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What Boston Can Learn From Venice

"By bringing all of these interests together into one computerized system, we can get departments to work together to make better decisions."

By Michael Dorsey

What is a city's most precious asset? For Fabio Carrera '84 ('95 M.S.), faculty member in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, the answer is simple: information. Dispersed among dozens of agencies and government bodies are the facts and figures that make a city work and help it grow. To make the best decisions about a city's future, one needs to see the connections between those bits of information, but in most cities, that's easier said than done.

Carrera is an expert on how cities manage information and how they can do it better. A Ph.D. candidate in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, he has developed techniques for employing technology to pull information together and make it easier to access. He has developed these techniques over more than a decade as director of WPI's student project center in his hometown of Venice, Italy.

WPI undergraduates working at the Boston Project Center this spring collected, compiled and analyzed data to help state and local agencies improve the city. In the field were (from top, left to right): Malinda O'Donnell, Turin Pollard and Marvin Savain, who developed a system to inventory and track underground fuel storage tanks; Brenda Desmond, Vikram Kheny and Christopher Fitzhugh, who studied how traffic impacts the quality and accessibility of open space in Chelsea and East Boston; and Michael Moriarity, Christopher Cullen and Chirag Patel, who studied ways for the City of Cambridge to better manage and monitor its parking resources.

During that time, hundreds of WPI students have completed what a recent documentary on the National Geographic Channel called "an epic survey of the Venetian infrastructure." In dozens of science, technology and society projects, the students have studied and carefully cataloged everything from the city's canal system, to its bridges, to its boat traffic, to its ubiquitous but neglected public art.

For example, under Carrera's direction, students have conducted an exhaustive study of the city's canals, work that led to the creation of a city agency to repair and maintain these byways. Another series of projects focused on the damage done to canal walls by the wakes of cargo boats. Those projects may lead to an overhaul of the city's cargo delivery system that could remove 90 percent of the cargo traffic from the canals.

Central to the success of those projects was the use of geographic information systems (GIS), sophisticated spatial databases that enable researchers to overlay data from many sources to create maps that make it easy to see how various types of information interrelate and interact in the real world.

When Carrera became director of WPI's Boston Project Center a few years ago, he brought with him the methods and ideas that have played a major role in Venice's efforts to overcome its environmental problems and preserve its cultural heritage.

This winter, six student teams completed projects for Boston's Fire and Environment departments, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the cities of Cambridge and Newton, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Boston Museum of Science. A number of these projects planted seeds that may result in important benefits for greater Boston in years to come.

Two, in particular, both conducted in South Boston, took important steps toward demonstrating the power of geographical information systems to inform and streamline the decision-making process. The first was sponsored by the BRA and the Boston Landmarks Commission (part of the Environment Department). The BRA helps developers find properties that match their needs; the Landmarks Commission works to make sure that redevelopment doesn't destroy or alter historically significant sites. The students created an information system that not only catalogs the available properties in South Boston, but identifies characteristics, such as landmark status, that can impact the desirability of the properties to developers.

Beneath some of these properties are underground storage tanks for fuel and other chemicals. Leakage from the tanks can cause environmental problems, and the tanks pose hazards for anyone who digs or blasts in the vicinity. It is the responsibility of the Fire Department to know where the tanks are and to periodically inspect them, but the department's methods for collecting and storing information about the tanks are antiquated.

A second student team began the process of developing a computer cataloging and mapping system for the tanks. The system will ultimately be integrated with the system developed by the first South Boston team and with other geographic information systems to create a powerful tool for managing the city more holistically.

"The interests of many city departments intersect, and the connections are usually about space," Carrera says. "One agency worries about storage tanks, another about historic preservation, another about parking resources. By bringing all of these interests together into one computerized system, we can get departments to work together to make better decisions, which will ultimately benefit the city as a whole."

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