Dani Arribas-Bel Digital Land

Category: English


[NOTE: reposted from the University of Birmingham’s official Tumbler. This text was prepared in the lead to the Pint of Science event in Birmingham, where I also presented]

We all know what a neighbourhood is, right? It’s a part of a city that shares a common character and feel, either defined by the people who live, work or visit there. The problem comes when you try to put it on a map, then it becomes much harder.

In fact, for the most part, the study of cities has been constrained by “given” boundaries such as postcodes, which actually have very little meaning in themselves. This is about to change, thanks to the data and computational revolutions currently underway. This will open up many doors to explore different methods to quantify, visualize and imagine the city in radically new ways.

Take Twitter, for example. The language in which a tweet is posted reveals a host of information about its “poster”.

Tweets in uncommon languages likely come from members of ethnic minorities; or tweets in English posted in non-english speaking countries can signal a more cosmopolitan author. If we combine this simple piece of metadata, with the location where the tweet was sent, it is possible to relate different languages to different parts of a city.

Areas where only the local language is spoken are likely to be very different from those where a variety of languages coexist. Touristy areas, for example, will have a relatively smaller proportion of local tweets and a larger share of foreign posts.

Although a person can start to imagine how these different maps overlay and reveal the character of each area, it is difficult for the human brain to process all the information at once.

Luckily, this is one of the tasks that a properly taught (programmed) computer can do very well. Using a family of techniques called machine learning, a computer can process all the tweets in a city and return a map that summarizes them into neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods contain much more substantive meaning than the ones we are accustomed to use (e.g. post codes or administrative boundaries), and provide a representation of the city that, although we’ve always know was there, we could not picture. How cool is that?

Travel hacks

[Mental note to some tips. Some of them familiar, some interesting]

Read Quote of Thomas Snerdley’s answer to Tips and Hacks for Everyday Life: What are the best travel hacks? on Quora

Fujita on Losch on Space

Last week, at the 53rd ERSA conference in Palermo, I had the pleasure to see Professor Masahisa Fujita deliver his keynote speech. In his last slide, he paid a tribute to German economist August Losch, one of the pioneers in introducing space into economic analysis and a person with a fascinating life. For my records, I’ll copy here the first paragraph of the epilogue in his book “Economics of Location“. Very powerfull stuff.

If everything occurred at the same time there would be no development. If everything existed in the same place there could be no particularity. Only space makes possible the particular, which then unfolds in time. Only because we are not equally near to everything; only because everything does not rush in upon us at once; only because our world is restricted, for every individual, for his people, and for mankind as a whole, can we, in our finiteness, endure at all. The extent of this horizon differs, of course, from man to man. But in economic affairs, as in all other affairs, our ken is limited for acting intelligently and for finding our way through the complexities of life. And even within this little world, we are familiar with not more than its innermost circle. Depth must be bought with narrowness. Space creates and protects us in this limitation. Particularity is the price of our existence.

A. Losch, 1943

Rules of the game

“A good rodeo, like a good marriage, or musical instrument when played to the pitch of perfection, becomes more than what it started out to be. It is effort transformed into effortlessness; a balance becomes grace, the way love goes deep into friendship.”

The solace of open spaces”  G. Ehrlich.

SB-Feb. 2013


Santa Barbara was a window into heaven for a short while.

Sao Paulo travel notes

All of a sudden, I was leaving customs at Sao Paulo’s international airport. My friend Ana was waiting at the other side and the smoothness that had accompanied me over the 12h flight and the airport controls just continued. She drove me to the hostel (yes I’m going backpacker this time until I enter work mode) and after check in we went for dinner. We ate Moroccan and you’d be mistaken to think it’s something you shouldn’t do here. “The most typical food Sao Paulo is known for is its international cuisine”, I was told. And food it’s only a good metaphor of the bigger picture. I used to think globalization was an invention of the West. Cathedrals of this religion were New York, London and even Tokyo. World hubs that act as collectors of different realities, cultures and personal stories that cross, usually with the hope of improving life conditions. In this naive picture, the “periphery” had the only role of supplier. Boy how mistaken was I. Sao paulo’s 17 million people make it not only the largest metropolis of Latin America but one of the most diverse places I’ve been to. Start with the already hard to define Brazilian character (an amazing mix of indians, Europeans and Africans). Add the Japanese largest community outside Japan, and so many other layers of identities that have been added and mixed over its relatively short history. And the West here is not even a supplier any more.

Today we’ve been walking most of the day, eating and talking about the city, the country and what involves to be a Brazilian today. It is an exciting time to visit this country because I’m sure if I come in a few years I’ll be seeing such a different place. The picture I’m drawing reminds a lot to the Spain of the sixties and seventies I learnt at school and through my grandparents. Ana’s generation, like my parent’s, is the first one to have access in (relative) mass to many things we take for granted (although maybe not for too longer) in the Welfare Europe, and the sense of out of control most of the development in the city has is clear sign of the speed at which things are changing here. The feeling is similar in that regard to what it was to visit Mumbai or Bangkok: monsters that grow as a collective effort of millions of people but where no one really nows exactly what the effects of his actions will be. And sure enough, not everything is Perfectland: inequality is soaring and all you have to do to get a sense of the extent of pollution is to look at the color of “white” buildings downtown, to give a couple of examples. One thing is sure: this is not a stopping point but a snapshot in the middle of continuous change. And I’m happy I was lucky enough to be able to “have my camera at hand” to shoot it.


A few days ago I had to go renew my passport after almost five years of globe-trotting. Because my US visa is there and still active, I was able to keep it and it’ll hopefully let me in when I land in Phoenix next tuesday. The truth is I am no collector in general. I’m just too lazy, nomad or inconstant to store items of a kind and keep them with me over time, always having it in mind to buy a new addition when I see the chance. I am however a huge fan of physical objects that represent much more than the grams they weight. And the passport I’ve been carrying in my bag over the last five years is probably the best collector of memories and other weightless things that I can think of.

On the bus to my next task that morning, I started flipping through the pages and, before I got to my destination, I had traveled around half the planet. I started on the first page, where a 22-years-old Dani looks like sleepy and unhappy. I remember that spring morning as if it had been last may: I was in a rush to get the passport in time to take off to South Korea and the lady at the desk told me she wouldn’t take the picture I had because it was too old, so I had to go take a new one at 8am, hence the outcome. Then as I turned the pages, a stream of flashes started coming to mind in completely out of any chronological order, just the way customs officers put the country stamp when you cross the border. The US, Korea, Taiwan (or Republic of China, as it reads), Chile, Cambodia, Thailand, India, China or Morocco. And these gave rise to all the other ones that don’t get to the passport but did leave a stamp on me, like most of Europe or Mexico. I am certainly different today than I was that morning when I was photographed, and I’m sure for the most part it’s an improvement.

Changing years is an important event because I think it forces us, if only a little bit, to realize time passes, a new spring, summer, fall and winter are to come and hopefully the ones that just went by gave us all something more than a few more grams in the belly or a couple of new gray hairs. In my case, I can only feel fortunate for these incredible twelve months and hope they don’t stop when the clock rings the bells tonight, so I’m going to pretend I’m just celebrating the change of passports and that I now have a full set of new pages to be stamped. Cheers for all the new adventures to come, Peace and Love.


Happy (almost) birthday

In order to mark the first anniversary of my life as a respected Doctor (to happen next December 13th.), I thought I’d throw in a post. Stealing borrowing the idea from Carson Farmer, here’s the wordcloud of my dissertation I created using the R code he points to. The usual suspects show up. Maybe not surprisingly, although right in the middle, ‘economics’ doesn’t appear very big. Comment taken, trying to work my way back into the source of all Truths :->

Dissertation word cloud

Lives on borders

Bobbie is now waving her hand as my train from Malmoe (Sweden) to the airport in Copenhagen departs. She is only 3 years old, yet she knows more about globalization than many older people will ever know; her mother is from Sweden and his dad, David, from Spain. David used to be my scouts’ instructor and later became one of the biggest inspirations when I started to make the decissions that led to the life I’m currently living. We have been meeting over the years, usually for Christmas when we both return home, but last time I visited him at his place, however, was in the spring of 2006, while I was living in Sweden and finishing my bachelor’s.

Five years ago, David was at the beginning of a rare project called Arduino nobody else at the time except himself and a few other visionaries really understood; 21 years old Dani was starting to explore what leaving abroad by himself means; and Bobbie, of course, did not exist. This weekend, David was just back from Chicago and getting ready for his two talks about Arduino next week, one of them in Taipei (the project has been featured in Wired and The New York Times, among others); I was visiting from Amsterdam, where I am spending the summer as a postdoc visitor, in an effort to “keep one foot” in the US and the other one in Europe; and Bobbie is the living realization of the world she has been born in. It only takes the two days I have spent with her to not only completely fall in love with that smile and bright of eyes but to compile a full list of details and facts that sketch her coordinates of life, to name just a few: the obvious ability with which she switches from spanish to swedish and back depending who she talks to; her best friend Nikita, daugther of a swedish woman and a sub-saharian man; or the natural tone she has when speaking of her two homes, one in Malmoe and the other one in Spain, as if they were two rooms of the same house.

As I type these words on the plane, I am now leaving with the same mix of admiration, excitement, unrest and confussion that invades me whenever I meet David. Admiration for he has not stepped down from the category of personal inspiration; excitement for Bobbie and how David is managing to be a world-class geek rockstar and the biggest dad without loosing a bit of his personality; and the unrest and confussion that usually come whenever you find situations and interact with realities that somehow escape your own grasp, when you feel there is an extra layer of complexity beyond what you understand and feel comfortable with that you want to control but you can’t. They are probably well founded since, after all, there is nothing more complicated than figuring out magic.

Chino Moreno’s Top 13

A while ago, I talked about the inverview by The Quietus to Deftones’ Chino Moreno. I came across it recently and decided to put all the goodies from Mr. Moreno in a Spotify playlist. I like to leave it run on random in the background, because it’s pretty good at creating atmospheres. Certainly, you can see all this influence in the Deftones’ music, although it’s surprising how low-key it sounds compared to some of the band’s guitars or screams. In any case, very recommendable. Another aspect I like of creating the list and being able to listen to it is that it gives that set of 13 albums, which I’d have otherwise probably not known about, a theme and a reason that relates to the singer and makes it a more profound experience; in the era of digital remixing, it’s almost a creation in itself.

I’ll give you the hook here to go on and check the list or read the whole article, because it is well worth the time:

Some of these tracks were rejected from a film score, and I love to put on visuals when I’m making music. I collect old films, from the turn of the century or the 60s or whatever, I’ll put one up on a monitor and start writing, to me that’s one of the most fun ways of making music.

Chino Moreno

Playlist link