After the Cambrian Explosion

(Wrote this in 2021 on Twitter and I still think it is true.)

Sometimes I just think that computers, programming and digital technologies in general have now ended the explosive growth phase and that this is ok.

We might just be past the initial Cambrian explosion of applications and now in a slower improvement/distribution phase.

We have seen three huge waves of growth: democratisation of computers, internet and then mobile phones, but now, I have no digital tech breakthrough in sight that, in my opinion, could fuel another such huge growth cycle.

Nope, not metaverse (LOL), not AI, not blockchain. I do believe in the ability of machine learning to increase a lot efficiency in some type of work, but that’s about it.

And that’s ok to me. Computers and digital tech will have been the opportunity of my career.

I now believe more in biotech and energy (so much to do there) as the tech fields able to provide growth opportunities.

But don’t misunderstand me: I also think there is still a ton of important work to be done with computers, just not work that will get worldwide adoption very quickly, like computers, internet and mobile did.

Picture: Nobu Tamura ( Opabinia, a species that has been regarded as strong evidence of the “cambrian explosion”.

Interrail in Spain: NOT Recommended

I will leave here a few notes about using an Interrail pass in Spain so that people thinking of doing that can find them in the future.

First, a word about Interrail passes: they are a wonderful idea. You can buy a pass from the Interrail site that allows to take as many trains as you wish in Europe during a given period. We took the option of travelling 7 days over a period of a month, for a cost of 1232 € (for 2 adults and 3 kids, aged 16, 16 and 10).

There is a catch that is well documented: for some trains, usually the fast ones that you use to cross a country, you need to buy reservations, and these can be costly. On France fast trains, they seemed to be 30% of a normal ticket. Also, over the summer, these reservations usually need to be bought a few weeks in advance.

With my partner, we made a wonderful Interrail trip in 2003 from Belgium to Italy, Greece and ultimately Turkey (reaching Istanbul) and we hoped to show our three kids a part of this wonderful network of railways that Europe has. I also made another wonderful trip around 1994 with my parents to Spain (down to Cordova), so I knew the lines exist. This time we wanted to go to the atlantic coast of Spain, which has wonderful landscapes and beaches.

Now, for Spain, there are additional catches to take into account:

  • Most trains can not be reserved online (it appears some can, but I did not find them, there were not on my trip apparently), so you need to go to a train station when reaching Spain and cross fingers that there is still some room available. So basically that makes the whole scheme unworkable.
  • The trip planner found at always route you through Barcelone to enter Spain, while you can go to the Spanish border to Hendaye, take a 10 minutes ride on a train from the company Euskotren to Irun across the border (or walk, take a bus or a taxi, it’s really not far) and then continue by train. This is not documented anywhere and if you wish to go from Bordeaux to San Sebastiàn, you will get offered this stupid schedule:
    This looks even stupider when you visualize it on a map.
    Generally, this trip planner is not very good, it hides some options for no clear reasons sometimes (at some point, it showed us no options without reservation between Bordeaux and Nantes, while there exists one, for example) and it creates insecurity by being unreliable. It also does not show schedules for trains that are not in the pass, but that could be considered fair game.
  • Now that you are in Spain, normally, you can take FEVE and RENFE trains (they are now the same company, apparently) and travel along the coast, right? In practice, what we encountered was that we went to a local train station and, as there was nobody in the station itself (in Llanes), we were connected through a video booth to somebody who did not speak English or French (this is a constant in Spain, but for a video booth aimed at travellers, you could expect some foreign language support) and that just told us that using Interrail passes was impossible on FEVE, which we were counting on for travelling along the coast (we did that in 2005, without an Interrail pass and the lines were slow, but charming).
  • On top of that, finding the timetables online is a game of frustration. The websites of RENFE segments the information based on the types of trains, which obviously you don’t know before you search. I’ll let you look at the website here: RENFE timetables and I have been scratching my head a lot about why a given station was not presented on a list. A Spanish colleague of mine told me that this was a known joke/scandal in Spain. I even had to use Open Railway Map to be able to know if lines even existed (usually, they did). Google maps turned out to be the easiest way to get some information about timetables in the end but it mainly showed that buses were way more practical.

So, in the end, we did most of our travelling using buses from the company Alsa. They have decent apps and websites, low prices and connections from all the cities on the coast. Philosophically, I would have preferred to take trains from public companies than buses from private ones, but I have to say that the buses were easy to travel with. When we took trains, we paid for them too, since we were not sure that our passes would be accepted. It’s “impossible”, remember. Happily, we’ll cover the cost of the passes thanks to the travelling that we are doing in France.

Now, to finish on a good note, we had two great weeks, and I would heartily recommend visiting the region. We went to Bilbao, Llanes, Oviedo, Cudillero, Santander, San Sebastiàn and Irun, and they are all worth the trip, but Interrail is not the right option to do it.

Brussels is Cool

Brussels has gotten cooler and cooler throughout my life so far.

Many more interesting foreigners, nicer restaurants, more culture, more bikes and bike lanes, fewer cars, renovations everywhere, tons of fun and inclusive events.

And we’re entering a new era of rooftop bars everywhere, while I knew only one for years (the music museum roof one) and I’m all for it.

Video Express

We still have a video rental shop very close to our home here in Brussels: (and I can use my Playstation 4 to view these legacy things…).

We don’t go that often. It requires to walk! There AND back! That said, the movies or documentaries that I rented there have made a long lasting impact on me.

I for example strongly recommend:

None of Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video and Apple+ are offering these. I am not dissing these services, we use them all, but still, these offering are not as exhaustive as they look like.

Was very happy to attend a talk by one of my heroes, yesterday: Peter Piot

He had so much impact through ebola discovery, UNAIDS, COVID management, and so much more.

He contributed to save millions of lives, and yet, he’s very humble.


#projects entry #4: a Migrations Map

A visualization of the the Global Migrant Origin Database (previously located at migrationsmap . net , now squatted).

I made that map in a few evenings in 2011, manipulating SVG with Raphael.js.

At the time, libraries for vector maps were not very good yet, so, I built something myself. The code is my most starred project and was reused all over the place (e.g. in an Australian newspaper).

This introduced me a bit to #GIS, a field in which I’m more and more working these days and that I love. It happens that there a tons of stuff that is not mapped yet, like villages in DR #Congo, for example.

It’s a field where there is still room for tons of software improvements. Some features that you would think would be done by now, are actually still challenging, like getting tons of interactive shapes on a map in a browser.

Fun fact: the oldest software project that I remember was drawing a map of Belgium using . Logo.

I’m basically continuing that effort today.

#projects entry #3: Iaso

Iaso (it’s iaso, not laso, damn sans-serif fonts)

A product I started more than 3 years ago now.

Based on an open source form engine, ODK, we built an offline-working data collection tool that is structured around organisational hierarchies (think Province - Region - District).

It’s now used in Africa health financing, in multiple facility/location census activities (it turns out that the world is not fully mapped out yet) and at WHO for monitoring polio vaccination campaigns.

In the process of creating Iaso, we built managing tools for organisational hierarchies and their geo data, which is now referred to as a Georegistry.

We are now building the next step, when you have a data collection app and a curated list of locations: a tool to assign missions (e.g. household vaccinations) in large teams of teams and monitor the execution of these assignments.

We’re often trying to replace paper based efforts in this process called microplanning.

In 3 years, we went from a team of 2 on a 2 months project to having now 10 developers working on Iaso, thousands of users, and large institutions adopting the tool.

We are currently building the new beneficiary support tool for the World Food Programme with Iaso and it was just approved as a digital public good by the Digital Public Goods Alliance:

The jury is still out on this, but this might end up to be the most impactful project of my career.

Our current introduction slide deck:


The company:

#projects Entry #2: Matchador

In 2014, I made a little iOS game in a few evenings: Matchador.

Silly trailer here:…

I had a small article in a Belgian newspaper:…

It made 1500 downloads approximately and like 4€ of revenue through a little ad banner.

Definitely inspired by Flappy Bird’s strange success.

Mastodon link

#projects on Mastodon and my First Entry:

Like many people, in the context of Twitter seeming to be mismanaged by Elon Musk after the surprise acquisition, I went back to use Mastodon, and found quite some interesting activity there.

Simon Willison launched there the idea of explaining daily one of your projects (until you run out): read the idea here in his own words. I like this idea, so, I started a thread like that here but it felt strange to publish such information without putting it too on my blogs, also in the spirit of “owning you own words” as often advocated by people on Mastodon. So, here is the content of that thread about

In 2009, my partner, who’s a physician, explained to me how people in her service at the hospital had a monthly meeting (fight?) to assign the night shifts of the next month, and how there were always absentees at the meeting, or forgotten constraints leading to lots of planning changes. These were handled by a secretary for who it quickly became a full time job.

I offered to take a stab at a website to help with that process.

I met with the head of the service and offered to do for free a system where:

  • doctors could encode their day preferences
  • he could assign the shifts based on that and the history of previous months and then publish the planning
  • any change later on could be arranged by exchange between doctors through the site and directly published.

He accepted to be the guinea pig, I called the website after my twin daughters, Zoé and Fanny, and (now was born.

It was my first real web application, so I learnt a TON: web apps, Django, JQuery, transactional flows, email sending, logins, hosting (on at the time) and much more.

I did it for free because it was for my wife’s hospital, and a learning experience, but since then, 9 more hospitals joined (mainly due to doctors moving to another hospital and missing the solution) and I’m now charging 90€/month/service.

Something like 2500 doctors have used the system. It now makes enough money to justify that I spend a few days maintaining it every year. I just updated its deployment to a more recent Python version.

It’s probably the slowest growing saas you will ever meet, but frankly, I’m still fond of it. It’s been used by 600+ doctors over the last month, and it’s been fun over the years to meet some of them and see they eyes light up when I explain the name 🙂

It fits really well my goal in software: create useful, if simple, products.

Biking Evening in Cool Brussels

I have recently bought a cheap fixie from Decathlon for 200€. This thing is super light and silent, a pleasure to ride.

So, lately, I have been doing evening rides, discovering some places in Brussels.

Tonight, I went to Anderlecht and I discovered the Garden City of Moortebeek which is very charming. It is quite similar in spirit to the garden cities of Boitsfort

In the middle of the ride, I went through the neighboorhood of the Slaughterhouses of Anderlecht, which are clearly showing signs of improvements lately, with interesting new buildings.

On the trip back, I discovered nice picnic places on a closed bridge on top of the canal, at the Quai de Biestebrook, and just next to that, the awesome open air swimming pool called FLOW

I’ll definitely book a time to take a swim there this summer.

But it’s not over. Very close to all this, there is also the relatively new Urban Padel Club of Brussels, stuck between the canal, new buildings and some old industrial buildings. The atmosphere was super nice.

I’ll also want to give a try to that soon. I’ve been playing squash for years, and some tennis too. This seems like a nice variation on these formulas.

Conclusion: biking is cool. Brussels is cool.

Here are all my pictures for tonight, for those interested.

Back to film

Surprisingly, there is a new photo lab that has been open in Brussels: Mori Film Lab and they even have a dark room that you can access.

I discovered the lab thanks to Yannick who is sending his films from France, where he lives now, to receive scans by Dropbox. This made me feel like unshelving my beloved Minolta Dynax 5.

I never found the same pleasure in digital photography that I had with this camera with a 50mm, 1.7 lens. So, I was curious to see if I could find this pleasure back. And the answer is a resounding yes. I was blown away by the picture quality that is coming out of this now very cheap camera. These blurry backgrounds are magnificent. You can find a sample here, a picture of Nathan, one of my Taekwondo teachers from the school of Master Kim. Nathan is now using it as a profile picture 🎉

So, back to a film camera for now. It totally feels like the follow up of the return of vinyl disc, except that I really care about this.


I’m the CTO of Bluesquare now, since February.

If you had told me at 20 that I would become the CTO of a company specialized in software for public health, I would have been totally satisfied with the idea.

On top of that, the team is great, and the projects are numerous.

So, I consider myself a lucky guy.

The clipboard history feature is the best thing since sliced bread

For those who do not know, having a clipboard history is the best thing since sliced bread.

It is that little feature that allows you, after you made a few copy actions (ctrl+c on Windows or command-c on Mac), to choose any of the copied texts to paste it.

It looks like this when I use Alfred, a productivity tool on Mac, by pression option-command-c (the three buttons at once).

Just click on the text you want, and it will be copied wherever your cursor happened to be.

You can even search in your clipboard history for something you copied a few days before, as in this screenshot.

This feature is a huge time saver. There is a lot of alternative apps providing this feature and apparently, it’s now a standard part of Windows 10 too.

Remember all these times where you have to copy a few distinct cells from an Excel file to insert them in a report, and how you switch constantly between the documents? With this feature, you can just copy one by one all the cells that you want, switch to your report (only once!), and paste one by one the values you needed.

Or, are you looking for that email address you sent yesterday? Just open your clipboard history, type a few letters of the name of the person, and there you go, it’s here. You don’t have to open your emails, perform a search, it is just right there, and it very often allows you to stay focused on your current task.

So, you get it, I love it. You should use it. I know I sound like a cheesy salesman here, but that is how convinced I am.

I got a talk accepted at FOSDEM about Iaso, our software for Geo-aware Data Collection, Curation and Analysis.

I am very happy to have a talk accepted at FOSDEM in the geospatial track. My first ever complex program was drawing a map of belgium in Logo, and FOSDEM is one of the biggest conference for open source software, so this kinda feel like the achievement of a very long process :-)

I’ll update this post with a link to the FOSDEM site when it is updated, but in the mean time, here is the abstract of what will be a 45 minutes recorded video presentation followed by a Q&A:

Iaso is a platform created to support geo-rich data collection efforts, mainly in public health in emerging countries. The key feature that it supports is that any survey is linked to an organizational unit that is part of a canonical hierarchy. Each one of these org units can have a location and a territory. The mobile data collection tool can be used to enrich this hierarchy with additional GPS coordinates, names corrections, etc. which can then be validated by officials of the organizations in question through the web dashboard. This leads to continuous improvements of the geographic references available through the routines activities already planned (e.g. locating and registering health facilities while investigating malaria cases).

The tool has been used in multiple data collection efforts, notably in the domain of Performance Based Financing of health services in D.R. Congo, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria and is more and more used to compare multiple version of official organizational hierarchies when a canonical one needs to be rebuilt. We are for example working on such efforts to rebuild a school map for DRC with the NGO Cordaid. To help for this type of project, we provide location selection interfaces, multiple levels of audits and an API open to data scientists for analysis and mass edits.

This presentation will demo the main features of the platform, and give some context about its creation.

Spotting of our Tsetse flies Vector Control App in the Wild

I wrote that app last year. It comes with a web dashboard to follow activities of evaluation of the Tsetse flies population in regions in D.R.C. where sleeping sickness is endemic.

The screen that you see in the picture is a simple compass showing you where is a fly trap that you placed on the river a few days before. It’s a bit “Tsetse Flies Go”. People often do not have any network connection during this type of work, so, we went for something that works offline, without maps.

Focus VS Meetings

Sometimes, humour makes you think. Emily Kager is making Tiktoks mocking some of the absurdity seen in software engineering. She recently made this one about software engineers asked to focus on multiple things at once, which is obviously the opposite of focus.

Software engineers are often seen complaining about interruptions (say, being multitasked too much), how they break their flow and destroys their productivity. But, as also noted snarkily by Emily, this is nothing special about software, it applies to way more domains, and probably any creative tasks. Nevertheless, programmers widely profess how special they are and how their precious time should not be interrupted by pesky meetings(*).

This, in my mind, comes from this idea that the only important measure of productivity is how much features, tickets, or lines of codes you are treating per day. Once you stated that, it becomes obvious that this is not the only valuable productivity measure. Software is only valuable if it serves a purpose, and this purpose comes from people that you have to meet and discuss with.

Interrupting your work for meetings and quick chats is how you do that. And no, not all interactions can be done in writing. Some users just do not write so well for example, or need to show you their problem.

And yes, obviously, there can be too much meetings. I just think the tolerance to meetings of many engineers is way too low, and that they are consequently creating less value than they could.

(*)I do that too

P.S.: since writing this, Emily Kager did a second Tiktok on the subject, and it’s quite funny too:

I am working on this school map in D.R. Congo

“Together with the Congolese government, Cordaid is building an open-source database of more than 60.000 schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Building for the long run

The older I get, the clearer it seems that building for the long run is my path to happiness.

What does that includes?

  • taking care of my health. Sport is good.
  • investing in my couple. Maintaining relationships requires somme conscient effort too.
  • teaching the kids. Seeing them become good people is a great joy.
  • learning skills that do not deprecate. Professionnally, that means algorithms and db skills, for example. Personnally, it’s learning guitar, diy, cooking and so on, instead of maxing out my video games skills, for example, even though I never thought that my super Mario skills would still impress some people 30 years on.
  • continuously improving products that have already proven their usefulness. In my case, it’s and even though they might not seem like the fanciest things around. And I have good hopes for Iaso the product that we are building at work, also because it is going to be open sourced, which, I think, should largely increase the chances for it to still exist in ten years.

Skate achievement

For the record, I did my first skateboard ollie while moving today.

If that’s a midlife crisis, I’m actually enjoying that part which includes picking up guitar again, and starting a martial art (Taekwondo).

Infinite loop

I am yet again in this situation where I should program tools for others to do a task, but doing the task myself is quicker, and we are in a hurry. But even if it is faster to do it myself, it still takes time and delays the programming of the tools.

And when finally I will have programmed the tools, I will not be needed as much and will tackle a new task for which there is no tool yet …

It is an endless balancing act.

An infinite loop.

CV for Family Tech Support

Experience for more than 12 family members over 20 years:

  • Master in finding the cable that was not plugged.
  • PhD in being the only one able to navigate menus using the arrow buttons of the remote. (That there exists no other solution doesn’t mean they won’t try.)
  • Trustee of the recovery address of a legion of emails.
  • Knows what a file is.
  • Wizard-like competence to circumvent user experience failures. (“Yes, yes, you really need to slide your finger from the top of the screen to see a search bar!”)
  • Ability to suffer through 10+ configuration steps over the phone. Including the endless repetition of “No, no, this won’t delete anything”, “You don’t need that”, and the crowd pleasing “No, you don’t want to read the privacy policy”.
  • Uncanny power to spot what is actually a computer and needs to be rebooted, like TV sets and smart watches.
  • Knows what a backup is.
  • Privacy aware: can remove malware from your computer without snarky comments about the shady sites that you visit and more generally, can see things I shouldn’t while debugging your devices and keep it to myself.
  • Understands that charging your computer with your phone charger doesn’t work.
  • Doesn’t hate you, yet.

Book Review: The Elements of Style By Strunk and White

I just found out that the first edition of the Elements of Style, an excellent 50 pages book about good writing in English, is available for free online. It first covers efficiently the most common mistakes in English and then proceeds to the real nuggets: the elementary principles of composition

The book is available here:…

I cannot recommend it enough. It improved my writing immensely (although it can still be improved a lot).

If you do not have much time, just read these two principles:

I read the 4th edition, not this first one from 1918 and I have the feeling that it was better formatted, on top of using a more modern language, but on the other hand, you cannot beat free.

Being a positive voice

On social networks, especially Twitter, negativity is the most common mode. Mockery, bashing, critics, indignation. And I get it, the times are inducing this.

But I like to counterbalance negativity by just sending positive comments when I feel them. Just a few words to thank authors for sharing insightful information, or some marks of admiration.

I also do this very actively in various threads (on Twitter, in blog comments, on Reddit, Hacker News, Youtube and such …) where hateful comments are dominating and I do not agree (it happens a lot for example, on articles about immigration or biking in my local newspapers…). I do not want to leave the space to hate only. I want readers passing by and being discouraged to be able to find some comfort in knowing that not everybody is actually hating on this video, article or tweet.

This does not always come very naturally to me, we are usually more inclined to react when invaded by negativity, but I have often found that expressing a positive view of something reveals, through additional comments, that there exists a bunch of readers that were just waiting on a positive opinion so that they can just approve. It can completely change the vibe of a conversation, and that is a good reason to do it.

But I also do it because I do like to receive positive feedback and so, I can only imagine that sending some heartfelt one can only brighten someone else’s day.

P.S. : Maybe file this article under #platitudes?

Just a proof that I managed to stand on a surf board :-)

Yearly reminder that python -m SimpleHTTPServer will launch an HTTP server in your current directory and there is probably no faster way to do your little html/js/css tests (if they don’t fit directly into the console).

Follow @madewulf.