Voedseltribunaal I

This is the first part of a series of posts about a debate I visited some while ago about urban food production. The debate’s guiding question was: how do we go about feeding our ever growing cities in, preferably, sustainable manner? The purpose of these posts is to synthesize the presented ideas and the discussion that insued, and try to find what role hacking, apps, open data and especially geographical information play in the urban food industry.

The 5th of April saw the conduction of Stroom‘s Voedseltribunaal (translates to Food Tribunal), a debate revolving around the question how to sustainabily feed cities in the near future. Voedesltribunaal is part of the larger Foodprint programme that investigates the influence of food on urban culture, urban design and the functioning of our cities. The evening’s aim was a proclamation of practical guidelines for urban farmers and practitioners on how to sustainably produce food. Based on three presentations about ongoing projects and the public discussion that followed, the jury produced a manifesto that is meant to function as a guide for future urban food production activities.

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Open 3D urban data – CityGML

tl;dr I made a map of the buildings contained in Rotterdam’s 3D open urban data model.

Open Urban Data
The recent Dutch push for open data lead by Hack de Overheid (HdO) has brought many interesting data sets out in the open. Over the last couple of years HdO successfully promoted the open data idea in The Netherlands. They organised many hackathons at cool locations (always with top-notch coffee!) and app contests in order to educate the public, hackers and governmental organizations on the topic of open data.

Hack de Overheid’s activites have moved governmental, provincial and municipal organizations to open their data stores to the public. The main source for Dutch data is data.overheid.nl. The Dutch portal for (open) geographical data is nationaalgeoregister.nl. Alongside these centralised data sources, several cities have set up their own data portals. Current urban data providers include The Hague, Eindhoven, Enschede and Rotterdam. The available data ranges from trivial things like news feeds to more interesting information like energy consumption per city district. The dataset I’m most excited about is the 3D city model of Rotterdam.
A 3D city model is a digital representation of the urban environment, a three-dimensional map that contains common city objects such as buildings, roads, trees, etc. A well-known city model format is Google’s KML (Keyhole Markup Language) that can be loaded in Google Earth. It is the data format in which buildings generated with Google’s SketchUp or Buildingmaker are made.

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FOSS as an education paradigm

One of my teachers is using open-source (GIS) software and libraries to teach his courses. Last week he asked me to write a short piece on the benefits of using open-source software in a teaching environment as opposed to proprietary solutions. He is following a teaching class and needs student testimonials that ‘justify’ his choice. Since I completely agree with him, I gladly sat down and wrote a short piece about it.

Free and open-source (FOSS) software is great for education as it strikes the right balance between functionality and abstraction. Commercial software abstracts the mechanics behind polished click-only interfaces thereby limiting the student’s ability to study and learn from the inner workings of the software. OS software has a different approach. Instead of hiding the functionality behind fancy interfaces, it aims to expose it in a thorough way such that others can observe, learn from and improve it. The student is thus able to open the hood, look under it, and examine how (geospatial) theories are implemented. The lack of elaborate graphical interfaces means that students will initially experience a steeper learning curve as many geospatial tools are accessible through programmatic means only. Students will therefore have to acquire basic programming skills. This is a good thing as it gives students the ability to build their own tools instead of having to rely on proprietary commercial packages. Students acquire a fundamental understanding of the matter instead of the superfluous ability to follow recipes i.e. the workflow of click-only software packages. Being able to program allows students to read and reuse code and libraries written by others. They can thus quickly and easily link any of the numerous open-source libraries available in the community. Furthermore, the open-source geospatial community is large and lively. It is not uncommon that cutting-edge technologies and methodologies first emerge in the OS community long before a commercial entity is able or willing to integrate them in their products. Teaching students to work with OS software thus enables them to stay up-to-date.

But what the FOSS mindset teaches best is the ability to learn as you go, to quickly grasp new technologies and move freely in the geospatial toolset universe. It teaches data literacy. Students become self-reliant. Instead of giving you a cookie, it gives you the flour and an oven so you can bake as you see fit. Software changes quickly, fundamental theories and practices less so. The only way to stay on top is to familiarize oneself with some fundamental skills and abilities (next to the stock geospatial knowledge): programming, using bits and pieces of other people’s code and quickly learning how to use new libraries.

All I’m saying is that students need to learn to code and hack early on in their career.

Lift off

Starting a blog.

The other day I had someone ask me why I had a certain piece of code. Whether it had something to do with my graduation? When I explained that it was for a hobby project of mine I got a semi-blank look. I quickly explained that I like to build stuff and the message got through. Kind of.

What I couldn’t explain however was the deeper purpose of my doings and the views that accompany those. How did I get to where I am and how I’ll continue. What other thoughts I have, be they related or not. What actions and events lead to those thoughts.

That is when it hit me. This was the moment when I finally understood (on that deep, almost physical level) what writing texts is about. It’s about leaving bread crumbs, small tokens that denote your spot on the map and how you got there. They lie out in the open, visible for all. They tell the story and explain the rationale.

As fate would have it I just finished Clay Johnsons‘s The Information Diet. In it Johnson explains what constitutes a bad information diet, what the effects of said bad diet are and concludes with a thorough discussion on why and how to improve. It all boils down to data literacy: “the ability to process, sort and filter vast quantities of information”. So far so good as this was more or less my definition of data literacy. I thought I enjoyed a decent diet. I stay away from 9GAG, cheap celebrity news, sensationalism and generally succeed in finding stuff with Google.

Turns out this is only half of Johnson’s diet. The other half is information creation and synthesis. Information creation is all about effectively relaying one’s thoughts to other minds while synthesis is about taking in other people’s thoughts and ideas and mingling them with your own. As Johnson aptly puts it “These […] concepts aren’t skills you’ll learn simply from reading the pages in a chapter of this book. It’s a skill that takes years, lots of practice, and constant refinement to develop.” The fruits of which are well-known and much discussed. We all know that it’s good for us, but few (including me) do it on a regular basis.

I got lucky is what I think happened. I got the rare combination of an internal discovery (that almost physical ‘click’ you hear when you thoroughly get something) with an external validation. Such occasions are rare, so I’m acting.