Monday, December 31, 2012

Another year in Venice

On this last day of 2012, I am in Santa Fe wrapping up the WPI Venice fall projects that ended on December 15, with a set of awesome presentations at Venice City Hall and at UNESCO.

The teams did very well indeed and I expect their final reports to reflect their outstanding work.  They should be done in a week or so and I will report on their individual accomplishments in due time, before I switch hats to the Santa Fe projects that will take over from mid-January until May.
It would be good to see these students again in Venice some years from now, so they can see how their projects had an impact on my hometown, which I am sure they will...
Although the 2012 Venice projects were outstanding, on a personal level the year itself was not as good as I hope 2013 will be.  I look forward to the new year, now that we made it past the "end of the world" according to the Mayans.  Perhaps we are entering a new era...
We shall see what this baktun will bring.  I expect it to be very good.
Farewell 2012!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Venice Noise heard in Montenegro

Last week, I was invited by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) of Montenegro to travel to the country's capital of Podgorica, to illustrate a WPI project, called, that was completed at the Venice Project Center exactly one year ago.
The data shown on the web site is crowdsourced through a smartphone app that can be downloaded from the site.
The app allows users to collect a noise sample and a photo of the noise source. The recording is automatically translated onto a dB level thanks to a sophisticated algorithm tailored to the microphone of the specific Android phone used by the 2011 team.
Noise samples can be queued to be uploaded later or they can be submitted instantly to the site, where they appear as small dots when one zooms close enough. If the user turns on the map of the "Noise Zoning" (button at top-right of screen), the samples that exceed the allowed dB levels turn red.
By clicking on a dot (red or green) one gets a little pop-up bubble with the picture of the noise source and a button to play the WAV file of the recording.  A heat map is automatically generated to show areas of high noise intensity (toggle button is also on top right) and a timeline tool is shown at the bottom of the map to play back or select the noise levels by time of day, by day of the week or by month.  Below the timelines is a full list of all the samples, which can be queried using pull-down menus to filter the data in a variety of useful ways.  All in all, this is an extraordinary tool that a talented team of WPI students was able to create from scratch in just two months, based on my initial concept.  Quite an accomplishment!
The VeniceNoise app and web sites were so successful that the City of Boston, for whom we developed the world-famous StreetBump app (soon to be presented at the Urban Data Management Society conference in London), has expressed a serious interest in it, which explains why the VeniceNoise web site has a "Boston Demo" button at the top right of the menu. In fact, when I was the director of the WPI Boston Project Center, we conducted an award-winning project called "Noise Data Farming", which I included in my Montenegro presentation as another example of how we can help the country address the noise problems that apparently are causing negative effects on their tourist industry, by requesting before-and-after noise surveys in conjunction with large construction projects.
A final piece of my UNDP workshop, which was attended by several high-level members of the Montenegro national ministries as well as many mayors from municipalities all over the country, briefly touched upon a paper that I presented years ago at a conference on Visual Analytics in Muenster, Germany, where I proposed an innovative approach to manage outdoor cafe/restaurant seating permits to control nighttime noise.
It was an interesting trip, with lots of connections to past projects of mine, and I hope that UNDP will call us back to help Montenegro become as quiet as Venice is at this time of the year, when fog envelops us and snow starts blanketing the serenissima, just as this year's students are about to leave after yet another successful term at the Venice Project Center.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Venipedia's identity theft

On Thursday October 11, the same day when the WPI term ended, and as the 7 teams of Venice Project Students were getting ready to travel to Venice on October 21st, I received several concerned emails from Venice, regarding an initiative by a company called Bazzmann who presented with great fanfare at the Marciana library in Venice.   It was featured on the Gazzettino and the Nuova Venezia and it has a Facebook page.  The man behind is a Mr. Marco Trevisan...
Everybody is saying what a good idea it is, yet it has little content at this time and it does not look like it will be an open wiki system like wikipedia.  And it comes almost 5 years after we first launched our Venipedia site.  We have even had a presence on Facebook since 2008.  My first blog on this was dated September 29, 2008.  Another one was posted here on February 6, 2009.  In fact a simple Google search for "Venipedia" today shows our Venipedia at the top of the list.  How could they have not known?

I don't know what to make of it...
It seems quite likely that they probably tried to get the domain and disregarded the fact that it has existed since 2008.  It is hard to imagine that in their "due diligence" the creators of this clone did not realize that Venipedia already existed. Given the planned content of the "rival", it seems very suspicious that a for-profit company would create a site using an established name, without some ulterior motive.
Given that our site has been up for 5 years, one would think that it would be contrary to good business practices to use a pre-existing name, with all of the confusion that might ensue (see for example this news item that uses our logo with the news about their site).  Unless, of course, this was done on purpose to leverage the open-content wiki that we are sharing with the world through
The irony of it all is that Bazzmann showcases an ethical code prominently on their home page... I guess they consider using an established name space "ethical"...  Amazing!
We will see who has the last word on this.
The good news is that I will be in Venice this weekend and I will be able to investigate what is going on.  The other great thing is that Kyle Miller, the original admin of Venipedia, will also be in Venice when the students arrive.  And each and every team this year will be contributing to our Venipedia wiki until Dec. 15.  We even have a team specifically dedicated to Venipedia this term and we already had another dedicated Venipedia team in 2010.  Most importantly, we now have the City Knowledge technology that allows us to automatically generate individual Venipedia pages from data, with bi-directional updates occurring instantly, as we just demonstrated at the City of Boston and at MIT.
I will be giving two lectures in the UK next week at Oxford University and University College London on the technology behind our newer version of Venipedia.
In the end, what Mr. Trevisan and his colleagues are doing would have been perfectly fine, except for the choice of the name of the initiative, which smacks of outrageous plagiarism.  Ayn Rand would classify this as a perfect example of what "second-handers" are capable of doing.
If you are a reader of this Blog and/or a supporter of, please do your best to disseminate the facts contained in this blog.  Leave comments on the bottom and let your opinions speak for themselves!
I greatly appreciate your support at this challenging time.
We will keep you posted on the developments.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Intelligent Urban Agents

Readers of this blog may recall that one of my research themes, and the main driver of the intense collaboration with Steve Guerin and other Santa Fe folks, is the quest for a City Knowledge platform wherein each urban asset -- be it a fire hydrant, a light pole, a park bench, or whatever -- is uniquely identified by a birth certificate and is assigned a kind of "guardian angel" in the form of a software agent in the cloud.
After a quarter century (and hundreds of projects) working with cities around the world, I have acquired a thorough understanding about the fundamental services that municipalities provide to their citizens for maintenance, management and planning.  My MIT dissertation was a "reflection" upon the first 15 years of city work, and since then my goal has been to translate the CK theory into practice.
I am pleased to say that we are getting very close to having the first implementation of a real CK Platform, thanks to the efforts of my two summer interns: Neil Pomerleau and Ben Lichtner, who have been implementing what I had envisioned over a decade ago and have since been discussing and refining and experimenting with, in collaboration with Steve, who is fond of noting how often I say "It's In My Dissertation!" during our brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions at the treehouse.  The phrase has earned its own acronym: IIMD.
Now, after a flurry of sketches I was inspired to draw to explain the approach to the two interns, the same monicker can also stand for "It's In My Diagrams"!  Take a look at the cute agents with their hats and how they interact with each other...
Most of the ideas in my diagrams are going to be demonstrated in the ongoing project for the UNESCO Venice office.  Look for a blog when we are done!  Great stuff.
All of this will be illustrated at a workshop Steve and I are organizing with Vincent Corruble of the University of Paris (P&M Curie), where I presented some earlier ideas a couple of years back.
The workshop is entitled Intelligent Agents in Urban Simulations and Smart Cities and it is part of the ECAI 2012 European Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Montpellier, France at the end of August.  That will be our first venue to demonstrate with a "real" application what City Knowledge and AgentsCloud are all about.
Our intelligent urban agents will act on behalf of their respective urban assets and will communicate with other agents to maintain up-to-date information about the status of the asset, with the ability to issue alerts when critical situations are detected, based on publish-and-subscribe feeds coming from legacy systems, as well as from mobile apps or web reports.  Each asset is assigned an individual wiki page, where the information is immediately published and can thus be reviewed (and partially modified) by citizens and municipal officers.  Wait until you can see it with your own eyes!

Watch out for the "men in black", coming soon to a city near you!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I have returned to Venice, and so has a Tornado that last visited my home neighborhood of Sant'Elena 42 years ago, when my sister Barbara had just turned one and I was 9 years old.

Fortunately, yesterday nobody was really hurt though there was a lot of damage along the same exact route as its predecessor of September 11, 1970, which -- tragically -- killed 36 people in S.Elena, many of whom were in a public transportation boat about to dock here.
Together with the earthquake tremors from Modena that my mother Wilma (who is turning 75 this weekend) and I myself felt a few nights ago, this was another sobering reminder of the power of nature over our short lifespans, as I watch Cino (my father) and Wilma live the sunset of theirs...
But "ape-descended life forms" as we are, we are still "so amazingly primitive that we think [cellular phones] are a pretty neat idea".  And so we go on, here at the Venice Project Center, developing the latest app for the Venice Office of UNESCO, who has sponsored the two summer interns who will be here until July 16. One couldn't ask for better help: Ben Licthner, who just graduated from Brown U. in Physics and Creative Writing, was here in the summer of 2010 producing the ubiquitous ButOne Widget, which was the precursor of InptApp that the other Venice intern, Neil Pomerleau (a senior at WPI next fall), co-authored with Wesley Ripley after they had created the world-famous VeniceNoise app for their Venice IQP last fall.
This weekend, my son Nick will be joining us and he too will assist in the UNESCO project with his translation skills, as we clean up Venipedia and launch the Public Art app that I presented at the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, in Albuquerque, shortly after the six Santa Fe Project Center projects were completed this past May.

Everything is connected in the circus of life in these "uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the [milky way] galaxy".  We are just a small part of the universal network, despite the importance we may attribute to our lives and ourselves.  Cycles and re-cycles occur and re-occur, and we are often but passive spectators to forces of nature beyond our control.
Our lives are too insignificant (in the bigger scheme of things) to be lived timidly.  What's the point of that?  Might as well be bold, lest a wayward tornado or an earthquake take us out of commission before we leave our mark (however tiny) on this, "mostly harmless", and "utterly insignificant little blue-green planet" of ours.

We plan to do just that this summer, by launching our City Knowledge platform, upon which the Public Art app as well as the PreserVenice web site will be based, in connection to the thousands of Venipedia pages dedicated to the material culture of Venice.
It promises to be a majorly disruptive technology in local Government, one of the four areas that web futurist Marc Andressen has identified as ripe for revolution.
Steve and I have put in our 10,000 hours, as Malcom Gladwell points out in Outliers, and we are poised on the brink of something important, which will allow me to scratch off one item from my life-bucket of Big Projects.  Another "baretta" on my (Facebook) wall.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tumbling forward

After spending term C (Jan. 15- March 15) in Spencer, I've been in Santa Fe with 24 WPI students completing 6 projects on a variety of topics related to safe and efficient urban transportation, water conservation and renewable energy, including a project to preserve the indigenous language of the local pueblo of Pojoaque.  We're down to the last two-weeks and the final results are starting to appear in our newly-minted SantaFedia, the hyperlocal wikipedia which is for Santa Fe what  Venipedia is for Venice.
It's almost the end of April already, yet the ski season isn't over yet.  Together with Peter Small, Alistair McMullen and other ski pals, we closed down the Santa Fe ski mountain on April 1st (should have dressed like a fish...), then Taos on Easter Sunday, then Silverton, Colorado, last weekend.  Silverton's logo appropriately exemplifies the nature of the mountain -- and possibly the meaning of life in general.  It's all extreme terrain, served by a single vintage double chair, and avalanche equipment is mandatory.  The lift operators don't scan your pass, but instead "beep your beacon" before they let you on the chair...  It was snowing all weekend and we enjoyed well over a foot of fresh powder, which hid some of the razor-sharp stones that took a hefty slice out of my Watea skis and forced me to rent a pair of Hellbent K2 powder twin-tips.  The video below shows what happens when you don't listen carefully to the ski-rental technician when he says: "they're set to 8 which is the maximum legal setting.  You can get a screwdriver at the bottom of the chair to set them higher if you'd like..."  I missed the "nudge-nudge wink-wink" part of that piece of advice, so my binding kept popping out in the deep snow, as illustrated by the last frame of the video.  No biggie.  The tree was thankful to be relieved of all the weight of the snow.

Silverton Tree from Fabio Carrera on Vimeo.

Just yesterday, I skinned up Tesuque peak here in Santa Fe and skied down (once) with Peter Small.  It was my first time using skins and I had to borrow a pair of alpine trekker adaptors from Alistair to allow the heel to lift.  It took about 4 hours to do the whole roundtrip, but it was well worth it.  And let's not forget that the peak is at 4,000 meters of elevation and the trek involved almost 1,000 meters of vertical!
I've decided to unite my love for skiing with my yearning for travel and exploration, so this summer I plan to visit South America and ski the Andes with Nick (who is now on a much better trajectory in his life, after some turmoil around his 21st birthday on January 31).
No sense waiting for "the right time".
I will keep tumbling forward as gnarly-ly as I can before I get too old...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bonne Ennui

It's a New Year and the winds of change are sweeping the slate and making it cleaner and cleaner. The tabula is being rasa.  Dead branches are falling.  Hats are changing, as Nick and I prepare to drive across the US and back to Massachusetts again.  The Venice projects are being wrapped up as the new Santa Fe projects are marching in.  Un altro giro di giostra.

I have had a few weeks of winter sports in Santa Fe, which helped rejuvenate the body and the mind. I saw the luminaria and the farolitos at Christmas, and ate healthy organic food with Nick and Simon every night.

Most importantly, I have thinned down the numerous initiatives on my plate to just the 10 most meaningful projects that I really want to pursue from here on down.  With this simplified life plan, I have gained a clarity of purpose that will make everything else easier.  I just hope Nick says good bye to his ennui and finds his purposeful life path as he turns 21 in a couple of weeks.

Now it's time to travel back to the East coast once more.

This promises to be a defining year.

Stay tuned.