Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Preserving Venice

The last project of the series this fall is the only one that doesn't focus on preserving Venetians, but concentrates instead on the preservation of Venice itself and of the inanimate objets d'art that decorate it. This project will continue what the PreserVenice team accomplished last year for public art and will expand the work to the rest of our heritage catalogs which also include palaces, convents, churches, bells, belltowers and church floors.
Over the summer, I've had some very interesting meetings with Dr. Engelbert Ruos, director of the UNESCO office in Venice, Dottoressa Clara Peranetti of the Cultural office of the Regional Government of the Veneto, and with Dr. Wolfgang Wolters, emeritus professor of Art History at the Technische Universit├Ąt in Berlin. Each of these encounters promises to be useful for this project.
With Dr. Ruos and Dr. Philippe Pypaert, there are two areas of collaboration: (1) to organize our heritage datasets so they can be combined with other data in support of the world caf├Ęs that BRESCE wants to organize for 2009; (2) to design a system to manage the information about art and architecture restorations that are sponsored by the Private Committees under the coordination of UNESCO.
With Dr. Peranetti of the Regione Veneto, the plan is to identify a EU project or another funding source that will enable us to publish all the Pubic Art data at our disposal on the web, so that we can really jumpstart Preservenice in collaboration with the Giovani Veneziani.
With Prof. Wolters, the main focus would be on Bells and Belltowers, on which we hope to collaborate, although it is unclear who, if anyone, may be able to sponsor that project.

This fall's WPI project team will help us make progress on all these fronts to the best of its ability.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Visiting Venice

When WPI undergraduates first arrive in Venice, they are "visitors" like the 15+ million other foreigners who visit the city every year. Within a week our students already consider themselves "locals" and speak disparagingly of tourists.
Over the years, we have made some useful contributions to the study of the impact of tourism on the city, being the first to count day-tripping tourists and exploring their choice of transportation upon arrival.
What we foolishly didn't do was to create a student-originated guidebook that we could have made available to all young visitors to the city (and maybe we could have raised some operating funds through it). But it's never too late! New tools like wikis, blogs, collaborative ratings and RSS feeds give us much more power to implement this idea now, which is what this year's team will do (among other things). We have already reserved a "cool" URL for this purpose (
Moreover, the man who sponsored all our studies on tourism, Dr. Donato Concato, formerly the director of the Azienda di Promozione Turistica in Venice, would like to put together a grant proposal for a web 2.0 site for tourists which may not only suggest itineraries based on explicit or implicit preferences, time available and geographic extent, but that could also "profile" tourists and suggest sites, hotels, restaurants, etc. based on the preferences and reviews provided by people with similar profiles. There's a lot of potential here for something really useful. This year's WPI student team should be able to help in the development of the grant proposal and may produce an ant-like travelling salesman mock up with the assistance of Redfish in Santa Fe.
Finally, with an old friend and colleague from Sant'Elena, now a professor of business economics at the University of Venice in Ca'Foscari, Prof. Michele Tamma, we have discussed the possibility of exploring the economics of tourism as part of this project as well.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Moving around Venice

Part of Venice's uniqueness derives from its being completely devoid of cars. Moving around in Venice means either walking or taking a boat. Every student going to Venice will get a boat pass (called imob) for the public transportation boats (ACTV), but once they get to Venice the will also discover that walking is often faster than taking a vaporetto or a motoscafo.
As the project on getting old in Venice will also find out, crossing the numerous bridges in Venice can be a problem for anyone with some kind of mobility impairment, which may include young mothers with a stroller, or tourists with large suitcases, as well as elderly people using a cane or a walker. WPI has developed the methodology still used today in Venice to collect boat traffic data, so this project team will summarize what we've done so far in the realm of boat traffic, but will also explore pedestrian traffic as well, , where we have not done much thus far.
The team will collaborate with Redfish in Santa Fe (NM) to organize boat and pedestrian data to support the development of advanced autonomous agent models that will help the city manage land and water traffic.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Getting old in Venice

In a similar vein as the project on the youth, we will also explore the issues faced by Venice's aging population. Venice's median age is approaching 50, and, despite what Tito Canal said in the National Geographic video, Venice in many ways is not exactly an "easy" city to get old in, especially if one develops mobility impairments over time. The socio-economics team in 2007 discussed some of these issues in their final report, but in general we have not focused on this sector of Venetian society specifically, even though we have benefited from continual assistance from older Venetians throughout the years. This project will be a tribute to the "elders" who have helped us a lot in our 20 years and will explore ways to continue to do so in the years to come.
This team will start with an in-depth look at the demographics of the city, using advanced visualizations to highlight the main trends over recent decades. We will then explore issues faced specifically by older Venetians, such as: affordability, mobility and healthcare (including epidemiology), among others.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Being Young in Venice

The third project we plan to conduct this fall regards youth issues in Venice. As Tito Canal eloquently put it in my National Geographic video, "Venice is a city well-suited for aging people, but it's a hard place for the young". As the hundreds of VPC alumni discovered to their dismay, there are no night clubs in Venice and nightlife revolves around sitting at cafes and conversing with your friends. Playgrounds are limited, and playing in the campi is tolerated only for the very young, but frowned upon (and actually forbidden) for everyone else.
Although we have not explored these issues in the past, this year we will collaborate with the association "I Giovani Veneziani" to investigate this important facet of Venetian society.
With the support of Marco Passi of the Giovani Veneziani, this team will (a) review what information exists on Venetian youth, (b) organize and visualize what is known about youth issues, (c) integrate or complete what is known, by collecting additional data, (d) identify initiatives that will benefit young Venetians, (e) propose steps to carry out and fund such initiatives.
In particular, since games and play are a great way to reach out to youth, this team will collaborate with young Venetians on the installation of Postmodern Postmortems around the city. In the spirit of the fledgling Santa Ve cooperation, the team will also be in contact with people at the Santa Fe Complex where similar youth issues are addressed by combining science and technology for the benefit of young New Mexicans.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Santa Fe interlude

Today I'm off to Santa Fe just before WPI starts up again. We're moving forward with the "experiment". As I indicated in a previous post, I'll be discussing the "bootstrap" project we're planning to conduct there in the spring, as well as the two projects in Venice that I hope will benefit from a connection to Redfish and the Santa Fe Complex. One important meeting will be with Irene Lee of the Santa Fe Institute, with whom I'd like to apply for grants to support the WPI Santa Fe Project Center. This time I also hope to meet George Cowan, the WPI alumnus who was the founder of SFI. Moreover, I also plan to meet with Marko at Knowledge Reef, to discuss our Dspace progress and our planned collaboration on the semantic web. There will be many other serendipitous meetings as well, which I will blog about as I go.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Living in Venice

In keeping with the overall emphasis on Venetians in this anniversary year, the second project this fall will focus on what it means to live in Venice. We will explore the benefits as well as the costs of living in this aquatic city. The team will address key issus in this arena by (a) reviewing what we've done thus far on the topics, (b) organizing and visualizing what we have, (c) integrating or completing what we started where possible, (d) identifying mechanisms for future updates, (e) proposing follow-ups where appropriate, and (f) contacting funding sources that will support future efforts in this area.

Venice from Cradle to Grave
It would be interesting to track a typical Venetian's life cycle from cradle to grave, from maternity ward to cemetery, via the schools, the health, educational, social and cultural institutions that support the citizenry, through the universities all the way to the Venetian job market, and to analyze how each has evolved in the past 20 years. This rhetorical scaffolding would probably help organize under a coherent framework many of the other crucial topics such as:

Cost of housing may be the most important factor that lead to the exodus of over 120,000 Venetians in the past half century. It is also one of the hardest areas to study, as we experienced in our foray on the topic in 2001. Despite a recent slow-down due to the global financial situation, the cost per square meter of an average dwelling in Venice proper (centro storico) has reached astronomic proportions, on par with downtown abodes in major global metropolises like New York, London or Tokio. A recent flurry of conversions of residences into hotels and B&B's has only aggravated the situation. Given that the goal of the Venice 3.0 foundation -- which is to make the VPC completely cost-free to both WPI students as well as to WPI, while providing scholarships for young Venetians to attend WPI -- revolves around the acquisition of six apartments in the city in which to house future VPC students for free, this aspect of the project will explore the feasibility of this "big dream" as well.

Cost-of-living - retail
Even if one is somehow able to secure some affordable housing, one would find it hard to afford the high cost of goods and services in Venice. Depopulation has played a major role in the gradual dwindling of retail stores that cater to primary needs, as we have discovered in a series of projects that started in 2004, and continued in 2005 and 2006. The socio-economics team in 2007 also dedicated a chapter of its project report to this issue. Fewer food stores means less competition which, coupled with the water transportation surcharge, conspire to make the cost-of-living in Venice one of the highest in Italy.

Venice's Quality of Life
There are pros and cons in living in Venice. In addition to quantifying the costs of living in Venice, we should also acknowledge the benefits of it all. There are no cars, which makes the sound of footsteps the loudest nighttime annoyance, but that also means carting groceries by hand over bridges and up many stairs (no elevators either). Venice is beautiful but perhaps not very practical. How does Venice stack up on a variety of Quality of Life scales?

This project may benefit from the cooperation of Thierry Morel who is working on a book on socio-economic issues on behalf of Venice in Peril.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The origins of Venice

As announced in a June post, and reiterated in a more recent entry about my mentor Count Marcello, one of the projects this fall will be on "The origins of Venice". The plan is to explore three aspects:

  1. the archeological records about the early history of the city,
  2. the genesis of the "Forma Urbis", and
  3. the genetic origins of the Venetian people

As is the case for all 2008 projects, the team will: (a) review what we've done thus far on the topics, (b) organize and visualize what we have, (c) integrate or complete what we started where possible, (d) identify mechanisms for future updates, (e) propose follow-ups where appropriate, and (f) identify funding sources that will allow us to get the job done.

As mentioned in the june post, we plan to help Tito Canal release his opus magnum this year as his lifetime legacy, which will fit nicely with our 20th anniversary as well, since we made the first GIS map of the lagoon for him in 1990 (under DOS!). The 1990 project was also the first Venice IQP to win the President's IQP award, when John Strauss was WPI's president. We would also like to collaborate with the Soprintendenza Archeologica, with the City's Public Works department and with Insula to create a system that will harvest the data contained in the myriad of reports and surveys that are produced every time any digging takes place for any underground urban maintenance work.

With the archeological information as a foundation, we could continue the work we started in 1999 and especially the more recent 2004 study, wherein we attempted to reconstruct how Venice's islands"grew" and evolved since the early days of the Rivo Alto colonization in the year 810.

As described in a recent entry, we will also plan to retrace the "origins of the Venetians" through DNA. Count Marcello, and representatives of other ancient Venetian families could provide us with samples of true Venetian genes. Then we'd have to go to the various locales that have been mentioned as possible origins of or ethnic group, such as northtern Anatolia, and obtain representative samples from the "original inhabitants" there to compare to the Venetian DNA. We will explore all the most recent developments in this area, like the Personal Genome project and others to determine the feasibility and cost of such an effort, so that a follow-up project (MQP?) can be arranged.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Eileen Brangan Mell, the WPI director of Public Relations just informed me that a recent article on Real Simple Travel magazine generated interesting ripple effects: from a very local entry on someone’s travel blog to an entry on Yahoo! Travel which is read by millions.
It only contains a single nugget of fact, but it's digestible and to the point.

Is Venice sinking?

The fact is that "everything" is sinking a little bit every year (a phenomenon known as "natural" subsidence), but Venice was sinking more than the natural amount for decades from the fifties to the seventies, due to the fact that heavy factories in Marghera were drawing millions of gallons of water for industrial purposes, creating "artificial subsidence" that amounted to about 12 centimeters of net elevation loss from 1897 to 1975. After the pumping of industrial water was stopped in the late seeventies, artificial subsidence also stopped and the ground actually regained 2 centimeters of elevation for a total net loss of about 10 cm due to "sinking". Since then Venice has not been sinking any more than any other city. Natural subsidence only amounts to a few centimeters of elevation loss per century. Negligible compared to the sea level rise that global warming is forecasted to bring us in the decades ahead.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Anniversary Projects

Today is Ferragosto, a major Italian holiday and one of the least religious (even though it coincides with the Feast of the Assumption). I shouldn't be working, but the new academic year is just around the corner and there are only a couple of weeks of vacation left before the preparation term starts on August 28. The projects for the anniversary term in Venice in the fall of 2008 are taking shape. Here's a quick list:
  1. The origins of Venice (DNA, Archeology, Genesis of Forma Urbis)
  2. Living in Venice (socio-economic issues: housing, retail, cost of living, everyblock)
  3. Being Young in Venice (Santa Ve, Postmodern Postmortems, URG, PMOG, Giovani Veneziani)
  4. Getting old in Venice (demographics, affordability, epidemiology, mobility, healthcare)
  5. Moving around Venice (Water Transportation and Pedestrian modelling, Redfish)
  6. Visiting Venice (tourism, student guidebook, reviews, blogs, RSS, ratings, etc.)
  7. Preserving Venice (UNESCO Restorations, Preservenice, Public Art, Church floors and belltowers)

I will blog about each of the above projects in the days to come, so stay tuned...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Happy 20th VPC!

Here's a geogreeting to us all. Click on this link
It's worth the wait.

What will they think of next?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Guide al terzo

Today I went sailing al terzo (lateen sail on a traditional sanpierotta) for the second time in my life with two Venetian guides: Bruno Nogara and Laura Sabbadin. It was a beautiful afternoon and we cruised all the way to Poveglia and back to the Lido. We did run into a secca (see unflattering photo) on the way back but the sunset was magnificent, as was the company.
We discussed the future of the profession of "guide" in the internet era. Could human chaperons be supplanted by gadgets? Probably not when it comes to excorting tour groups on their whirlwind tours, nor when wealthy individuals request a private tour... But what about the budget-conscious family who will never even consider hiring a private tour guide? What about people like me (I am sure I am not alone) who think we can do fine with a guide book and some internet searches? Could some simple, intuitive device (like an Ipod?) be used to make available to the "unguided masses" the high-quality information that only Bruno Nogara can convey with all his humour and pizzaz? Could guides tap into the "long tail" of tourism and open up a new market for themselves? So, as we leisurely sailed through the southern lagoon, we decided that these intriguing questions will be explored by one of the teams in the fall, as part of the "Visiting Venice" project. More on this later.