Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ant fugue

While in Durham for our NASA DEW workshop, Steve and I took the opportunity to go visit my old friends Wendy and Marty Quinn in nearby Lee NH.  Marty is a musician/scientist who has been sonifying NASA data for years and has created a special composition of our Venice anniversary based on Venice tide data.  Like James in Santa Fe, Marty plans to do more composing for the anniversary, so I thought it would be fruitful for Steve and Marty to meet and share ideas, in the hopes that some of the fallout will benefit our 20th birthday celebrations...
Here is a sample of what happens when you put a visualization guru together with a sonification master.  Visaudiation!  
The autonomous-agent based program simulating pherormone "breadcrumming" by foraging ants that Steve wrote in Netlogo is "blobbed" by Marty's sonification software (in C++) so that distinct sounds emerge from the ants' movements, as long as they have not settled into a statically repeating  pattern.  This is just a taste of what these two crazy guys can do...  I can't wait to see how these techniques can be applied to Venice!

Those of you who tried (unsuccessfully I am sure) to read Douglas Hofstadter's, Gödel, Escher and Bach may get where the title of this entry comes from...  If not, try to read the book. Good luck!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Johnnie's Cache Store

As mentioned in a prior blog entry, one of the invited participants at the NASA workshop in New Hampshire was Shauna Maggs, a representative of Groundspeak who gave each of us a very special Lackeys 2009 coin that is outrageously valuable as an extremely rare collector's item in the geocaching universe (Shauna is the blonde-haired figure, 2nd from the left on the 3rd row from the bottom). Geocaches are little treasures "hidden in plain sight" all around the globe and typically containing a log book and miscellaneous trinkets. The basic idea is to use GPS to locate these hidden caches and then share your experiences online. While we were at UNH, Shauna took us to a local geocache location where we found a small magnetic container with a logbook inside (and nothing else). Although the treasure was not so rich, the hunt was fun, albeit a bit too easy, due to the iPhone geocaching application that Shauna carries with her at all times. I took the opportunity to get my picture taken with Shauna, cache-in-hand, which is the geocaching equivalent of being photographed with your arm around the Pope. I am wearing infrared goggles that highlight vegetation health to add an additional touch of style... Life just couldn't get any better!
Beside enjoying our 15 minutes of fame with this geocaching celeb, we learnt a lot about this fascinating world which has millions of enthusiasts and has extraordinary crowdsourcing potential for some serious climate change monitoring at precise locations all around the world, using our idea of the "virtual picturepost".
In addition to geocaches, Groundspeak also operates a program called Waymarking which allows people to mark unique locations on the planet (such as Ginormous Everyday Objects) and "give them a voice". Perhaps most interesting of all is the latest Groundspeak "product" called WhereIgo, which is a toolset for creating and playing adventures in the real world using GPS technology to guide you to physical locations and interact with virtual objects and characters. The potential for all of these tools to greatly enrich our environmental monitoring (as well as our urban experiences) is phenomenal and I look forward to exploring just what is possible with Shauna in the not-too-distant future.
When I returned to Santa Fe, I was showing some friends how many caches there are within a mile of everyone's house (unbeknownst to us) , and -- sure enough -- there was a cache (aptly called Johnnie's Cache) at Johnnie's Cash Store, a legendary local landmark right across the street from the casita where I am staying. I think I will leave my precious Lackey geocoin in there before I leave. I have registered it and set as its goal to follow me around the world as I spend 1/2 of my time in Santa Fe, 1/2 in Spencer, MA and 1/2 in Venice... I am counting on you to help the coin keep up with me in my peregrinations!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Citizen Science 1.0 (Venice)

In 1992, I organized over 1,000 students from all the middle schools in Venice to go out at the same time at 105 locations throughout the city and the surrounding lagoon islands to simultaneously measure the currents in the neighborhood's canals. It was the first time that the hydrodynamic behavior of the entire lagoon was quantitatively measured at the same moment. Thinking that the stage was set for a repeat, I foolishly organized a second campaign the following year, with incoming instead of outgoing tide, assuming it was going to be easier to pull off. I was wrong, but still happy to see such enthusiastic participation. We conducted over 600 measurements on a shoestring, using hand-made floats made of soda cans, plastic water bottles, fishing line and weights. It was extraordinary to see the children and their teachers get excited about contributing to something that was bigger than themselves. The kids loved being pulled out of the boring classroom environment to go out to the canals and conduct the measurements... They also really enjoyed the post-measurement awards ceremony to celebrate everyone's participation with plaques and medals that I cobbled together thanks to donations from a number of city offices and departments (another day off from school!). The workshop at UNH last week congealed in my mind the essential tenets of a successful citizen science initiative, which I had already stumbled upon in my Venice experience, namely:
  1. Keep it simple
  2. Make it fun
  3. Give rewards
Even though the overall middle-school project was not easy for me to organize single-handedly, the actual measurements were simple for each student to make. The whole thing was fun (especially for the students) and the reward was a day off from school, plus an award for participating... We will apply the same logic to our NASA grant and crowdsource vegetation change over time. We'll keep you posted on the successes!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A top 10 Venice blog!

It is always rewarding (and pleasantly surprising) when someone compliments you out of the blue.  A few days ago, I received a message from a woman called Cat Bauer, who lives in Venice and blogs about it.   She wrote a blog entry about the top ten best blogs dedicated to Venice for six apart and... guess what? This blog made the top ten! Nice...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

NASA Workshop at UNH

Thursday and Friday, Steve and I participated in a two-day workshop at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) organized by Annette Schloss to mark the beginning of the three-year NASA grant on Digital Earth Watch (DEW) and Picturepost
It was very inspiring to meet great people who care deeply about our world!  We heard from representatives from all the principal science centers in northern New England.  Brian Rogan of ESIP (Earth Science Information Partners), formerly with the Museum of Science in Boston has taken over from John Pickle, the originator of the Picturepost concept.  He is supervising a team of WPI students currently in residence at the WPI Boston Project Center who also attended the workshop and gave a couple of presentations about their ongoing Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP).  We also heard from Iain MacLeod, a scotsman who loves hawks and directs the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center; Don McCasland, a kite-flying enthusiast who directs the Blue Hill Observatory in Boston; Steve Engstrom of the Seacoast Science Center, where the only fully operational picturepost is located; and Peter Crane of the inhospitable yet fascinating Mount Washington ObservatoryOur part of the grant is focused on making the Citizen Scientist's experience as rewarding as possible, using the most successful crowdsourcing and feeback mechanisms that employ web 2.0 techniques. I specifically wanted to hear about web-related successes and failures from representatives of well-established citizen science programs.  We couldn't have asked for a better panel.  We heard from Kitty Gifford from the Cornell Bird Lab, Sandra Henderson and Kirsten Meymaris from Budburst, and Shauna Maggs from Groundspeak. They were all so inspiring that I will devote a separate blog entry to each in the days to come.
In the meantime, we should all "be the picturepost" as Jeff Beaudry, the project evaluator from University of Southern Maine, invited us all to be.  Steve -- who has always struggled to discern the difference between the literal and the metaphorical -- took this recommendation to heart and has been acting like a picturepost ever since.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Autonomous Urban Agents

Steve and I gave a well-attended presentation at MIT today as part of their Responsive Cities seminar series. We presented the "Santa Fe approach" to participatory modeling and decision making in urban planning applications, using an interactive 3-D sand table platform to demonstrate specific simulations employing autonomous agent technologies derived from research at the Santa Fe Institute.
Steve demonstrated the use of the Sand Table for:
The live demonstrations were followed by a discussion of the current direction of the research collaboration between Steve and me, illustrating possible future urban planning applications, based on interactive ambient computing platforms, such as:
  • Interactive analysis and visualization of the (aggregate) impacts of urban plans
  • Interactive user-assistance tools for permit applications in zoning and subdivision regulations
The presentation concluded with a discussion of an agent-based architecture for urban data management based on the City Knowledge concepts developed by Fabio at MIT-DUSP.

After the talk, Steve and I had a "deep" conversation with Raj Singh, fellow DUSPer who is now at the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and Joe Ferreira, who advised Raj's dissertation at MIT-DUSP-UIS as well as mine. I hope we really tighten our collaboration to expand our web 3.0 concepts which lie at the cutting edge of urban information systems and planning...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Making Venice free

The Clark presentation gave me a chance to reconnect with WPI trustee Steve Rubin who has taken to heart my proposal to make the Venice Project Center free for all future WPI students as my legacy to the college and to my hometown.   

I envision a 3-pronged plan for sustainability:

1) CELEBRATE – Celebration of Successes  by supporting center Directors to allow them to step back and document our achievements on the occasion of center anniversaries (every 5 years)
2) CONNECT – Connect our centers via thematic sponsor conferences held at the centers where anniversaries are being celebrated to share experiences and  assessments of local impacts of projects
3) PERPETUATE – Develop sustainable plans (based on real estate or on other financial schemes) to fund centers in perpetuity, while providing scholarships for local students to attend WPI and give back

The “celebration” would involve the development of an on-line, interactive portfolio that showcases the accomplishments and history of the particular project center, as we have done in Venice with our Anniversary web site, this blog, our online digital repository,  and our venipedia wiki.  Part of the 5-year celebration cycle involves a reunion for students who attended the project center (with fundraising being part of the objective).
The “connection” would include outreach to sponsors across all of our centers, as well as to  enlightened corporations, NGOs, academics and individuals that would have interest in the schholarship and research themes that each center specializes in.  Each center would organize a symposium and invite worldwide organizations to attend and thus, “connect.”  It would also provide valuable visibility for WPI in various disciplines as well as well as geographies.
The “perpetuate” component is intended to tackle the long-term sustainability of the center with the goal of complete financial independence so that each center can be operated at no cost to WPI and to the students in perpetuity.  The idea (at least for Venice) revolves around the purchase of enough real estate to host all of our students and faculty, i.e. enough apartments to hold about 30 beds.  My plan would not involve WPI directly, rather a "trust" would be set up to own and operate the accommodations.  The idea is not too complicated and will cost only about 5 million dollars.  The only problem is that I cannot afford to do it on my own...
Nevertheless, I have worked out a realistic approach that would allow us to afford the investment and create a self-funding virtuous cycle at the Venice Project Center.  The picture encapsulates the concept, but I will expand on the details in a future.  
Look out for a Venice 3.0 entry in the future!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Venice Summer Prep

Today, I held an information session for the students going to Venice next fall, to go over the preparation that they are about to embark on in order to get ready to go to Venice October 25-December 19, 2009.  I gave a short powerpoint presentation and entertained questions with the help of a good contingent of past students.
It was good to see most of the new faces who will be with me in Venice this fall.
We still have an anniversary to wrap up!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The harbinger of alberghi

Anyone who has visited Venice repeatedly over the past decade will have noticed the very visible increase of alberghi across the city. The harbinger of this proliferation was a law that was passed 1999, which liberalized the creation of bed-and-breakfast and other small scale accommodations. Having been asked to contribute our expertise to an upcoming (August) issue of National Geographic magazine, which will contain an article on Venice, we have been able to obtain a very interesting (and precious) dataset of all accommodations in Venice from 1999 to 2008, which was converted to GIS maps by Andrea Mancuso, so that I could include them in my presentation at the Clark. I have susequently extracted and isolated just the hotel sequence in the presentation below.

It's a bit disturbing to see the red specks spread across the city as they do. The overall number of beds doubles in the process...
After the maps, the presentation contains a clickable slide that takes you to our Venipedia site, where you can play with the interactive motion chart which shows, among other things, how the increase in the number of tourists has corresponded to a decrese of % of owner-occupied homes in the historical center.
Take some time to play with the chart. It can show a lot of hidden trends!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Saving us from Saving Venice

Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion at the Clark museum in Williamstown that was entitled "Monuments in Peril: Venice".  I really enjoyed meeting our hostess, the director of collections at the Clark, Kathleen Morris, and the three other panelists: Ralph Lieberman, who spent several years in Venice right after the flood of 1966, Frederick Ilchman, who curated the ongoing MFA show on Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian, and E.J. Johnson, who teaches at Williams and has been researching, among other things, the evolution of theater in Venice.  All of them share my passion for Venice and were great companions and conversationalists both on and off the stage .  The soiree was well attended and my presentation was well received, according to feedback I heard from attendees, including WPI trustee Steve Rubin and his wife Tracy (who volunteers and the MFA), who flew in and out for the occasion. 
As part of the continuing experimentation with 2.0 technologies, I am including my whole powerpoint below using a new service called "slideshare".  Check it out and let me know what you think! 
(I already noticed that animations don't work... so we need to experiment some more)

As you can see in the presentation, the gist of my contribution to the discussion revolved around two rather provocative questions, prompted by the session's title:

1) What exactly is in peril in Venice?
2) Where does the peril come from?

I think our provocations hit the mark (especially the dome and coke graphics produced by Kyle) judging by the number of  questions that the audience asked at the end, despite the longer-than-expected duration of the event.  I look forward to a continuing dialog with my newfound friends in the coming years...  I will start by going to see the MFA exhibit tomorrow afternoon.  Hopefully I will get a personalized tour by Frederick himself!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Public earth and its endangered pieces

Exactly one year after I blogged about our plans for turning our catalog of almost 5,000 pieces  of Venetian of public art into an active preservation program (PreserVenice), with the support of local Venetian groups, out of the blue we heard from Clara Peranetti of the Veneto Region who thinks she can fund our efforts to make the catalog public and to begin the actual restoration process.  Alberto G.  and Andrea M. have a meeting with her on Thursday.
Meanwhile, thanks to one of those synchronistic astral alignments that Santa Fe seems to serendipitously conjure up like magic, the Complex hosted Rethink Public Art with a panel of distinguished public art experts, including Jack Becker, the editor of Public Art Review magazine, who told us about an ongoing project to map all (US for now) public art, called Public Earth.  I gave Mr. Becker my card and immediately signed up for the beta program and informed Kyle Miller of this new development, since he worked on this topic for his junior year project and he will also be in Venice as of June 10, working on this issue among other things...
Let's see what happens Thursday!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sounda Fe mashup

James Brody, a local Santa Fe musician member of the Complex art group, has downloaded our sounds of Venice, which have been available on the Venice 2.0 anniversary gallery, and created a sonic mashup just for us, while he works on a more elaborate composition that will use our sounds database.  Before him, my friend Marty Quinn had already created musical sonifications based on Venice tide gauge data.  Given that Kyle is also an accomplished musician, and he is going to be in Venice this summer, I am confident that we can get a musical celebration together, by re-engaging with my colleague and friend Fred Bianchi, with whom I had conceived of the Venice Sonification Requiem and Postmodern Postmortem projects.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Passed-over by Google

Despite a valiant effort on the part of the indefatigable Kyle Miller, our bid to get support for our effort on the Emergent Transcriptions Initiative through Google's Summer of Code program was not successful.  Oh well...  We will not be deterred!  
Today, I met the executive director of the Alliance for Information Science and technology Innovation (AISTI), Corinne Lebrun, whose work on Digital Libraries may help us get this project fully funded and off the ground once and for all...  Let's keep our fingers crossed!
After that meeting, I had my first experience with a Passover Seder at the students' apartment here in Santa Fe, courtesy of Sam Drogin and his mom.  
Being passed over is not a bad thing sometimes!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vending Venice

As if all the other trends were not disturbing enough, news reports have informed us about the latest creative use of Venice's public space, which is something that the Venice Project Center has successfuly pioneered as recently as this fall.
As heard on NPR (among others), the Venice city council voted in favor of allowing the Coca-Cola corporation to install vending machines in many of the campi in the historic city. Perhaps the thinking is that the coked-out tourists would expeditiously move through the city, creating fewer bottlenecks in the narrow calli and ponti. Hmmm... it may be worth a try!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Friday Fractals

The first friday of every month, the fractal foundation, puts up one of the most entertaining and psychedelic shows I have ever seen.  Simon Mehalek took all six Santa Fe students, plus Nick and his friend Drew, JP Gonzales and me to see first friday fractals at the Albuquerque Museum of Natural History.  Jonathan Wolfe sure can make math fun!  It's the kind of thing that can make a huge difference in a young child's mind (in more ways than one)...  Made me revisit my MIT essays on the fractal dimension of the urban landscape and I already proposed a collaboration with Jonathan and Kim Sorvig on my original dissertation topic on visual preferences in the built environment.
Imagine watching the video below while laying completely reclined in a comfortable chair, staring at a planetarium dome with the fractal movie taking up the entire field of vision!  

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sandbagging Venice

Our Venice Traffic simulation table is proceeding. Steve and I gave a live demo over skype to Venice City officials to illustrate the interactive capabilities that we are building into the table.
Using a combination of fiducials, markers and laser pointers, we will allow all traffic stakeholders to interact with the model in real time.
Working with Los Alamos, we are developing a Venice GUI Design that will be implemented over the next few weeks.
Jus for fun, we projected  the GUI on the sandtable...  
Click on the image for a video of the interface behavior
(warning: the movie is large and thus slow to stream).