What are the biggest problems facing Houston? What tools do we have to solve them? Rice University and the City of Houston have joined forces to create Houston Solutions Lab, building on other recent efforts to bring together research and policy to help answer those questions.

Mission

The Houston Solutions Lab (HSL) aims to find innovative ways of making the city work better. The hope is to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing Houston, leveraging city leaders’ inside knowledge of city operations and Rice University researchers’ analytical capacity.

The partnership allows city departments and researchers to work together toward common goals on critical issues, including flood prevention and public safety. Intended to bridge what is often a gap between research done on campuses and the needs of cities, HSL also aligns research and policy timelines for better outcomes.

2015-2016 Projects

Project: Bike Share in the Sunbelt
PI: Kyle Shelton
Department: Kinder Institute for Urban Research
COH Partner: Mayor's Office of Innovation
Description: Using data provided by Bcycle, which operates Houston’s bikeshare system, Rice University researchers conducted an analysis of bikeshare usage in Sunbelt cities. Houston trends were compared to trends in Austin, Fort Worth, and Denver. This research assisted the City of Houston and Bcycle in decisions about future locations of bikeshare stations as well as improved management and operation of the bikeshare system.

Project: Impact of Street Lights on Neighborhoods
PI: Heather O’Connell
Department: Kinder Institute for Urban Research
COH Partner: Finance Department
Description: Using GIS data about the location of street lights and billing data about streetlight usage, Rice University researchers mapped street lights in the City of Houston and also mapped and analyzed patterns reflecting when streetlights are in use or “out”. The streetlight data was examined against data associated with neighborhood characteristics, crime, traffic accidents, and other factors. This research was used to inform the city’s decisions about where to locate new streetlights and how to prioritize streetlight repair.

Project: Impact of Housing Change on Neighborhoods
PI: Kyle Shelton
Department: Kinder Institute for Urban Research
COH Partner: Open Data and and Innovation
Description: There is significant anecdotal evidence that in Houston, as in other large cities, families of modest means are being displaced by “gentrification” in close-in neighborhoods and perhaps being pushed to locations farther away from jobs and transit. Using city and county permit data on construction, demolition, and substandard housing, Rice University researchers documented the characteristics of housing and housing change in Houston neighborhoods, comparing them to current and changing neighborhood demographic characteristics. This research was used to inform housing and infrastructure policy in the City of Houston.

2017-2018 Projects

Project: Small-Scale Applications of Distributed Hydrologic Model Vflo® to Characterize Impacts from Mitigation Projects and Site-scale Re-development on Street-Level Flooding
PI: Philip B. Bedient
Team: Samuel Brody, Andrew Juan, Russell Blessing, Avantika Gori
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
COH Partner: Chief Resilience Officer
Description: Philip Bedient and his project team identified areas vulnerable to inundation following flooding in Houston and produced an analysis that determined that 25 percent of flood insurance claims from 1999 to 2009 were located outside of 100-year flood plains. The team used hydrological modeling to document street-flooding in Houston and identified problem areas. Their goal was to assess if mitigation techniques used throughout the city were successful.

Project: Coupled Flood Alert System and Infrastructure Risk Modeling for White Oak Bayou
PI(s): Jamie Padgett and Philip B. Bedient
Team: Andrew Juan, Meera Gadit, Pranavesh Panakal
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
COH Partner: Chief Resilience Officer
Description: The project team, led by Jamie Padgett, developed and implemented a radar-based flood alert system as a flood mitigation tool for the City of Houston and to inform infrastructure risk modeling, focusing on White Oak Bayou. The proposed system aimed to provide real-time visualizations of critical locations and/or inundated areas during storm events. It’s intended to alert the public in real time as a flood event unfolds and to provide better information pre-event on potential roadways that might become inundated and the challenges this poses for emergency response.

2018-2019 Projects

Project: Scalable and Robust Prototype of Sensor Network for Real-Time Street Level Flood Measurement
PI: Gary Woods
Team: Frank Li, Devika Subramanian, Leonardo Duenas-Osorio
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
COH Partners: Chief Resilience Officer; Office of Emergency Management
Description: Gary Woods and team from the civil and environmental engineering department created low-cost flood sensors that were tested on Rice’s campus in spring 2019. The team created relatively low-price sensors and pitched the system to several entities interested in having real-time street-level flooding information.

Project: Measuring Flooding with the Houston Fire Department
PI(s): Bob Stein and Rick Wilson
Department: Political Science
COH Partners: Houston Fire Department; COH Storm Water Action Team
Description: Bob Stein and Rick Wilson conducted two studies about flooding and local knowledge/perspective. The first included a survey that collected information from the Houston Fire Department about flood prone areas and compared that individual knowledge to larger flood models. The project team found that firefighters were very knowledgeable about the location of flooding. The second survey solicited opinions about the city’s Storm Water Action Team interventions in various communities. The findings of both surveys were shared with the city in early March 2020.

Project: Sustainable Fleet Vehicle Options for the City of Houston
PI(s): Dan Cohan and Laura Schaefer
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
COH Partner: Chief Sustainability Officer
Description: Dan Cohan and Laura Schaefer completed a report about the transition of Houston’s fleet to electric vehicles. The report laid out a number of scenarios and paths for a transition and described potential savings. The research team presented the report to the Transportation, Technology, and Innovation Committee of the Houston City Council. The Chief Sustainability Officer for the city implemented elements of their suggested path.

2019-2020 Projects

Project: Pollution Event Decision Support Tool
PI(s): Kathy Ensor and Marie Lynn Miranda
Team: Joshua Tootoo, Dmitry Messon
Departments: Statistics; Urban Data Platform
COH Partner: Health Department
Description: This project, which was part of a larger initiative to develop an end-to-end decision support tool to gather and communicate information related to extreme air pollution events, focused on creating a new algorithm for synthesizing observed pollutant data. This scientific algorithm for integrating a wide range of pollution measurements taken during a significant air quality event was embedded in the team’s Automated Air Pollution Data Smart Mapping Platform. This information can inform the City’s deployment and placement of monitoring equipment and city-and individual-initiated mitigation measures.

Project: How Can a Human Factors Approach to System Design Make the Houston METRO Rail Safer
PI(s): Philip Kortum and Claudia Ziegler Acemyan
Team: Graduate and undergraduate students from (a) Human Factors and (b) Methods in Human Factors classes offered in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University
Department: Psychology
COH Partner: METRO
Description: Using a data-driven, human-centered strategy for analysis and design, the project team identified problems with Houston’s METRO Rail—especially with regard to its interactions with drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists on the street. The team then proposed concrete, data-driven solutions that take into account human cognitive capabilities and can reduce human error and make Houston’s streets safer.

ProjectData-Driven Campaign Design and Evaluation for Census 2020: Get Out the Count (GOTC) in Houston
PI: Melissa Marschall
Team: Jenifer Bratter, Anshumali Shrivastava, Ana Mac Naught
Departments: Political Science; Sociology
COH Partners: Planning Department; Houston in Action (nonprofit organization)
Description: Led by Melissa Marschall and Jenifer Bratter, the project team worked with Harris County’s Complete Count Committee, Houston in Action (HiA), to identify hard-to-count populations and design data-driven Get Out the Count (GOTC) outreach and campaign strategies that Houston in Action’s member and affiliated groups implemented in their field operations. They also designed and implemented field experiments to test the effectiveness of different messaging and outreach strategies across different communities in Houston. Finally, the team collaborated with Houston in Action to conduct a systematic evaluation of the GOTC efforts of Harris County’s Complete Count Committee.

Issues