge technology, which endows each piece of public art with the intelligent agency to request donations and/or data updates autonomously.
The PreserVenice website showcases all of the 1,098 coats of arms, 943 patere (roundels), 394 reliefs, 173 sculptures, 109 street altars, 109 fountains, 75 crosses, 56 flagstaff pedestals,  32 decorations, 30 inscriptions, and 25 sculptural fragments - a total of 3,044 pieces of Venetian urban outdoor sculpture. Information and details for each piece can be viewed on individual wiki pages on Venipedia ( and in more succinct forms directly on the PreserVenice app and website by selecting an artifact on a map of Venice.
The companion PreserVenice app ( is accessible on all platforms (smartphones, tablets, lap/desk-tops) via a compatible web browser, and it is designed to elicit participation through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding techniques. Interested users are solicited to contribute to the upkeep of each collection piece by flagging erroneous data, providing updated information, taking new photos, and also by donating money towards the restoration and repair of their favourite artifacts. This crowdfunding technique collects restoration funds from many small contributors, each making micro-donations in real time from the mobile app, all while standing face-to-face with a piece of public art in the streets of Venice.
The Venice Project Center has collected information for an additional 5,000 artifacts, which await funding to be consolidated and included in the PreserVenice website and app. PreserVenice aims to publish all of its public art data and to establish itself as a non-profit organization, that will collaborate with UNESCO’s Venice Office to actively preserve and restore these outdoor testimonials to Venice’s past. PreserVenice is planning a crowdfunding campaign to support the next phase of the project.

Based on the PreserVenice model, we plan to publish ALL of our Venice Project Center data this year, as the Venice Project Center turns 25...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

In dependence day

It had been quite a while since I last spent a 4th of July in the US.  Typically I would be in Venice at this time, until at least the Redentore, but -- as I said in a recent post -- I have been moving my stay back to May, and this year I only stayed until my mom's birthday on June 18th.
Although I would like to exclusively blame the tourist flood (or the muggy heat), I came back for a variety of other reasons as well.  One was: to get my house into selling shape, and I am getting there.  The wild castle is starting to look "civilized".  I even have light fixtures! and railings on my deck!
Today, was my neighbor's Mark's 50th birthday.  Quite a milestone.  We had a nice sunset swim to celebrate and I recommended that he consider a 10-project list like mine.
Later at night, I took advantage of the festive spirit to burn a whole lot of scrap wood produced by the contractors.   Had to stay up until dawn to keep an eye on it...  It was quite a bonfire.  I burnt a lot of my past tonight.
A transition is in the works.  Nick -- the other reason why I came back early -- has one more chance to "do the right thing", and he will soon be "homeless", like me, if we can sell the Castle over the summer.  July 22nd will be a major turning point in Nick's life, and mine too.  He is at a fork in the road and he needs to "take it".  He is going to have to work at his independence in the very near future.  I am not sure if he is ready, but the change is in motion right now.  Once the house is on the market, Jackie and I will be able to finalize our divorce on September 24th.  She will continue to depend on me for alimony, but her road to independence is also starting this summer.  And I will hopefully gain some of my own independence once we all get through these hurdles.
What next?  I don't know, really.  I will have to find a place to stay, for term A and term C, somewhere in New England, since I will be teaching the preparation courses for Venice and Santa Fe at WPI.  I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
For now, I am kind of enjoying my refurbished Castle.  Makes me almost want to stay a little while.  I am leaving the second floor master suite unfinished to see what prospective buyers may say about that.  I may be here through the winter or I may just find an eccentric couple who falls in love with it and buys it at the asking price. The market will decide what happens.
Meanwhile, I am gradually working my way through the "stuff" that we accumulated in our basement, closets and all around the home.  It's a bittersweet process but I am not dwelling on our family's past too much.  I am just being very practical and focused on the present task at hand.  My daily walks in the woods with Sirius have helped me stay on target.  I am plugging away at it every day, and soon we should see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We are not quite there yet.  None of us.  But we can smell that independence coming our way.
In reality, not many of us are really truly independent.  Only the independently wealthy may be. The remaining 99% of us really depend on something (exercise, substances, gambling...) or someone (family, spouse, friends, parents...).  I am personally still somewhat dependent on my dad, even though he will be turning 79 this year.  We are interdependent, and that is a good thing, I think. Many of us are unfortunately also co-dependent too. I am learning magical lessons from our dog Sirius, about the power of positive rewards and especially the non-rewarding of unacceptable behaviors.  I am only slowly beginning to use these simple "dog tricks" in my human life...
It's time for all of us to appreciate the web of dependencies that holds our life together, and embrace it, instead of making believe it is not there, or that it doesn't matter. If the asymmetry of a relationship feels awkward, we can either rebalance it or even drop the relationship altogether, and it's all doable with persistence and determination, and love.  Especially love.
Perhaps it is not by chance that I came back in time for the 4th of July this year...

Now, it's the 5th.  The sun is up.  The fire is dwindling.  It's a new day.  And the contractors are coming in one hour...  Carpe vitam!

Happy Independence Day!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pop! ... goes the city

Today I attended  PopTech's "The City Resilient" summit at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). PopTech is like a less-choreographed, more humane TED.  I enjoyed the mix of presenters, despite the understandable focus on the resilience of NYC (and surrounding areas) when hurricane Sandy struck last fall. It was not a purely "techie" meetup. And that was good...
I attempted to use Airbnb for the occasion since it seemed appropriate, but I failed to synch up as a new user...
I was personally invited by the ringmaster Andrew Zolli who, in his personalized email to me, literally said: "I'm a big fan of your work – I've evangelized StreetBump around the world as a prime example of the future of urban innovation"...
How could I refuse such an invitation!?
It was an intense day, which I managed to summarize in my moleskine. And I will now attempt to transcribe the experience to this blog. Lots of very inspiring presentations on topics that I am actually interested in. Enough to make me stray from my 10-project lifetime goal. But I will keep my focus...
My personal take-home message was that what we are doing with City Knowledge is still ahead of the cutting edge, and our approach promises to surmount many of the issues brought out in the summit and fulfill many of the futures the presenters (and all of us) wished for.
I am glad I attended, even though I didn't really get to speak to many attendees.  I was soaking and processing the information being delivered and I didn't want "conference noise" to intrude into my lucubrations. We even got a plug for StreetBump by Carlo Ratti's replacement, Jake Porway. I felt proud, I have to admit.
I heard for my first time the neologism adhocracy (vs. bureaucracy) from Andrew himself, during the intro.  Makes me think of the "gradients" that government traverses -- unconsciously -- to try to get "the right policy" with broadbrush strokes (as manifested in euclidian zoning).  Adhocracy feels a lot more like performance zoning.  Our ultimate goal with CK is to deal with these gradients directly and let processes coalesce and emerge as needed.
Then, the event's major sponsor, the Rockefeller Foundation introduced the "100 Resilient Cities" challenge.  And, of course, my thoughts went to Venice, Boston and Santa Fe...  All very resilient in their own way.  All impacted positively and negatively by tourism...
The Manhatta project made me think of the "Venice proto-islands" project we are planning to repeat this year to reconstruct the evolution of the city from Archeological data, upon which we could add the Visualizing Venice details of more recent changes, after the landscape was heavily anthropized. I have to read the book "Terra Nova" and learn about Urban Alchemy...
Sampson introduced econometric principles at work in his version of the "science of the city" in the Great American City of Chicago.  It is not what I believe is going on, nor the Theory of City Size that Bettencourt and Batty just wrote about in Science magazine.  There seems to be a movement toward an elusive "science of the city", and perhaps -- just perhaps -- we may contribute quite a bit to this science in a way that is complementary to these other theories, among which I would rank very highly Kevin Lynch's Theory of City Form which is at risk of being overshadowed by more recent efforts, especially now that Julian Beinart is retiring from our group (City Design and Development) and department (DUSP) at MIT.  Perhaps I need to name my concept "A Theory of City Knowledge" as a "third way" (probably complementary to the others) as the science of city government to the service of the citizen.  A science of gradients indeed.
We were all intrigued by HopeLab and Hoboken's wireless mesh network, and by the concept -- novel to me -- of IOBY (In Our Back Yard, as opposed to NIMBY) and the citizen participation that technology could enable in that context.  Apparently, the NYC IT department (and especially Mike Flowers) are quite beloved in the PopTech community...  Mike's Building Inspections analytics would marry well with our CK prototype for Boston's inspectors.  A brief mention about the NYC Park department recalled my previous efforts to map trees in Venice (2001) and Cambridge.  I even wrote a paper on tree maintenance, and tree information management and analysis, based on CK Principles.
The real techie presentation was by Jake, who is a fledgling TV personality on National Geographic Channel, where my own Venice video still lingers.  I will read Tubes as he suggested.  This is the segment when the StreetBump plug came out, together with the other Boston app called Adopt-a-hydrant.  I see the day coming for a single CK City App that will allow citizens to pick-and-choose what they want to contribute to, while voting for things they like or want to see improved or fixed.  It will be the embodiment of CitizenPipe (#9 in my list). Which is what OpenPaths hints at, with a combination of "My Preferences" (#10 in my list) and SensorDomo.  Intriguingly related to Citizenpipe is also another effort mentioned by the presenters:, which is not available in Spencer, MA, but I suspect to be not too far from the concepts in my Naticity business plan.
Overall, I think we are well poised to create something 10X better, by fulfilling on the promise of City Knowledge and of CitizenPipe. On this "silver jubilee" we will be bringing together the latest developments on the City Knowledge console and the best insights from our successful apps like ButOne, DEW, Venipedia, VeniceNoise, Vaporetto, PreserVenice, Stores, and others, into a single flexible app on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Venice Project Center in 2013-2014. One app to rule them all!  And a Venice City Dashboard to boot!  (with kind assistance from UCL's City Dashboard team).
Overall, the Pop!Tech event boosted my outlook about the path we are following with City Knowledge.  We are on to something, and we are going to stay the course (and hurry a bit).  Above and beyond the "Internet of Things" recently featured in Wired, our AgentsCloud promises the software equivalent, with added network effects, plus encompasses all data-producing processes, such as administrative permits, inspections and the like, that are simply not monitorable with gadgets.
Big City data will indeed "get personal" and our CK applications will be leading the way...

You watch...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Steve, Turrell, Ganzfeld

On my way to the PopTech conference at BAM, I made sure I got into the Guggenheim with ample time to take in James Turrell's installations that are part of a 3-museum retrospective recently announced in the New York Times. Kudos to Joanna Hess for alerting me to this amazing show.
Here is a list of adjectives that -- together -- may begin to describe the experience: outstanding, mindbending, intense, trippy, puzzling, mysterious, uncanny, pleasing (at times), eerie (other times), pensive, meditative, pulsating, vibrating, disorienting, and there could be many more... but you get the gist.
The man is intense, to say the least, and I can only hope that I can somehow get into his "crater" emerging from the high desert near Flagstaff (I think  I know how).  I resolutely plan to take in the LA and Houston shows as well.  It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I won't let distance get in my way.  I even bought the catalog -- which I never do --and I don't even own a coffee table.
What's surprising is that I never heard of this genius.  And neither has Steve Guerin, despite the obvious kinship when it comes to projected/reflected light, and notwithstanding the uncanny visage resemblance, now that Steve has grown a big beard (à la Turrell, one may say).
I surreptitiously took a video to try and capture the shifting ganzfeld effects. Doesn't do it justice, but perhaps it hints at what Turrel's art is all about.  It's definitely one of those you have to see it to believe it experiences, so go to NYC, Houston or LA if you have a chance.

I know I will...

Friday, June 21, 2013

A "minimum stay" in Venice

I just returned from a month in Venice just in time for the summer solstice; also just in time to kind of  see the supermoon through the clouds.  Nonna Wilma went into the hospital the day I left to get her knee replaced (it all went well).
I got back to my castle (and to some major lawn mowing) so I can spend more time with Nick this summer, to get him ready to attend his first class at WPI this fall, now that he has met some of the "cool" faculty in the music department, like Fred Bianchi and Vincent Manzo.  I hope this is a turning point for him on this summer solstice, the longest and brightest day of the year...

It was a short but intense visit, and I managed spend quality time with a lot of friends and family.
First I went to see Adrian, Ksenyia, Masha, Kiril and Karen Hewitt in Oxford, while I presented StreetBump at the UDMS conference at UCL.  Enegence is doing well as one of the few applications that utilize City Knowledge concepts.
Between May and June, Nancy Mithlo spent a couple of weeks in Venice showcasing Indian artists at the Air, Land, Seed exhibit for the 2013 Biennale.  It was great to see my dear friend at work with her native american colleagues in my hometown.
The day Nancy left, another dear friend (and dean/boss) Rick Vaz arrived with his significant other (and our esteemed colleague) Chrys Demetry's for a very quick visit.  Rick was a major supporter of the early years of the WPI Venice Project Center, but he had been missing from Venice for a whole decade.  We quickly made up for his long absence by embarking on a whirlwind eno/gastronomic tour of Padania, hitting all the best restaurants in Verona, Mantua, Parma and Modena.  I was forced to give up my vegetarian ways for three days and I obliged unreluctantly.
When Rick and Chrys left, I was finally able to spend a night or two with my other dear friends Barb and Frank Aguilera who were my surrogate parents in my MIT years and were in Venice with their childhood friends Emmie and Bill Smith (of Gorky Park's fame), who are working on a book based in Venice (spoiler alert).
Finally, with less than a week left, I spent some quality time with my mom, who turned 76 on June 18, and with my dad, who quit smoking after 65 years of Marlboros, so he can actually breathe again and may someday be able to visit me in the rarified atmosphere, 2,500 meters up, in Santa Fe. I even squeezed in a visit to a furniture store near Treviso with my sister to see the Bulthaup kitchen of my dream, who was moved by sheer pity for my continuing lack of a furniture in my minimalistic abode in Sant'Elena...
I also did manage to do some work in Venice...  which I will write about separately.

This is the first time I came back from Venice so quickly.  I would have stayed longer if I didn't feel compelled to be with Nick as long as possible, but I have been returning earlier and earlier every summer, primarily because of the hordes of tourists clogging up every nook and cranny of my beloved hometown.

Something needs to be done about the "human flood" as I have been advocating for years.  I am beginning to think that one action that may work is to institute a "minimum stay" requirement of at least 2 nights in a hotel or B&B in the historic center as a "ticket" to access the privilege of visiting a sacred space like Venice.  One could pay an equivalent entry fee and stay less, but this "minimum stay rule" would discourage the eat-and-run (mordi e fuggi) tourism that is making it harder and harder for us local Venetians to call our city "home".  Sounds like a good deal to me.  A win-win all around.  We would be "forcing" tourists to stay longer and linger in venetian time (go ahead! twist my arm!)... and Venetians would not be forced to "minimize" their own stay, as I have been doing lately.

This way, we can all be Venetians and enjoy each other's company...

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Today, I presented the story of StreetBump at the Urban Data Management Symposium (UDMS 2013) at UCL (University College London), where our CASA friends are also located.

As I previously wrote in this blog, StreetBump is perhaps the most famous of our apps, so I figured I would put its interesting crowd-genesis on paper, for the record.   Even though it owes its fame to the fact that the app is used daily to map out (and fix) the potholes on Boston's municipal road network, StreetBump traces its roots to a boat-wake measuring device, from a city that has no roads, and no cars: Venice.
The presentation was very well received and I had the pleasure of meeting some of the big names in urban data management, like Robert Laurini and Mike Worboys.  I also had a chance to discuss concrete plans for a collaboration with CASA with Mike Batty and Andy Hudson-Smith.
I didn't have a chance to stay too long, but the trip was well worth it.  It looks like I will be back in the UK for Maptember and will be spending some time at CASA to implement some City Knowledge applications (like the UNESCO/PreserVenice app we are completing with Ben Lichtner), in conjunction with Steve Guerin and his Simtable technology.
It seems likely that we may focus on a transit application like we are doing with the Santa Fe Trails buses and Venice's vaporetti, but using real time status reports about the network conditions that CASA already shows in its City Dashboard.  The Simtable technology would allow scenario testing and visualization, and would also give us a chance to pick up where we left off with the Venice Boat Traffic interactive table.  Another possibility of cross-Atlantic collaboration is to add Intelligent Urban Agents as the software equivalents of what CASA is doing with its Tales of Things project, replacing the Near Field Communication (NFC) tags with non-physical "Geographic Indexing Systems" (the "new" GIS) and geotemporal searching applied to physical elements of the urban landscape, as we are starting to do with the PreserVenice project.
It looks like we are going to have an exciting mapsummer and mapfall!