Some notions about cities, after I came across a 2017 posting asking for potential cities to visit for a month (which yielded a list of over 50). We did some extended city visits over the years (months in Vancouver, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Lucca, and 10-14 days in Berlin, Helsinki). Originally the idea was an adaptation of what Tim Ferris in his book The 4 Hour Work Week called ‘mini retirements’. We wanted to figure out where to go live, and what was important to us in choosing a European city to live. This as there were no other elements (like location of day jobs) that would narrow down our choices.

To get to know a city better, not as a tourist but as part of the local fabric as much as possible, we’d relocate there for a month. Beforehand we’d contact our network there, or search for local introductions to find contacts and network. While we were there we worked and explored the city, and reached out to existing and new contacts. The change of surroundings and people, and taking in the city brings new inspiration, ideas and activity.

Cities are serendipity hubs (1), a heady mix of ideas, people, resources and capital that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. Cities are efficient, when they double in size they don’t use double the resources (2), and that frees up capacity for other things. Cities grow super-linearly, for each doubling it becomes 15% more productive and innovative (as well as more criminal btw) than you’d expect from the doubling (3). The engine behind that is the density of social connections, the more intense interaction fires up the city (4). Social connections have a network effect, which is non-linear.

When you visit as an outsider all that serves as a source of inspiration: you see the traces of other people’s creativity, emerging trends, the rough edges where the friction is. And you meet the people who are involved in all of that.

When you as an outsider first join life in a city you experience a contrast, and the bigger/different/other the city, the bigger the contrast.
I think that contrast between yourself and a city you relocate to is a potential energy. A potential energy that is based on the starting point that is your unfamiliarity relative to the city. As a curious outsider you see more things, hear more diffrences, then as a regular visitor or as an inhabitant. If you seek out that contrast there’s a rush of ideas, impressions, observations and associations to harvest. But like any potential energy, the contrast dissipates as you get closer to it, get more familiar with the city, explore more of it. You get used to your surroundings, and start seeing less that jumps out. So there are diminishing returns from relocating to somewhere for a while. Unless you embrace it, grow roots, and become fully part of the fabric: then cities are well suited to seek out the contrasts within it, more suited than less densely packed environments as they hold so much more variety, but it is a different activity and a qualitatively very different experience from the first ‘rush’ that contrast can provide. These type of stories can be found around the world about people packing up and going to NYC to act, university in London, etc.
Those dimishing returns are good I think, because it provides a natural end to a phase of exploration and discovery, making way for digesting all those impressions from the rush of using up the initial contrast.

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I came across someone who applied a Pareto distribution to exploring a place: he spent 80% of a visit seeking out new things (restaurants, places to hang out etc), and the final 20% of a visit going to the best places he found in the first 80%.
That way you don’t stop exploring too early (letting the contrast slip away by quickly settling on a routine), but at the same time also preventing to keep on exploring only (akin to the endless scrolling of a FB timeline), helping the transition to the return trip by visiting some of the highlights again, and ending on a positive note (you don’t want to end up in your worst choice of restaurant on your last night in town). A rule of thumb for how to ease from discovery into digesting the discoveries.

We didn’t go anywhere after I asked for suggestions in that old blogpost I mentioned at the start. A few months before that posting we moved permanently to Amersfoort, and in the end getting to know our new surroundings was more important. We had plenty of contrast right in our own hometown.

Now that we’ve been here for three years, I’m thinking about ways I can heighten the contrast a bit, to be able to see more. And to take a different perspective on what’s really part of the urban zone as a serendipity hub around me. Amersfoort isn’t very big, but is within reach of a number of other cities, including Amsterdam (also not a big city, but the largest in NL). Now, someone from Amsterdam wouldn’t come to Amersfoort much for inspiration perhaps, but I can treat Amsterdam as part of my own urban environment, as it is close, without disregarding Amersfoort itself. I can add them together. The same is true for Utrecht (where I keep my company’s offices).

My friend Paolo‘s answer for any location in London about how far it is, is “about 50 minutes”. It’s funny and it is also true, because our natural surroundings are about one hour of travel in radius. E.g. people tend to treat a commute up to one hour as reasonable. So let’s take that as a measure: how many people do you have access to within one hour of travel? And how many within a circle of 90 minutes? You can use that notion to see where you can get inspiration, or contribute it, where the contrast has the highest potential. Or how to be a connector between one side of your radius and another (because they will be 2-3 hours apart)

Mapumental was an online tool that would show you from any given point in cities like London, Berlin and Helsinki, what was in reach of e.g. at most a 1 hour public transport journey. It usually showed surprising locations where you could go live and have as much access to the things you wanted as more expensive places. That tool is no longer online. I wonder if there’s an easy way to plot such a isochrone radius for public transport on a map with other tools. I found an online tool for isochrone maps that works for walking, and cars. The image below shows 1 hour and 90 minutes distance driving by car from our home (I had to register with the tool, to obtain an API key for testing). Although my actual reference would be public transport travel times, this gives a good illustration. Including that it covers most of the Dutch population, and that it has some surprises (like only needing an hour to get to rural Medemblik in the north-west, which mentally is more like 3 hours.) If you compare it with the coverage at our old address in Enschede, both w.r.t. Dutch and German population centers, the difference is striking.


Isochrone map with our home town at the center. Click to enlarge

Since my early university years I’ve held that from a spatial planning perspective, e.g. for infrastructures like rail, you’d need to take the Netherlands as a single city. Meaning that e.g. the train network should look more like a metro map (circles and cross lines), less like a long distance network (stars, hubs and spokes). More like a distributed network really. The image above underpins that I think. A 2016 report by Dutch middle sized cities came to a similar conclusion about seeing the Netherlands as a single urban area: don’t compete, but specialize and collaborate (5), as a single networked entity in short.

Seen from my hometown, I can reach Amsterdam within the hour by public transport, Utrecht in half an hour. While cities like Den Bosch, Zwolle, Arnhem and Deventer are also all within one hour, Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven, and Haarlem are within 90 minutes. All of these are easily accessible, and I could mentally treat them as home turf, using them to maintain a higher alternating contrast. I think I don’t do that enough, but tend to default to Amersfoort too unthinkingly. A much richer perspective would be to see those other places as quarters of the Netherlands as a city, and use the fact that we live so centrally in this country-as-a-city much more actively.

(1) My talk at Cognitive Cities in Berlin, 2011
(2) Bettencourt e.a. 2007, Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities
(3) Bettencourt e.a. 2010, Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities
(4) Pan e.a. 2013, Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation
(5) Magazine Midsize NL, 2016, PDF in Dutch

Liked Love and sayur lodeh by Ben WerdmüllerBen Werdmüller
The food I cook is made from spices and the history of all of us, our family and the families like ours, fractals of ebbs and flows of people that form the atoms of history and culture. This is the world. We're all part of a constantly-changing map of humans caught up in each others' wake: twisting currents in the tide of generations. We are constantly moving and we have always been. All of us are immigrants. All of us belong. All of us survive through kindness and ingenuity, despite the forces of militarism, hate, and intolerance.

Thank you Ben Werdmüller. An evocative post about your family history and comparison with our current times. Now I crave some sayur lodeh.

The Dutch, it must be added, were themselves a brutal colonial power.” Yes, we were. And the echoes and consequences still ripple and ricochet through our society, often ignored.

Iedereen hongert naar informatie, en naarmate we langer thuis zitten waarschijnlijk ook naar meer nuttige dingen om te doen. Data en informatie kan bij dat laatste helpen: om te zien waar je nuttig iets toe kunt voegen. Hoeveel materiaal is er beschikbaar in Nederland, en wat dreigt op te raken in een regio? Hoeveel tests worden er gedaan, hoeveel zijn er op voorraad? Welke maatregelen worden er precies genomen? Want het RIVM, GGD’s en zorginstellingen doen veel meer dan we kunnen zien. Het antwoord op die vragen is niet beschikbaar. En dus moet je of aannemen dat ‘de instanties’ het allemaal al geregeld hebben (en dat is niet waarschijnlijk want ook voor hen is een nieuwe en complexe situatie), of aannemen dat ze je bewust ongeïnformeerd houden en je niet als zelfstandige actor in deze situatie zien (en ook dat is niet waarschijnlijk, want onze medewerking is noodzakelijk).

Zelfs basale gegevens als het aantal positief getesten, overledenen, en ziekenhuisopnames, zijn niet beschikbaar als data. De cijfers worden wel genoemd in de dagelijkse nieuwsbulletins van het RIVM, maar bijvoorbeeld t.a.v. het aantal tests en ziekenhuisverblijven maar mondjesmaat en inconsistent. Het RIVM heeft wel een data site maar daar is het akelig stil.

Geen relevante zoekresultaten op data.rivm.nl

Ik maak sinds eind februari een excelblaadje, waarin ik elke dag een nieuwe regel toevoeg. Om daar uit af te leiden of we nog op de exponentiële curve zitten, of we in de buurt blijven van wat andere landen doormaken of daar vanaf wijken, en hoe dit zich verhoudt tot de cijfers over het aantal ziekenhuis- en IC-bedden. Raar natuurlijk dat die gegevens, die deels wel in de nieuwsberichten op de RIVM site staan, niet ook als data op diezelfde site te vinden zijn.

Door deze data niet standaard te delen bereik je 3 ongewenste effecten:

  • Je bent niet zelf de betrouwbaarste bron van data, iedereen die iets wil weten is afhankelijk van materiaal uit tweede (of erger) hand.
  • Het is onmogelijk om snel na te gaan of een artikel dat je leest zich baseert op kloppende brongegevens
  • Data en informatie is een middel om anderen in staat te stellen in actie te komen op manieren die het werk van het RIVM en de zorginstellingen ondersteunen. Gebrek aan informatie doemt ons op zijn best tot stilzitten, op zijn ergst tot ongeïnformeerde en schadelijke keuzes.

Die laatste van de drie is het belangrijkst. En dus is het nodig vragen aan het RIVM te stellen naar die gegevens. Dergelijke vragen worden snel als lastig, kritisch en storend ervaren. Het RIVM is volledig bezet met het bestrijden van de epidemie, en dan is elke afleiding storend. Maar in een crisis is zo groot mogelijk transparantie geven juist van belang. Dan hebben wij allemaal meer informatie om onze eigen beslissingen op te baseren, en beter te snappen waar we aan toe zijn. Die transparantie is niet alleen een taak van het RIVM, maar ook van de veiligheidsregio’s. Die veiligheidsregio’s tekenen de verordeningen waarin de beperkingen worden vastgelegd die we nu hebben. Het bestuur van die regio’s zijn de burgemeesters van de gemeenten die er binnen vallen. Die burgemeesters dienen een grotere rol te hebben in de communicatie naar hun inwoners. Niet alleen mondelinge communicatie, maar ook de feiten over de eigen regio gevat in data.

Vragen stellen aan het RIVM op dit moment werkt storend voor het RIVM, leidt af in een tijd van grote drukte en stress. Criticasters leiden alleen tot bunkermentaliteit, en dat komt de kwaliteit van hun werk niet ten goede. Toch is die missende data erg nodig.
Aantal positieve tests, en totaal aantal tests per etmaal, data uit het NIVEL netwerk, aantal sterfgevallen, demografische verdeling van zieken, gehanteerde rekenmodellen, gemaakte keuzes en verworpen keuzes, escalatiepaden, ziekenhuis en ICU bezetting per ziekenhuis, aantal huidige en historische ziekenhuisopnames, genezingen, maatregelen per veiligheidsregio (er zijn nl verschillen) en landelijk, lopende initiatieven RIVM, voorraden en verbruikssnelheid van tests en alle benodigde medische materialen, etc. etc. Het is er ongetwijfeld allemaal.

Dus hoe kunnen we de helpende hand bieden op vlakken die nu niet prioritair zijn voor het RIVM maar wel belangrijk voor de maatschappij, voor ons? Zoals communicatie en datavoorziening.
Ik snap dat het RIVM volledig in beslag wordt genomen door het werk aan Corona. Hoe kunnen we voldoende mensen regelen die de communicatie-kant komen versterken, zorgen dat informatie / overzichten / data die er ongetwijfeld wel zijn ook publiek worden gedeeld op een herbruikbare manier?
Niet om het RIVM te controleren, maar om anderen in staat te stellen te helpen, en datgene te doen wat in hun eigen context mogelijk is en bijdraagt aan het gezamenlijke doel.
Je zou bijkans een hele afdeling wetenschapscommunicatie en data-savvy mensen naar binnen* kunnen loodsen bij het RIVM met als enige doel ons leken met informatiehonger voldoende te voeden, zodat de RIVM professionals zelf kunnen doen wat nodig is. Ik snap dat het RIVM die mensen nu niet ter beschikking heeft, maar dat leidt geheid tot onrust en wantrouwen onder het publiek juist. Als niet nu dan in de komende weken wel.
(* ‘binnen’ alleen metaforisch natuurlijk, we blijven allemaal remote werken uiteraard. #blijfgewoonthuis)

The Covid19 situation in the Netherlands is about where Italy was 2 weeks ago. Going from the first case on February 27th, to over 300 now 12 days later, with four deaths. Below is a graph of the total number of people testing positive for the virus in the Netherlands, created from taking the announced numbers from the daily news bulletins of the RIVM, the national institute for health and environment.

As of tonight the entire country is requested to stop shaking hands, and employers in the province Noord-Brabant are requested to enable and allow people to work from home. This is the province where a number of cases cannot be traced back to their source.

I got elected as treasurer of the newly founded Creative Commons Chapter Netherlands. Could not make the founding meeting this afternoon but thankful for the trust of the participants in the meeting. Looking forward to working with the other newly elected board members Maarten Zeinstra (chair), Hessel van Oorschot (secretary), Sebastiaan ter Burg (general board member), and Lisette Kalshoven (representative in the CC Global Network Council). The newly formed Chapter is the result of the changing structure of Creative Commons globally.

Dutch Provinces publish open data, but it always looks like it is mostly geo-data, and hardly anything else. When talking to provinces I also get the feeling they struggle to think of data that isn’t of a geographic nature. That isn’t very surprising, a lot of the public tasks carried out by provinces have to do with spatial planning, nature and environment, and geographic data is a key tool for them. But now that we are aiding several provinces with extending their data provision, I wanted to find out in more detail.

My colleague Niene took the API of the Dutch national open data portal for a spin, and made a list of all datasets listed as stemming from a province.
I took that list and zoomed in on various aspects.

At first glance there are strong differences between the provinces: some publish a lot, others hardly anything. The Province of Utrecht publishes everything twice to the national data portal, once through the national geo-register, once through their own dataplatform. The graph below has been corrected for it.

What explains those differences? And what is the nature of the published datasets?

Geo-data is dominant
First I made a distinction between data that stems from the national geo-register to which all provinces publish, and data that stems from another source (either regional dataplatforms, or for instance direct publication through the national open data portal). The NGR is theoretically the place where all provinces share geo-data with other government entities, part of which is then marked as publicly available. In practice the numbers suggest Provinces roughly publish to the NGR in the same proportions as the graph above (meaning that of what they publish in the NGR they mark about the same percentage as open data)

  • Of the over 3000 datasets that are published by provinces as open data in the national open data portal, only 48 don’t come from the national geo-register. This is about 1.5%.
  • Of the 12 provinces, 4 do not publish anything outside the NGR: Noord-Brabant, Zeeland, Flevoland, Overijssel.

Drenthe stands out in terms of numbers of geo-data sets published, over 900. A closer look at their list shows that they publish more historic data, and that they seem to be more complete (more of what they share in the NGR is marked for open data apparantly.) The average is between 200-300, with provinces like Zuid-Holland, Noord-Holland, Gelderland, Utrecht, Groningen, and Fryslan in that range. Overijssel, like Drenthe publishes more, though less than Drenthe at about 500. This seems to be the result of a direct connection to the NGR from their regional geo-portal, and thus publishing by default. Overijssel deliberately does not publish historic data explaining some of the difference with Drenthe. (When something is updated in Overijssel the previous version is automatically removed. This clashes with open data good practice, but is currently hard to fix in their processes.)

If it isn’t geo, it hardly exists
Of the mere 48 data sets outside the NGR, just 22 (46%) are not geo-related. Overall this means that less than 1% of all open data provinces publish is not geo-data.
Of those 22, exactly half are published by Zuid-Holland alone. They for instance publish several photo-archives, a subsidy register, politician’s expenses, and formal decisions.
Fryslan is the only province publishing an inventory of their data holdings, which is 1 of their only 3 non geo-data sets.
Gelderland stands out as the single province that publishes all their geo data through the NGR, hinting at a neatly organised process. Their non-NGR open data is also all non-geo (as it should be). They publish 27% of all open non-geo data by provinces, together with Zuid-Holland account for 77% of it all.

Taking these numbers and comparing them to inventories like the one Fryslan publishes (which we made for them in 2016), and the one for Noord-Holland (which we did in 2013), the dominance of geo-data is not surprising in itself. Roughly 80% of data provinces hold is geo related. Just about a fifth to a quarter of this geo-data (15%-20% of the total) is on average published at the moment, yet it makes up over 99% of all provincial open data published. This lopsidedness means that hardly anything on the inner workings of a province, the effectivity of policy implementation etc. is available as open data.

Where the opportunities are
To improve both on the volume and on the breadth of scope of the data provinces publish, two courses of action stand open.
First, extending the availability of geo-data provinces hold. Most provinces will have a clear process for this, and it should therefore be relatively easy to do. It should therefore be possible for most provinces to get to where Drenthe currently is.
Second, take a much closer look at the in-house data that is not geo-related. About 20% of dataholdings fall in this category, and based on the inventories we did, some 90% of that should be publishable, maybe after some aggregation or other adaptations.
The lack of an inventory is an obstacle here, but existing inventories should at least be able to point the other provinces in the right direction.

Make the provision of provincial open geodata complete, embrace its dominance and automate it with proper data governance. Focus your energy on publishing ‘the rest’ where all the data on the inner workings of the province is. Provinces perpetually complain nobody is aware of what they are doing and their role in Dutch governance. Make it visible, publish your data. Stop making yourself invisible behind a stack of maps only.

(a Dutch version is available. Een Nederlandse versie van deze blogpost vind je bij The Green Land.)