Cities tap university expertise to cure urban ills


They’re trying to make “big data” more than a catch phrase.

Houston skyline

They’re trying to make “big data” more than a catch phrase.

Cities and universities have long been partners in solving urban problems and improving city life. But many are also forming specific partnerships, in hopes the technical expertise of the latter can solve the infrastructure, services and engagement problems of the former.

They’re taking on a range of issues. Not all are data based, but many are.

In Pittsburgh, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics institute reduced travel times by 25 percent and emissions by 20 percent by improving traffic signals with smarter algorithms and cameras; the pilot program began in 2011 at 8 intersections and is expanding to 43 intersections.

And at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress studies the city’s available data sources for practical solutions to the city’s problems: its studies have proposed new city policies for building standards, street-level air pollution, and subway car design to increase rider comfort.

Two other city-university partnerships have been especially successful.

A Unifying Data Tool in Chicago

In Chicago, a partnership between the city, the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory created an easy-to-use, one-stop data hub called “Plenario.”

It’s an analysis site that takes various available data sets and transforms them into a useful format. Users can add additional data sets as well, so it now includes information from cities like Boston, San Francisco, Austin and Denver.

It connects not only public data from the city, but state, county, federal and privately maintained data sources into one visualization tool. The idea came from an open government session at the Aspen Institute, the site’s creator told the public radio station WBEZ.

“One of the frustrations I expressed was that it’s great that we’re opening this data and it’s great we’re being transparent, but I feared that all we were doing at that point was putting spreadsheets on the web,” said Brett Goldstein, senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s school for public policy, an interview with the radio station. “And I had the epiphany, what if we moved beyond the transparency play and beyond just spreadsheets of data on the web (and considered) how can we unify the data?”

With Plenario, residents can select a given place and time, and get a unified presentation of all available public information.

Draw a square in downtown Chicago, set time parameters for the month of May, click submit, and get immediate access to individual records and historic trends from data sets for building permits, crime, pot hole repairs, food inspections, business licenses and sanitation complaints, and more.

Sewage Overflows in South Bend

The South Bend-Notre Dame partnership took on one of a city’s most fundamental responsibilities: sewage.

Gary Gilot, South Bend’s public works director, told Notre Dame Magazine the city now has “the most instrumented sewer system anywhere in the world.”

The savings have been immense:

For residents, that means a future with fewer revolting cellar fiascoes, a cleaner Saint Joseph River, more than $100 million in savings on anticipated sewer expansion costs and a smaller risk
of expensive fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city has a combined sewer system: toilets and urban runoff flow together. Since the 1950s, the combined drainage goes to a wastewater treatment plant.

But during heavy rainfall, the city needed to provide room for overflow to head into the Saint Joseph River, lest it backup into residents’ basements. And the same thing can happen without rain, thanks to physical blockages in the sewer system.

That’s where the new smart system developed by the city, university and a local startup came into play. It installed 115 censors through the city’s 500 miles of pipes. Every five minutes the sensors send data on the status of the pipes in their vicinity, telling workers when water levels or pressure are rising.

Working on a university-devised algorithm, the sensors can even open and shut nine different valves to manage the system to take advantage of excess capacity in one area of the system while another area is overworked.

Andrew Keatts


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