Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.
The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.
Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.
On Tuesday there was a formal conference with many government representatives, in which I joined a panel to discuss international trends in open data on both the general and the local level. Also there local government and civil society open data efforts presented themselves. Later that same day there was an unconference in the Belgrade Startit Centar in which I had the opportunity to talk with both civil society as well as local government representatives about our work in the Netherlands deploying open data as a tool to achieve specific local policy outcomes. The rest of the week long program consists of both internal sessions with government bodies to help them move forward with open data, and awareness raising sessions, data clinics and training in coworking spaces across cities in Serbia.
Otvoreni Podaci – Otvorene Mogucnosti / Open data – open opportunities
It was good to be back in Serbia, three years after doing a national open data readiness assessment, and two years after last working with the national government open data working group building action plans for specific institutions. In the years since then momentum hasn’t dried up, and I met many people again who have been involved since my earlier visits, as well as many new faces from new involved institutions. (As an indicator, 2 years ago the open data working group consisted of about 8 institutions, but now is comprised of some 70 organisations from all over Serbia) This week my translator was the same lady who accompanied me 3 years ago. She said that back then she didn’t believe anything would change, but “look at us now”, and that in every government document she is asked to translate open data is mentioned. Indeed, look at Serbia now. As anyplace else, there is still much to do, but also much has been gained already.
UNDP Serbia has formed a pool of open data consultants to assist the Serbian government in moving ahead with open data, and I’m happy to be involved until July 2019. In the coming weeks I will be doing an ex-ante exploration of the impact open data can have in Serbia, together with my Serbian colleague Vid Stimac. This week we had a planning session, in Dutch surprisingly as he went to university here.
I’ve been working in Serbia the last few days. The past weeks at home in the Netherlands, E and I noticed how the clock on the microwave in the kitchen was running behind. I’d arrive at the railway station in the morning to find that I was actually later than I thought. Had I been cycling slower than expected? But no it was the clock in the kitchen, that was off by a few minutes.
E sent me a link yesterday evening to a Dutch newspaper article that explains how this happened. [Update: Here’s the original press release by the European network of transmission system operators. The Guardian has an article in English, as does Ars Technica]
Energy producers in Serbia and Kosovo, as a result of the ongoing arguments and tension between Serbia and Kosovo, currently deliver less energy to the European grid than planned. To compensate for that and balance the European network, the overall frequency of the alternating current has been lowered a tiny bit (0,004Hz of 50Hz) across Europe since mid January. Clocks like on our microwave use the frequency of the electric power to keep time. When the frequency drops, their counting slows. The Serbia and Kosovo energy producers caused me to nearly miss my train recently!
So this week I am working in the place that makes the clocks run slow.
Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.
A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.
It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.
The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.
So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!
A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.
Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.
A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important
Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.
Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.
I spent the last week in Kuala Lumpur to support the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) with their open data implementation efforts (such as the Malaysian open data portal). Specifically this trip was about the launch of the Malaysia Open Data User Group (MODUG), as well as discussions with MAMPU on how we can help support their 2018 and 2019 open data plans. I was there together with my World Bank colleague Carolina Vaira, and with Baden Appleyard, a long time long distance friend of my company The Green Land. As he is from Australia, working together in Malaysia means meeting sort-of half way.
The MODUG comes from the action plan presented last May, after our Open Data Readiness Assessment last year, which I helped bring about when I first visited in spring 2015 as part of the Malaysian big data advisory board. In the action plan we suggested creating an informal and trusted place for government organisations to discuss their practical issues and concerns in creating more open data, learn from each other, and collaborate on specific actions as well as formulating government good practice. Similarly it called for creating a similar space for potential users of government open data, for individuals, coding community, NGO’s and civil society, academia and the business community. Next to having these two places where both government and non-government can discuss their questions and issues amongst themselves, regular interaction was proposed between the two, so that data custodians and users can collaborate on creating social and economic value with open data in Malaysia. The MODUG brings these three elements under one umbrella.
Last Tuesday MAMPU held an event to launch the MODUG, largely moderated by Carolina and me. MAMPU is within the remit of General Affairs Minister within the Prime Minister’s office, Joseph Entulu Belaun. The Minister officially opened the event and inaugurated the MODUG (by cutting a ribbon hanging from a drone hovering in front of him).
Minister Joseph Entulu Belaun cutting a ribbon from a drone, and Dr Yusminar of MAMPU presenting the current status of Malaysian open data efforts. (both images (c) MAMPU)
Dr Yusminar, who is the team lead with MAMPU for open data, and our direct counter part in our work with MAMPU, provided a frank overview of efforts so far, and things that still need to be tackled. This helped set the scene for the rest of the day by providing a shared understanding of where things currently stand.
Then we got to work with the participants, in two rounds of a plenary panel followed by roundtable discussions. The first round, after data holders and users in a panel discussed the current general situation, government and non-government groups discussed separately, looking at which data they see demand for, the challenges they encounter in publishing or using the data, and the suggestions they have overcoming those. The second round started with a panel bringing some international experiences and good practice examples, during which I got a new title, that of ‘open data psychologist’ because of stressing the importance of the social aspects, behaviour and attitude involved in making open data work. The panel was followed with round table conversations that mixed both data custodians and users. Conversations centered on finding a collective agenda to move open data forward. After each round the results from each table were briefly presented, and the output attached to the walls. Participants clearly appreciated having the time and space to thoroughly discuss the open data aspects they find important, and be heard by their colleagues and peers. They indicated wanting to do this more often, which is great to hear as creating the room for such conversations is exactly what the MODUG is meant for!
Roundtable discussions on a shared open data agenda for MODUG
The day(s) after the event we discussed the output and how moving forward into 2018 and 2019 we can further support MAMPU and the Malaysian open data efforts. This meant diving much deeper into the detailed actions that need to be taken. I’m very much looking forward to staying involved.
Working with the MAMPU team on next steps
After work catching up with Baden and enjoying the sights
Last year November and in the months afterwards, me and my team did an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for the Malaysian Government. It’s the third such national ODRA I’ve done for the World Bank. This week I returned to Malaysia together with my colleague Carolina Vaira to officially deliver our report to the general affairs Minister responsible for the administration modernisation planning unit (MAMPU). MAMPU is the lead agency for open data efforts in Malaysia.
The report is the culmination of a lot of work, amongst others interviewing some 45 government agencies and a few dozen non-government entities (we spoke to almost 200 people in total in a 2 week interviewing frenzy), in which we provide an overview of the current situation in Malaysia, and how conducive it is for more open data efforts. At the same time the delivery of the report is not an end-point but in itself a starting point and source of energy to decide on the next steps. An ODRA is not meant as a scorecard, but is a diagnostic tool, and its most important part isn’t the assessment itself (although it is very useful to get a good insight into the role of data inside government and in society), but the resulting list of recommendations and suggested actions.
The printed report, and its presentation to the general affairs Minister
In that sense a critical phase now starts: working with MAMPU to select from our recommendations the steps that are opportune to do now, and finding the right willing data holding government agencies and external stakeholders to involve. That I think is also the key message of the report: most essential building blocks for open data are in place, and Malaysia is very well positioned to derive societal value from open data, but it needs more effort in weaving the relationships between government and non-government entities to ensure those building blocks are cemented together and form a whole that can indeed deliver that value.
The formal delivery of the report to the Minister took place at the University of Malaysia, as part of Malaysia Open Data Day 2017, after which I presented some of the key findings and my colleague presented some good practice examples to illustrate some of the actions we suggested.
Data Terbuka (open data) banner, and Carolina and I on stage during Q&A
In the period 2007-2009 I was a heavy user of Dopplr, a geographic context tool. You’d add your upcoming trips to it, “I will be in Zurich January 4th”, and share it with your network “Your contact E.R. will also be in Zurich that day, and your contacts A.G., H.G. and A.A. live there.” This was helpful to spot potential face to face meet-ups with those people in your network you’d normally not bump into. It was a geographic serendipity tool, and it helped me meet up with people in my network regularly enough to make it worthwile to add my trips to Dopplr. For instance it enabled having a beer with Thomas (his and my photo of that moment). In 2007 I wrote about how Dopplr played a role in my digital routines, and in 2009 how I liked it as a contextual tool that, although geography based, doesn’t use maps.
typical messages from the original Dopplr
In 2009 Dopplr was acquired by Nokia, and similar to other useful tools Nokia bought (such as Plazes), it was then phased out. At some point (June 2013) I deleted my account, which by then had been dormant for a long time, after downloading all my data.
Every year you received a beautiful overview of all your travel movements.
Now the domain Dopplr2.com is active (the original dopplr.com domain now hosts a site looking at legal aspects of current news) and promises to relaunch a similar service. It uses the same colors as the logo of the original Dopplr, so I will be curious to see what they offer when they launch.
The past 12 days I was in Malaysia on mission for the World Bank and Malaysia’s Administrative Modernisation planning unit (MAMPU). Malaysia is pushing forward both on Big Data and Open Data initiatives, and I was there to do an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) to help point to the logical and most promising steps to take, in order to unlock the full potential of open data. The ODRA was the result of conversations I had with MAMPU when I visited Malaysia last year as member of the Malaysian Big Data Advisory Panel.
A marathon of meetings
Over the course of my visit we met with representatives of over 70 organisations, ministries, departments and agencies (2/3 government), and some of those organisations several times, usually for 1 hour or 90 minute sessions. All of these focused on the federal level (Malaysia is a kingdom with a federal structure). In all these meetings we were trying to understand the way the Malaysian government works, and how data plays a role in that. From the output, using the ODRA methodology, we assess the logical and possible steps for Malaysia to take towards more open data.
One of the many meetings we had
Formal launch with the Minister
The first two days were filled with meetings with civil society, the private sector and academia. The third day we met with the Minister for Administrative Modernisation responsible for MAMPU, which in turn is the responsible agency running the open data efforts. Together we officially launched the ODRA effort in attendance of the press and some 300 representatives of various civil society, business and government organisations. The Minister pointed to the value of open data in light of Malaysia’s development goals in his opening speech. After a little exercise, by my WB colleague Carolina from Washington, to gauge the opinions in the room on the value of open data to help move to a more informal exchange of ideas, I gave a presentation to show how open data creates value, what ensures open data success and how the ODRA will help find the right ‘hooks’ to do that. The Q&A that followed showed the strong interest in the room, and also the commitment of the Minister and MAMPU as both he and MAMPU’s DG got involved in the discussion.
Seminar with the Minister and a 300 people audience
Result driven and diverse
Malaysia strikes me as a country with lots of diversity, and as very result driven. That diversity was further emphasized while reading the very beautiful book Garden of the Evening Mists by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, but is also visible in every meeting we had, and every little walk I took through the city. The public sector is driven by KPI’s and in general everything is very much progress and future oriented. That has yielded impressive results, such as removing poverty in just generation, and now walking the path to be a high-income country by 2020. At the same time, all those KPI’s can generate a lack of focus (if everything is a priority, nothing really is) and can create blind spots (softer aspects such as the quality of interaction between government and the public) because it is harder to quantify.
Last year I was only visiting for 2 days or so, and had no time to see more of my surroundings. This time I was here for a week and a half, although most of those days were very busy. Some of the evenings, and during the weekend however my WB colleagues Rob (based in KL) and Carolina go to explore the city a bit, and enjoyed the great food. I spend a few hours visiting the Menara Kuala Lumpur, a telecommunications tower that has an observation deck providing a great view from 300m up over the city. With 5 million people it is a sprawling city over a large area (we commuted everyday from the hotel to MAMPU offices, 35kms away, all within the city), and the view from the tower showed me how extended that area really is.
Some views from Menara KL over the city.
Already last year what stood out for me is that food is important in Malaysia, and is offered at every opportunity, even during every meeting. Also the variety of cuisines on offer is great, from all over Asia, as well as western and Latin American. MAMPU arranged great Malaysian food for breakfast and lunch, during the intensive days of interviews, allowing me to indulge in all the great tastes and enjoying the spicyness. Off hours Rob took us to several places, Malaysian, Mexican, Spanish-Japanese, Korean, and Peruvian. I also sampled some of the fine Chinese restaurants. Sunday evening we enjoyed a great open air diner on the 24th (or 23A, as in Malaysian 4 sounds like death), overlooking KLCC park at sunset, and seeing the lights come on in the iconic Petronas towers. I arrived home with a little more baggage then I left with, so part of the aftermath of my visit is not just writing the report, but also losing that additional weight 😉
From the open 24th floor of one of the Troika towers, enjoying Peruvian food, watching the sun set and lights come on in Petronas Towers. In the background Menara KL from which I had a great view over the city earlier that day.
The coming weeks we’ll go through all the material we’ve collected in our meetings and during our desk research. From it a report will result that is action oriented to help MAMPU drive open data forward, and use it as a tool to attain the development goals Malaysia has set for itself. Most of the necessary building blocks are in place, but those blocks are all in their own silos and generally not connected. Likely most of the suggested actions will be about creating the connections between those building blocks and work on the quality of relationships between stakeholders and the awareness of how open data can be a tool for both the public and for the public sector. I am grateful to the great MAMPU and WB team for our collaboration these past days and the hospitality they have shown me.
In the past years Elmine and I have visited different cities for a longer time, to experience how it is to live there. For a month, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, we would stay in a city, and work from there, seeking out local entrepreneurs, while also enjoying the local food, coffee, and art on offer. Exposing ourselves to a different environment but not in a touristic capacity, provides inspiration, and generates new insights and ideas. We spent extended stays in Vancouver, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cambridge and Lucca, and are now exploring which city to set up camp in in the summer or fall of 2017. As I did in 2013 I asked around for suggestions, this time on Facebook. I got a long list of responses, which makes filtering and ultimately choosing likely a project in itself.
For us, for a city to qualify as a candidate it needs to be in Europe (as we want to drive there by car, given we are bringing our young daughter plus all the gear that entails), needs to have something to offer in terms of culture, and food, and good places to hang out in, but above all needs to have a few communities around new tech, start-ups, or other topics that we are interested in. This because we want to seek out new conversations and connections (such as when I organized the first Danish Data Drinks in Copenhagen in 2012).
Here are the (over 50!) suggestions we received, on a map:
In various FB-feeds I see people posting warnings about not throwing away your boarding pass or showing it to others before you’ve returned home. This all because the barcodes on your boarding pass supposedly contain ‘all your personal information’ which hackers can then steal by scanning.
Sounds scary right, evil hackers having scanning apps and getting your personal information?
Well, there’s nothing scary about bar code scanners, you can download any number of them (Android, iOS). And if you do, you can scan your own boarding pass, just like the ominous hypothetical hacker in the video!
When you do that you realize: there is usually nothing in that barcode, that is not already printed on the boarding pass itself for all to read in clear text. So if you weren’t worried before that the info on your boarding pass might be useful to someone else, the barcode does not change that.
Taking a look at my own boarding passes
Here are two of my recent boarding passes.
Please note that the first boarding pass is an exception: usually the airline keeps the large part, that contains the barcode, when you board. In other cases such as self-printed boarding passes that’s not the case.
I scanned them with my phone, to reveal the information that the barcode contains.
boarding pass, and scanned barcode
As you can see the barcode reveals:
M1ZIJLSTRA/ANTONARNOLDE CDGAMSAF 1640 343Y015F0048 147>1181OO5343BEY 2979690574758 0
Let’s compare the contents of the barcode with what is already visible on the boarding pass. The barcode reads:
M: format code
1: 1 leg of my trip is on this boarding pass
ZIJLSTRA>ANTONARNOLD: my name
E: ticket electronically issued
CDGAMS: flight from CDG (Paris Charles de Gaulle) to Amsterdam
AF: Air France
1640: flight number
343: date (Julian calendar), 9 December
Y: Economy class
015F: my seat
0048: my check-in number
1: passenger status
47: Field size of following variable size field
>: beginning of version number
1: version number
18: size of following structured message
1: passenger description
OO5: Source of check-in, source of boarding pass issuance
343: date of issue of boarding pass, 9 December
B: document type (boarding pass)
EY:airline designator for boarding pass issuer
29: field size of following message
79690574758: airline numeric code (7) and document serial number (ticket number)
0: selectee indicator
All of this is also on the boarding pass.
Interestingly some readable information on the boarding pass itself, a reference number (BEG4AP) is not in the barcode. This however is the one piece of info, in combination with my name, that could be used before a flight, e.g. to change seating. So here the boarding pass contains more information than the barcode on it.
Let’s look at another boarding pass, a mobile boarding pass from another part of the same trip, Paris to Belgrade a few days earlier.
What is noticable is that it does not give my first name (it does on the boarding pass itself) and it mentions a different airline and flight number (JU 0315) than the boarding pass itself (AF6292). This because it was a code share with JU 0315 the ‘real’ flight carrier and number.
Here the barcode does contain one piece of information that isn’t on the boarding pass: the booking reference 6Y933Y. With it and my name one could change my bookings for the other parts of the trip (such as return flights), before they were made. Both the booking reference and PNR number on the other boarding pass are only useful before flights have taken place. As they are short, 6 positions, they get recycled quickly afterwards.
Other boarding passes I had
I have checked several other boarding passes I had,from various airlines and flights. A lot have the booking reference printed on it (e.g. Easyjet). I noticed that Lufthansa encodes my frequent flier number into the barcode, which is not always on the boarding pass (although often it is, Malaysia Airlines prints my freq flier number on the boarding pass). This too is one piece of information that might be used, in combination with the booking reference or a weak password or PIN-code to log into your frequent flyer account. Much depends on how ‘easy’ your airline makes it for ‘you’, and thus for others. KLM does not encode my frequent flier number as far as I can tell, but usually I don’t add my frequent flier number to my bookings at the point of booking.
In summary, scanning your barcode does not expose ‘all your personal information’, usually just what is printed on your boarding pass already. Sometimes your booking reference is encoded and not on the boarding pass, and sometimes your frequent flier number is encoded and not on the boarding pass, But not always by far, often they are also printed on your boarding pass already.
Booking references can potentially be used to change aspects of your flights, which is a risk if parts of your booking are still in the future (such as return flights). Frequent flier numbers can be used to attempt to login to your profile at the airline, which can be a risk if your account is only guarded with a PIN number or a weak password. The weakness there is in the airline’s website.
So throwing away your boarding passes only after your entire trip is generally a good idea. But not because of the barcodes per se, because of the information that is usually already readable on it (reference codes and frequent flier numbers).
Oh and of course if you post a boarding pass somewhere and have made some information invisible, then don’t forget to also make the barcode unscannable as it contains the same information.
The UNDP organized a conference to present the outcome of the readiness assessment and discuss next steps with stakeholders. At the conference I presented my findings to the Minister for Public Administration and Local Self Government (MPALSG), and a printed version was made available to all present.
At the conference the 11 teams that created open data applications at the hackathon the weekend before, called Hakaton.rs, were also presented. The hackathon took place in the recently opened StartIT Centar, a coworking space (which got funded through kickstarter). I had the pleasure to be a mentor to the teams (together with Georges and Brett from Open Data Kosovo), to channel my experience with open data communities around Europe and open data app-building in the past 8 years. The quality of the results was I think impressive, and it was the first hackathon where I saw people trying to incorporate deep-learning tech. I aim to post separately on the different applications built.
That the hackathon was about open data was possible because five public sector institutions (Ministry for Interior, Ministry of Education, Agency for Environmental Protection, Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices, and the Public Procurement Office) have been working constructively to publish data after our first visit in June. In the coming months I hope to return to Belgrade to provide further implementation support.
Over the years the Dutch public transport RFID card system has been weird and dubious in various aspects. But apparently some things do work very nicely.
Last Friday we left for Milano for a few days to go to SOTN15, making a short stop in Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum’s Munch exhibit. Somewhere between the museum visit and dinner near Museum Square I lost my national railway travel card with photo id. Frustrating, and I imagined loosing a lot of time getting it blocked and replaced. I still had a random anonymous RFID public transport card in my wallet, and I used that to get to the airport.
There I looked online what to do to get a replacement. It turns out I could disable my lost card immediately online, and apply for a new id card.
More importantly I could also attach my rail travel subscription to the anonymous RFID public transport card I still had, by entering the card’s number online. I did that, and used it after the weekend to get back home from the aiport, while still enjoying the reduced fares I normally have.
When I got back home, my new RFID card with photo ID already had been delivered and was waiting on the doormat. All my subscriptions and automatic top-up are on it again (except for the bike rental subscription which I had to re-attach online myself, as the accompanying letter explained). The money on the lost card was reimbursed automatically.
A surprisingly smooth and painless experience that took me a few minutes at most.
I spent more time going through my pockets searching before conceding my card was gone, then on fixing the problem.
This week was a bit shorter and different than planned. Originally we were supposed to leave Lucca on Friday and then spend the weekend until Tuesday in Switzerland with friends. However we left Lucca a day earlier than that, and drove home after just one night in CH.
Part of the reason for that decision was that my leg was increasingly painful over the weekend until Wednesday. Another part that my mother isn’t doing well and phone calls with my sister and dad conveyed some urgency. Monday morning I phoned a local doctor about my leg, as during the weekend further internet research pointed to resurfacing chicken pox (herpes zoster), and not heat eczema. By then I had blisters from my knee all the way up my left leg to my middle. So I kept a low profile the first days, resting and reading, but not without heading out for coffee and lunch of course. The visit to the doctor on Monday evening confirmed our suspicion and I returned home with several prescriptions. The pharmacy did not have everything in store, so I went back Tuesday morning to collect the rest. It did mean changing my diet, by replacing the beautiful local wines of the past weeks for a daily fistful of pills.
So given that, we decided on Tuesday to leave Thursday, and skip a planned weekend with friends in Switzerland. Instead we decided to spend one night in Switzerland and drive home on Friday from there.
Having made the decision, my leg of course started improving somewhat the next day. While I was still resting and reading, Elmine started packing up our operation here in Lucca. Our last evening in Lucca we spent on the city wall talking, under the trees, looking out over the hills to the north. A beautiful summer evening.
Up on the city walls
Thursday morning we took it easy, as we weren’t expected at our friends in Switzerland until the evening. We had a last coffee at Momus, and did some final packing. We had a pleasant lunch in the city and then packed the last bits into the car. I felt better than the past days and drove. Driving up to Switzerland went without problem, but there was a traffic jam in front of the Gotthard tunnel, so I opted to drive over the St. Gotthard pass (2106m), a major north-south axis to cross the Alps since the early 13th century and the watershed between Rhine and Po rivers. Driving up from the south is a smooth road, with beautiful views. Sadly just before reaching the pass itself we entered clouds that were crossing between the peaks. So we did not stop at the highest point but continued on down on the northern side, towards our destination near Zurich.
After spending a pleasant evening with our friends, we left Seengen around 09:30. As it turned out the German highways were quickly filling up, and while we avoided a first traffic jam near Basel by choosing another border crossing, we soon found ourselves in slow traffic. A look on Google maps promised more of the same for the next 300-400kms, so we opted to cross over to Strassbourg in France, and from there drove up through the Vosges towards Luxembourg, briefly switching back into Germany to avoid traffic on the French-Luxembourg border. From Luxembourg we drove through Belgium to Maastricht in the Netherlands. There we had dinner in the inner city, before driving the final 2 hours home. A very European trip, through Strassbourg (seat of European parliament), Schengen (on the Luxembourg border, where the treaty was signed that made crossing 6 borders, CH-D-F-D-L-B-NL, on this day hassle free), and Maastricht (where the 1992 treaty was signed turning the EC into the EU).
Right back! Sign on shop door in Lucca
After 5 weeks we are now back, and already plotting when we could spend more time in Lucca. Or some place else. It certainly seems to have stirred Elmine much more strongly towards creating/finding more location independent work. After Cambridge, Copenhagen, Berlin, Helsinki and now Lucca, in each of which we have spent longer periods to live, work and relax, I find this trip has shifted our thinking again on how to select a new place to live. We still plan on leaving Enschede somewhere in the coming few years, but we may want to rethink how to choose where to move to.
We are spending a month in Lucca, with some days before and after in Switzerland.
Fully settled in
By now we have fully settled into a daily rhythm here in Lucca. Coffee in the morning, either at Momus (most days, closer and have great pastries) or Il Bernino. I also have figured out the street pattern and confidently navigate the inner city. What first seemed a medieval maze, is now a pretty clear grid.
Mornings, except for coffee are usually given over for a stroll around town, and to do some shopping, or like I did this week, get a haircut. During the heat of the day we withdraw to the apartment, to come out again towards evening for another stroll and dinner.
The afternoons are perfect for some work and reading. I haven’t read all that much compared to other summers, but amongst the books I did read, I enjoy the new Neal Stephenson, SevenEves. I spent time on editing the Serbian open data readiness assessment report, incorporating the feedback I received from colleagues. I also worked several afternoons on the open data barometer research (ODBM) for the WWW Consortium. But with the not so great internet bandwith available, that is slow going. So I am betting on speeding up once I get back to our 1 gigabit connection back home.
Evenings were for strolls (either through the city streets, or up on the city walls), and with the Lucca Summer Festival taking place we were treated to the performances of Mark Knopfler, Robbie Williams and Lenny Kravitz as we walked around. I thought Knopfler’s rendering of Sultans of Swing had slowed down quite a lot from 35 years ago!
Lucca streets at evening, sipping wine after a walk
Our daily rhythm now feels like something we could easily enjoy another month, or more.
This week we took a day to visit Siena, about 2 hours away from Lucca. It was nice to stroll through the historical center that is built across several hills. After lunch we wanted to withdraw from the heat and the other tourists. For that we went to the botanical garden where there was plenty shade, and the entrance fee kept everybody else out. We were the only two visitors.
The search for the new(er)
Last week I mentioned that finding the old in Lucca was easy, but finding signs of newer initiatives and activism is harder. There are a few places where a more active and younger scene seems to meet-up. One is a vegetarian place called Soup in Town, where we had lunch a few times. It is owned by the friendly and distinct character Daniele. The other is Ciclo DiVino, which is the focal point of a community of wine drinking cyclists, that hang out on the streets in front of the shop several nights per week. My open calls for local people involved in open data or making went mostly unanswered, but two people did get in touch.
Finding serendipity and hipsters in Lucca
One was Andrea, who lives further south, and whom we met in Pisa on Tuesday early evening. We met in a beer shop / bar, run by a former colleague of Andrea, where a growing range of artisanal Italian beers can be tasted and bought. Andrea has been involved in open geo data and mapping for a long time, and currently is part of a project mapping the ‘loss of the night‘ due to light pollution. He grew up and lived in Milano for a long time, and a few years ago returned to the house and land of his grand parents in rural southern Tuscany. There he is trying to find new ways of making the country side more resilient, finding multiple revenue streams, and break the cycle of debt and investment that tourism has brought while making assets less productive (is it useful to take on debt to build a swimming pool to better attract tourists to your farm yard for 10 weeks per year?). Some other guests in the Birreria told us little bit more about how Lucca is different from the surrounding cities like Pisa. It has alwasy been more affluent, and in the last century much less communist that its surroundings. Which may explain why in Pisa spray painted slogans and protest are much easier to spot than in Lucca.
cycling community sipping wine, bicycle
Sunday evening I met up with Davide, a self employed open source software builder, who has recently embarked on a new venture. His focus is on building an architecture that allows everyone to much better describe knowledge and metadata for data objects, and do this in a less centralized way than e.g. semantic web frameworks seem to assume. We walked, starting at Ciclo Divino, for an hour and a half, through the streets of Lucca while chatting about open data, and the adoption of new tools and other topics that came to mind.
WTF is wrong with my leg?
On Thursday I suddenly noticed what seemed like a pretty nasty rash on my left leg. At first I thought it might be eczema caused by heat. But it hurt more over time and it grew worse as well, with lots of blisters. So the last part of the week I wasn’t very mobile, and kept my rest.
For one thing I did get up though, and that was for us to visit the open air theater at Torre del Lago, for the opening night in this year’s Puccini Festival of Turandot, the last opera by Puccini. It was a beautiful summer evening, and we both enjoyed Turandot a lot. The production started of great, and even though we thought the middle part lacked creativity in its production which the final part could not really make up for, the overall experience was very good. Tenor Rudy Park, in the role of Calaf, we thought, carried most of the show with his quality. His rendering of Nessun Dorma during this premiere got a huge applause interrupting the performance. So much so, that he sang it a second time in its entirety to pick up the show again.
We are now entering our final week already here in Lucca!
The second full week in Lucca, where we are staying the month of July, with a week before it, and some days after in Switzerland.
This week contained a few regular tourist outings. One right at the start to the city of Pisa and its leaning tower. Even on a relatively early Monday morning it was already pretty crowded. But as soon as you walk away from the ‘piazza dei miracoli‘ into the streets of Pisa, you quickly lose most of the other visitors. Then you get to see a few glimpses of regular life in this old university town. Like students celebrating their graduation, such as the group next to us on the terrace where we had lunch. Or the anarchist writings on the walls across town and a coffee place that did not look like it had been there for ages.
As we are near the Mediterranean coast we of course also had to take in a sunset on the beach. So one evening we drove to Viareggio, a to me rather unappealing seaside town, driving past the endless row of privatized beaches, to the public beach right at the edges. The cloudless sky gave us plenty of time to enjoy the sun sinking into the sea.
Sunset over the Mediterranean
The end of the week we took a train to Firenze. The 80 minute train trip turned out to be surprisingly cheap, compared to home, at 7 Euro one way. We arrived at the 1930’s Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, an example of Italian modernism. Starting from the notion that form should reflect functionality, it is a spacious thing with great filtered daylight, serving some 60 million passengers annually. The architects sought to balance the station with its urban surroundings and the church Santa Maria Novella opposite. Many of the internal details (from the turnstiles, to the benches, and the markers at the beginning of the platforms) were additionally designed by a state architect and more reflective of Italian fascism / realism.
The Firenze cathedral, and inside the Uffizi
Stepping away from the station you are immediately transported from the 1930’s to the 1400’s when De’ Medici’s put their remarkable stamp on the city. We explored the cathedral, with a great archeological exhibit in the cellars about the pre-existing paleo-Christian church, and visited the Ponte Vecchio of course. We ended the day with a visit to the office. De’ Medici’s uffizi from 1580, not a newfangled coworking space of course, and walked through the endless halls of the ancient family’s enormous collection of art housed there. Even taking in as little as we did from Firenze, we still walked 20 kilometers just that one day.
Finding the old, finding the new
Within the city walls of Lucca you can still see the original street pattern from when the Romans turned this place into a colony in 180BCE. From the Forum where the San Michele church now stands, where the two main perpendicular Roman roads still cross (Fillungo/Cenami and Roma/Santa Croce), to the square built on top of the Roman amphitheater, and the Medieval streets that still largely follow the Roman grid pattern. In other words Lucca is old. Tradition is also a highly visible factor in the shops, and the food on offer. The compactness of the inner city, with its beautiful walls, basically invite this and it is very attractive for tourists. So the old is easy to spot and delivered in large quantities.
Traditional shop front in Lucca, and a retro interior of a hipper shop
Yet I also want to seek out the new, the ‘scene’ in Lucca, if it exists. But it turns out to be harder to find traces of that.
Lucca street art
Within the city there are few traces of e.g. street art, although there are wall communiqués from political movements. There is a weekly artisanal market, but most of that is very classic (honey, soap, bijouterie) and not by younger people. Some clothing shops seem to cater to a hipper clientele, and vegetarianism/veganism is apparently a flourishing niche market. But again those traces are few. In general I don’t see many younger people on the streets, nor outside the inner city.
Parked bike, political pamphlet, in Lucca
Searching online for traces of open data or maker communities didn’t yield anything. There are nearby FabLabs in Pisa, Cascina, Firenze and Contea, but noone responded yet to a question about contacts in Lucca, although they did organize a FabLab information evening here in March.
Likewise there is an open data project for the Province of Lucca, but the contact person has not responded to my mail. A posting to the Italian open data mailing list did get a response from someone some 200km away, and one other who lives closer. I will try and talk to them both soon.
Cycling is big in Lucca and I spotted fixies as well, the latter a sign of at least some urban scene existing. A few doors down from our apartment is Ciclo DiVino, a bike shop combined with a wine bar. Their expressed mission is to bring together and build a local community around cycling. That seems to work, not only because of the fixies, but because multiple evenings per week the street in front of their shop is filled with 20-somethings sipping drinks and enjoying eachothers conversations.
So maybe we should start hanging out there for our aperitivo’s the coming days, to hear more about what is going on here locally.