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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Improving predictions of sea level rise for the next century

    When we think of climate change, one of the most dramatic images that comes to mind is the loss of glacial ice. As the Earth warms, these enormous rivers of ice become a casualty of the rising temperatures. But, as ice sheets retreat, they also become an important contributor to one the more dangerous outcomes of climate change: sea-level rise. At MIT, an interdisciplinary team of scientists is determined to improve sea level rise predictions for the next century, in part by taking a closer look at the physics of ice sheets.

    Last month, two research proposals on the topic, led by Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), were announced as finalists in the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative. Launched in July 2020, Climate Grand Challenges fielded almost 100 project proposals from collaborators across the Institute who heeded the bold charge: to develop research and innovations that will deliver game-changing advances in the world’s efforts to address the climate challenge.

    As finalists, Minchew and his collaborators from the departments of Urban Studies and Planning, Economics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Haystack Observatory, and external partners, received $100,000 to develop their research plans. A subset of the 27 proposals tapped as finalists will be announced next month, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    One goal of both Minchew proposals is to more fully understand the most fundamental processes that govern rapid changes in glacial ice, and to use that understanding to build next-generation models that are more predictive of ice sheet behavior as they respond to, and influence, climate change.

    “We need to develop more accurate and computationally efficient models that provide testable projections of sea-level rise over the coming decades. To do so quickly, we want to make better and more frequent observations and learn the physics of ice sheets from these data,” says Minchew. “For example, how much stress do you have to apply to ice before it breaks?”

    Currently, Minchew’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing group uses satellites to observe the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica primarily with interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). But the data are often collected over long intervals of time, which only gives them “before and after” snapshots of big events. By taking more frequent measurements on shorter time scales, such as hours or days, they can get a more detailed picture of what is happening in the ice.

    “Many of the key unknowns in our projections of what ice sheets are going to look like in the future, and how they’re going to evolve, involve the dynamics of glaciers, or our understanding of how the flow speed and the resistances to flow are related,” says Minchew.

    At the heart of the two proposals is the creation of SACOS, the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System. The group envisions developing solar-powered drones that can fly in the stratosphere for months at a time, taking more frequent measurements using a new lightweight, low-power radar and other high-resolution instrumentation. They also propose air-dropping sensors directly onto the ice, equipped with seismometers and GPS trackers to measure high-frequency vibrations in the ice and pinpoint the motions of its flow.

    How glaciers contribute to sea level rise

    Current climate models predict an increase in sea levels over the next century, but by just how much is still unclear. Estimates are anywhere from 20 centimeters to two meters, which is a large difference when it comes to enacting policy or mitigation. Minchew points out that response measures will be different, depending on which end of the scale it falls toward. If it’s closer to 20 centimeters, coastal barriers can be built to protect low-level areas. But with higher surges, such measures become too expensive and inefficient to be viable, as entire portions of cities and millions of people would have to be relocated.

    “If we’re looking at a future where we could get more than a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, then we need to know about that sooner rather than later so that we can start to plan and to do our best to prepare for that scenario,” he says.

    There are two ways glaciers and ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels: direct melting of the ice and accelerated transport of ice to the oceans. In Antarctica, warming waters melt the margins of the ice sheets, which tends to reduce the resistive stresses and allow ice to flow more quickly to the ocean. This thinning can also cause the ice shelves to be more prone to fracture, facilitating the calving of icebergs — events which sometimes cause even further acceleration of ice flow.

    Using data collected by SACOS, Minchew and his group can better understand what material properties in the ice allow for fracturing and calving of icebergs, and build a more complete picture of how ice sheets respond to climate forces. 

    “What I want is to reduce and quantify the uncertainties in projections of sea level rise out to the year 2100,” he says.

    From that more complete picture, the team — which also includes economists, engineers, and urban planning specialists — can work on developing predictive models and methods to help communities and governments estimate the costs associated with sea level rise, develop sound infrastructure strategies, and spur engineering innovation.

    Understanding glacier dynamics

    More frequent radar measurements and the collection of higher-resolution seismic and GPS data will allow Minchew and the team to develop a better understanding of the broad category of glacier dynamics — including calving, an important process in setting the rate of sea level rise which is currently not well understood.  

    “Some of what we’re doing is quite similar to what seismologists do,” he says. “They measure seismic waves following an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, or things of this nature and use those observations to better understand the mechanisms that govern these phenomena.”

    Air-droppable sensors will help them collect information about ice sheet movement, but this method comes with drawbacks — like installation and maintenance, which is difficult to do out on a massive ice sheet that is moving and melting. Also, the instruments can each only take measurements at a single location. Minchew equates it to a bobber in water: All it can tell you is how the bobber moves as the waves disturb it.

    But by also taking continuous radar measurements from the air, Minchew’s team can collect observations both in space and in time. Instead of just watching the bobber in the water, they can effectively make a movie of the waves propagating out, as well as visualize processes like iceberg calving happening in multiple dimensions.

    Once the bobbers are in place and the movies recorded, the next step is developing machine learning algorithms to help analyze all the new data being collected. While this data-driven kind of discovery has been a hot topic in other fields, this is the first time it has been applied to glacier research.

    “We’ve developed this new methodology to ingest this huge amount of data,” he says, “and from that create an entirely new way of analyzing the system to answer these fundamental and critically important questions.”  More

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    MIT Center for Real Estate launches the Asia Real Estate Initiative

    To appreciate the explosive urbanization taking place in Asia, consider this analogy: Every 40 days, a city the equivalent size of Boston is built in Asia. Of the $24.7 trillion real estate investment opportunities predicted by 2030 in emerging cities, $17.8 trillion (72 percent) will be in Asia. While this growth is exciting to the real estate industry, it brings with it the attendant social and environmental issues.

    To promote a sustainable and innovative approach to this growth, leadership at the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT CRE) recently established the Asia Real Estate Initiative (AREI), which aims to become a platform for industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and the academic community to find solutions to the practical concerns of real estate development across these countries.

    “Behind the creation of this initiative is the understanding that Asia is a living lab for the study of future global urban development,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

    An investment in cities of the future

    One of the areas in AREI’s scope of focus is connecting sustainability and technology in real estate.

    “We believe the real estate sector should work cooperatively with the energy, science, and technology sectors to solve the climate challenges,” says Richard Lester, the Institute’s associate provost for international activities. “AREI will engage academics and industry leaders, nongovernment organizations, and civic leaders globally and in Asia, to advance sharing knowledge and research.”

    In its effort to understand how trends and new technologies will impact the future of real estate, AREI has received initial support from a prominent alumnus of MIT CRE who wishes to remain anonymous. The gift will support a cohort of researchers working on innovative technologies applicable to advancing real estate sustainability goals, with a special focus on the global and Asia markets. The call for applications is already under way, with AREI seeking to collaborate with scholars who have backgrounds in economics, finance, urban planning, technology, engineering, and other disciplines.

    “The research on real estate sustainability and technology could transform this industry and help invent global real estate of the future,” says Professor Siqi Zheng, faculty director of MIT CRE and AREI faculty chair. “The pairing of real estate and technology often leads to innovative and differential real estate development strategies such as buildings that are green, smart, and healthy.”

    The initiative arrives at a key time to make a significant impact and cement a leadership role in real estate development across Asia. MIT CRE is positioned to help the industry increase its efficiency and social responsibility, with nearly 40 years of pioneering research in the field. Zheng, an established scholar with expertise on urban growth in fast-urbanizing regions, is the former president of the Asia Real Estate Society and sits on the Board of American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association. Her research has been supported by international institutions including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

    “The researchers in AREI are now working on three interrelated themes: the future of real estate and live-work-play dynamics; connecting sustainability and technology in real estate; and innovations in real estate finance and business,” says Zheng.

    The first theme has already yielded a book — “Toward Urban Economic Vibrancy: Patterns and Practices in Asia’s New Cities” — recently published by SA+P Press.

    Engaging thought leaders and global stakeholders

    AREI also plans to collaborate with counterparts in Asia to contribute to research, education, and industry dialogue to meet the challenges of sustainable city-making across the continent and identify areas for innovation. Traditionally, real estate has been a very local business with a lengthy value chain, according to Zhengzhen Tan, director of AREI. Most developers focused their career on one particular product type in one particular regional market. AREI is working to change that dynamic.

    “We want to create a cross-border dialogue within Asia and among Asia, North America, and European leaders to exchange knowledge and practices,” says Tan. “The real estate industry’s learning costs are very high compared to other sectors. Collective learning will reduce the cost of failure and have a significant impact on these global issues.”

    The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow shed additional light on environmental commitments being made by governments in Asia. With real estate representing 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Asian real estate market is undergoing an urgent transformation to deliver on this commitment.

    “One of the most pressing calls is to get to net-zero emissions for real estate development and operation,” says Tan. “Real estate investors and developers are making short- and long-term choices that are locking in environmental footprints for the ‘decisive decade.’ We hope to inspire developers and investors to think differently and get out of their comfort zone.” More

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    Exploring the human stories behind the data

    Shaking in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffs digging into his wrists, Brian Williams was overwhelmed with fear. He had been pulled over, but before he was asked for his name, license, or registration, a police officer ordered him out of his car and into back of the police cruiser, saying into his radio, “Black male detained.” The officer’s explanation for these actions was: “for your safety and mine.”

    Williams walked away from the experience with two tickets, a pair of bruised wrists, and a desire to do everything in his power to prevent others from experiencing the utter powerlessness he had felt.

    Now an MIT senior majoring in biological engineering and minoring in Black studies, Williams has continued working to empower his community. Through experiences in and out of the classroom, he has leveraged his background in bioengineering to explore interests in public health and social justice, specifically looking at how the medical sector can uplift and support communities of color.

    Williams grew up in a close-knit family and community in Broward County, Florida, where he found comfort in the routine of Sunday church services, playing outside with friends, and cookouts on the weekends. Broward County was home to him — a home he felt deeply invested in and indebted to.

    “It takes a village. The Black community has invested a lot in me, and I have a lot to invest back in it,” he says.

    Williams initially focused on STEM subjects at MIT, but in his sophomore year, his interests in exploring data science and humanities research led him to an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project in the Department of Political Science. Working with Professor Ariel White, he analyzed information on incarceration and voting rights, studied the behavior patterns of police officers, and screened 911 calls to identify correlations between how people described events to how the police responded to them.

    In the summer before his junior year, Williams also joined MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, where he worked as a researcher for the Missing Data Project, which uses both journalism and data science to visualize statistics and humanize the people behind the numbers. As the project’s name suggests, there is often much to be learned from seeking out data that aren’t easily available. Using datasets and interviews describing how the pandemic affected Black communities, Williams and a team of researchers created a series called the Color of Covid, which told the stories behind the grim statistics on race and the pandemic.

    The following year, Williams undertook a research-and-development internship with the biopharmaceutical company Amgen in San Francisco, working on protein engineering to combat autoimmune diseases. Because this work was primarily in the lab, focusing on science-based applications, he saw it as an opportunity to ask himself: “Do I want to dedicate my life to this area of bioengineering?” He found the issue of social justice to be more compelling.

    At the same time, Williams was drawn toward tackling problems the local Black community was experiencing related to the pandemic. He found himself thinking deeply about how to educate the public, address disparities in case rates, and, above all, help people.

    Working through Amgen’s Black Employee Resource Group and its Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Team, Williams crafted a proposal, which the company adopted, for addressing Covid-19 vaccination misinformation in Black and Brown communities in San Mateo and San Francisco County. He paid special attention to how to frame vaccine hesitancy among members of these communities, understanding that a longstanding history of racism in scientific discovery and medicine led many Black and Brown people to distrust the entire medical industry.

    “Trying to meet people where they are is important,” Williams says.

    This experience reinforced the idea for Williams that he wanted to do everything in his power to uplift the Black community.

    “I think it’s only right that I go out and I shine bright because it’s not easy being Black. You know, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” he says.

    As the current political action co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union (BSU), Williams also works to inspire change on campus, promoting and participating in events that uplift the BSU. During his Amgen internship, he also organized the MIT Black History Month Takeover Series, which involved organizing eight events from February through the beginning of spring semester. These included promotions through social media and virtual meetings for students and faculty. For his leadership, he received the “We Are Family” award from the BSU executive board.

    Williams prioritizes community in everything he does, whether in the classroom, at a campus event, or spending time outside in local communities of color around Boston.

    “The things that really keep me going are the stories of other people,” says Williams, who is currently applying to a variety of postgraduate programs. After receiving MIT endorsement, he applied to the Rhodes and Marshall Fellowships; he also plans to apply to law school with a joint master’s degree in public health and policy.

    Ultimately, Williams hopes to bring his fight for racial justice to the policy level, looking at how a long, ongoing history of medical racism has led marginalized communities to mistrust current scientific endeavors. He wants to help bring about new legislation to fix old systems which disproportionately harm communities of color. He says he aims to be “an engineer of social solutions, one who reaches deep into their toolbox of social justice, pulling the levers of activism, advocacy, democracy, and legislation to radically change our world — to improve our social institutions at the root and liberate our communities.” While he understands this is a big feat, he sees his ambition as an asset.

    “I’m just another person with huge aspirations, and an understanding that you have to go get it if you want it,” he says. “You feel me? At the end of the day, this is just the beginning of my story. And I’m grateful to everyone in my life that’s helping me write it. Tap in.” More

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    One autonomous taxi, please

    If you don’t get seasick, an autonomous boat might be the right mode of transportation for you. 

    Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory, together with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) in the Netherlands, have now created the final project in their self-navigating trilogy: a full-scale, fully autonomous robotic boat that’s ready to be deployed along the canals of Amsterdam. 

    “Roboat” has come a long way since the team first started prototyping small vessels in the MIT pool in late 2015. Last year, the team released their half-scale, medium model that was 2 meters long and demonstrated promising navigational prowess. 

    This year, two full-scale Roboats were launched, proving more than just proof-of-concept: these craft can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure. 

    The boat looks futuristic — it’s a sleek combination of black and gray with two seats that face each other, with orange block letters on the sides that illustrate the makers’ namesakes. It’s a fully electrical boat with a battery that’s the size of a small chest, enabling up to 10 hours of operation and wireless charging capabilities. 

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    Autonomous Roboats set sea in the Amsterdam canals and can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure.

    “We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.” 

    To swiftly navigate the bustling waters of Amsterdam, Roboat needs a meticulous fusion of proper navigation, perception, and control software. 

    Using GPS, the boat autonomously decides on a safe route from A to B, while continuously scanning the environment to  avoid collisions with objects, such as bridges, pillars, and other boats.

    To autonomously determine a free path and avoid crashing into objects, Roboat uses lidar and a number of cameras to enable a 360-degree view. This bundle of sensors is referred to as the “perception kit” and lets Roboat understand its surroundings. When the perception picks up an unseen object, like a canoe, for example, the algorithm flags the item as “unknown.” When the team later looks at the collected data from the day, the object is manually selected and can be tagged as “canoe.” 

    The control algorithms — similar to ones used for self-driving cars — function a little like a coxswain giving orders to rowers, by translating a given path into instructions toward the “thrusters,” which are the propellers that help the boat move.  

    If you think the boat feels slightly futuristic, its latching mechanism is one of its most impressive feats: small cameras on the boat guide it to the docking station, or other boats, when they detect specific QR codes. “The system allows Roboat to connect to other boats, and to the docking station, to form temporary bridges to alleviate traffic, as well as floating stages and squares, which wasn’t possible with the last iteration,” says Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the Senseable City Lab. 

    Roboat, by design, is also versatile. The team created a universal “hull” design — that’s the part of the boat that rides both in and on top of the water. While regular boats have unique hulls, designed for specific purposes, Roboat has a universal hull design where the base is the same, but the top decks can be switched out depending on the use case.

    “As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city. However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching level A autonomy is desirable,” says Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. “Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”

    The next step for Roboat is to pilot the technology in the public domain. “The historic center of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics,” says Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute. 

    Previous iterations of Roboat have been presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The boats will be unveiled on Oct. 28 in the waters of Amsterdam. 

    Ratti, Rus, Duarte, and Dijk worked on the project alongside Andrew Whittle, MIT’s Edmund K Turner Professor in civil and environmental engineering; Dennis Frenchman, professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning; and Ynse Deinema of AMS Institute. The full team can be found at Roboat’s website. The project is a joint collaboration with AMS Institute. The City of Amsterdam is a project partner. More

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    Deep learning helps predict traffic crashes before they happen

    Today’s world is one big maze, connected by layers of concrete and asphalt that afford us the luxury of navigation by vehicle. For many of our road-related advancements — GPS lets us fire fewer neurons thanks to map apps, cameras alert us to potentially costly scrapes and scratches, and electric autonomous cars have lower fuel costs — our safety measures haven’t quite caught up. We still rely on a steady diet of traffic signals, trust, and the steel surrounding us to safely get from point A to point B. 

    To get ahead of the uncertainty inherent to crashes, scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence developed a deep learning model that predicts very high-resolution crash risk maps. Fed on a combination of historical crash data, road maps, satellite imagery, and GPS traces, the risk maps describe the expected number of crashes over a period of time in the future, to identify high-risk areas and predict future crashes. 

    Typically, these types of risk maps are captured at much lower resolutions that hover around hundreds of meters, which means glossing over crucial details since the roads become blurred together. These maps, though, are 5×5 meter grid cells, and the higher resolution brings newfound clarity: The scientists found that a highway road, for example, has a higher risk than nearby residential roads, and ramps merging and exiting the highway have an even higher risk than other roads. 

    “By capturing the underlying risk distribution that determines the probability of future crashes at all places, and without any historical data, we can find safer routes, enable auto insurance companies to provide customized insurance plans based on driving trajectories of customers, help city planners design safer roads, and even predict future crashes,” says MIT CSAIL PhD student Songtao He, a lead author on a new paper about the research. 

    Even though car crashes are sparse, they cost about 3 percent of the world’s GDP and are the leading cause of death in children and young adults. This sparsity makes inferring maps at such a high resolution a tricky task. Crashes at this level are thinly scattered — the average annual odds of a crash in a 5×5 grid cell is about one-in-1,000 — and they rarely happen at the same location twice. Previous attempts to predict crash risk have been largely “historical,” as an area would only be considered high-risk if there was a previous nearby crash. 

    The team’s approach casts a wider net to capture critical data. It identifies high-risk locations using GPS trajectory patterns, which give information about density, speed, and direction of traffic, and satellite imagery that describes road structures, such as the number of lanes, whether there’s a shoulder, or if there’s a large number of pedestrians. Then, even if a high-risk area has no recorded crashes, it can still be identified as high-risk, based on its traffic patterns and topology alone. 

    To evaluate the model, the scientists used crashes and data from 2017 and 2018, and tested its performance at predicting crashes in 2019 and 2020. Many locations were identified as high-risk, even though they had no recorded crashes, and also experienced crashes during the follow-up years.

    “Our model can generalize from one city to another by combining multiple clues from seemingly unrelated data sources. This is a step toward general AI, because our model can predict crash maps in uncharted territories,” says Amin Sadeghi, a lead scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and an author on the paper. “The model can be used to infer a useful crash map even in the absence of historical crash data, which could translate to positive use for city planning and policymaking by comparing imaginary scenarios.” 

    The dataset covered 7,500 square kilometers from Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Boston. Among the four cities, L.A. was the most unsafe, since it had the highest crash density, followed by New York City, Chicago, and Boston. 

    “If people can use the risk map to identify potentially high-risk road segments, they can take action in advance to reduce the risk of trips they take. Apps like Waze and Apple Maps have incident feature tools, but we’re trying to get ahead of the crashes — before they happen,” says He. 

    He and Sadeghi wrote the paper alongside Sanjay Chawla, research director at QCRI, and MIT professors of electrical engineering and computer science Mohammad Alizadeh, ​​Hari Balakrishnan, and Sam Madden. They will present the paper at the 2021 International Conference on Computer Vision. More

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    Finding common ground in Malden

    When disparate groups convene around a common goal, exciting things can happen.

    That is the inspiring story unfolding in Malden, Massachusetts, a city of about 60,000 — nearly half people of color — where a new type of community coalition continues to gain momentum on its plan to build a climate-resilient waterfront park along its river. The Malden River Works (MRW) project, recipient of the inaugural Leventhal City Prize, is seeking to connect to a contiguous greenway network where neighboring cities already have visitors coming to their parks and enjoying recreational boating. More important, the MRW is changing the model for how cities address civic growth, community engagement, equitable climate resilience, and environmental justice.                                                                                        

    The MRW’s steering committee consists of eight resident leaders of color, a resident environmental advocate, and three city representatives. One of the committee’s primary responsibilities is providing direction to the MRW’s project team, which includes urban designers, watershed and climate resilience planners, and a community outreach specialist. MIT’s Kathleen Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach Education and Engagement Core at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), and Marie Law Adams MArch ’06, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), serve on the project team.

    “This governance structure is somewhat unusual,” says Adams. “More typical is having city government as the primary decision-maker. It is important that one of the first things our team did was build a steering committee that is the decision maker on this project.”

    Evan Spetrini ’18 is the senior planner and policy manager for the Malden Redevelopment Authority and sits on both the steering committee and project team. He says placing the decision-making power with the steering committee and building it to be representative of marginalized communities was intentional. 

    “Changing that paradigm of power and decision-making in planning processes was the way we approached social resilience,” says Spetrini. “We have always intended this project to be a model for future planning projects in Malden.”

    This model ushers in a new history chapter for a city founded in 1640.

    Located about six miles north of Boston, Malden was home to mills and factories that used the Malden River for power, and a site for industrial waste over the last two centuries. Decades after the city’s industrial decline, there is little to no public access to the river. Many residents were not even aware there was a river in their city. Before the project was under way, Vandiver initiated a collaborative effort to evaluate the quality of the river’s water. Working with the Mystic River Watershed Association, Gradient Corporation, and CEHS, water samples were tested and a risk analysis conducted.

    “Having the study done made it clear the public could safely enjoy boating on the water,” says Vandiver. “It was a breakthrough that allowed people to see the river as an amenity.”

    A team effort

    Marcia Manong had never seen the river, but the Malden resident was persuaded to join the steering committee with the promise the project would be inclusive and of value to the community. Manong has been involved with civic engagement most of her life in the United States and for 20 years in South Africa.

    “It wasn’t going to be a marginalized, token-ized engagement,” says Manong. “It was clear to me that they were looking for people that would actually be sitting at the table.”

    Manong agreed to recruit additional people of color to join the team. From the beginning, she says, language was a huge barrier, given that nearly half of Malden’s residents do not speak English at home. Finding the translation efforts at their public events to be inadequate, the steering committee directed more funds to be made available for translation in several languages when public meetings began being held over Zoom this past year.

    “It’s unusual for most cities to spend this money, but our population is so diverse that we require it,” says Manong. “We have to do it. If the steering committee wasn’t raising this issue with the rest of the team, perhaps this would be overlooked.”

    Another alteration the steering committee has made is how the project engages with the community. While public attendance at meetings had been successful before the pandemic, Manong says they are “constantly working” to reach new people. One method has been to request invitations to attend the virtual meetings of other organizations to keep them apprised of the project.

    “We’ve said that people feel most comfortable when they’re in their own surroundings, so why not go where the people are instead of trying to get them to where we are,” says Manong.

    Buoyed by the $100,000 grant from MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) in 2019, the project team worked with Malden’s Department of Public Works, which is located along the river, to redesign its site and buildings and to study how to create a flood-resistant public open space as well as an elevated greenway path, connecting with other neighboring cities’ paths. The park’s plans also call for 75 new trees to reduce urban heat island effect, open lawn for gathering, and a dock for boating on the river.

    “The storm water infrastructure in these cities is old and isn’t going to be able to keep up with increased precipitation,” says Adams. “We’re looking for ways to store as much water as possible on the DPW site so we can hold it and release it more gradually into the river to avoid flooding.”

    The project along the 2.3-mile-long river continues to receive attention. Recently, the city of Malden was awarded a 2021 Accelerating Climate Resilience Grant of more than $50,000 from the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Barr Foundation to support the project. Last fall, the project was awarded a $150,015 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant. Both awards are being directed to fund engineering work to refine the project’s design.

    “We — and in general, the planning profession — are striving to create more community empowerment in decision-making as to what happens to their community,” says Spetrini. “Putting the power in the community ensures that it’s actually responding to the needs of the community.”

    Contagious enthusiasm

    Manong says she’s happy she got involved with the project and believes the new governance structure is making a difference.

    “This project is definitely engaging with communities of color in a manner that is transformative and that is looking to build a long-lasting power dynamic built on trust,” she says. “It’s a new energized civic engagement and we’re making that happen. It’s very exciting.”

    Spetrini finds the challenge of creating an open space that’s publicly accessible and alongside an active work site professionally compelling.

    “There is a way to preserve the industrial employment base while also giving the public greater access to this natural resource,” he says. “It has real implications for other communities to follow this type of model.”

    Despite the pandemic this past year, enthusiasm for the project is palpable. For Spetrini, a Malden resident, it’s building “the first significant piece of what has been envisioned as the Malden River Greenway.” Adams sees the total project as a way to build social resilience as well as garnering community interest in climate resilience. For Vandiver, it’s the implications for improved community access.

    “From a health standpoint, everybody has learned from Covid-19 that the health aspects of walking in nature are really restorative,” says Vandiver. “Creating greater green space gives more attention to health issues. These are seemingly small side benefits, but they’re huge for mental health benefits.”

    Leventhal City Prize’s next cycle

    The Leventhal City Prize was established by the LCAU to catalyze innovative, interdisciplinary urban design, and planning approaches worldwide to improve both the environment and the quality of life for residents. Support for the LCAU was provided by the Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Family Foundation and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation.

    “We’re thrilled with inaugural recipients of the award and the extensive work they’ve undertaken that is being held up as an exemplary model for others to learn from,” says Sarah Williams, LCAU director and a professor in DUSP. “Their work reflects the prize’s intent. We look forward to catalyzing these types of collaborative partnership in the next prize cycle.”

    Submissions for the next cycle of the Leventhal City Prize will open in early 2022.    More

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    Study finds lockdowns effective at reducing travel in Sierra Leone

    Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have used data on people’s movements to inform strategies for containing the spread of the virus. In Europe and the United States, for example, contact-tracing apps have used Bluetooth signals in smartphones to alert people when they’ve spent time near app users who have tested positive for Covid-19. 

    But how can governments make evidence-based decisions in countries where such fine-grained data isn’t available? In recent findings, MIT researchers, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s government, use cell tower records in Sierra Leone to show that people were traveling less during lockdowns. “When the government implemented novel three-day lockdowns, there was a dual aim to reduce virus spread and also limit social impacts, like increased hunger or food insecurity,” says Professor Lily L. Tsai, MIT Governance Lab’s (MIT GOV/LAB) director and founder. “We wanted to know if shorter lockdowns would be successful.”   

    The research was conducted by MIT GOV/LAB and MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), in partnership with Sierra Leone’s Directorate for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSTI) and Africell, a wireless service provider. The findings will be published as a chapter in the book “Urban Informatics and Future Cities,” a selection of research submitted to the 2021 Computational Urban Planning and Urban Management conference. 

    A proxy for mobility: cell tower records

    Any time someone’s cellphone sends or receives a text, or makes or receives a call, the nearest cell tower is pinged. The tower collects some data (call-detail records, or CDRs), including the date and time of the event and the phone number. By tracking which towers a certain (anonymized) phone number pings, the researchers could approximately measure how much someone was moving around.  

    These measurements showed that, on average, people were traveling less during lockdowns than before lockdowns. Professor Sarah Williams, CDDL’s director, says the analysis also revealed frequently traveled routes, which “allow the government to develop region-specific lockdowns.” 

    While more fine-grained GPS data from smartphones paint a more accurate picture of movement, “there just isn’t a systematic effort in many developing countries to build the infrastructure to collect this data,” says Innocent Ndubuisi-Obi Jr., an MIT GOV/LAB research associate. “In many cases, the closest thing we can use as a proxy for mobility is CDR data.”

    Measuring the effectiveness of lockdowns

    Sierra Leone’s government imposed the three-day lockdown, which required people stay in their homes, in April 2020. A few days after the lockdown ended, a two-week inter-district travel ban began. “Analysis of aggregated CDRs was the quickest means to understanding mobility prior to and during lockdowns,” says Michala Mackay, DSTI’s director and chief operating officer. 

    The data MIT and DSTI received was anonymized — an essential part of ensuring the privacy of the individuals whose data was used. 

    Extracting meaning from the data, though, presented some challenges. Only about 75 percent of adults in Sierra Leone own cellphones, and people sometimes share phones. So the towers pinged by a specific phone might actually represent the movement of several people, and not everyone’s movement will be captured by cell towers. 

    Furthermore, some districts in Sierra Leone have significantly fewer towers than others. When the data were collected, Falaba, a rural district in the northeast, had only five towers, while over 100 towers were clustered in and around Freetown, the capital. In areas with very few towers, it’s harder to detect changes in how much people are traveling. 

    Since each district had a unique tower distribution, the researchers looked at each district separately, establishing a baseline for average distance traveled in each district before the lockdowns, then measuring how movement compared to this average during lockdowns. They found that travel to other districts declined in every district, by as much as 72 percent and by as little as 16 percent. Travel within districts also dropped in all but one district. 

    This map shows change in average distance traveled per trip to other districts in Sierra Leone in 2020.

    Image courtesy of the MIT GOV/LAB and CDDL.

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    Lockdowns have greater costs in poorer areas

    While movement did decline in all districts, the effect was less dramatic in poorer, more sparsely populated areas. This finding was to be expected; other studies have shown that poorer people often can’t afford to comply with lockdowns, since they can’t take time off work or need to travel to get food. Evidence showing how lockdowns are less effective in poorer areas highlights the importance of distributing resources to poorer areas during crises, which could both provide support during a particularly challenging time and make it less costly for people to comply with social distancing measures. 

    “In low-income communities that demonstrated moderate or low compliance, one of the most common reasons why people left their homes was to search for water,” says Mackay. “A policy takeaway was that lockdowns should only be implemented in extreme cases and for no longer than three days at a time.”

    Throughout the project, the researchers collaborated intimately with DSTI. “This meant government officials learned along with the MIT researchers and added crucial local knowledge,” says Williams. “We hope this model can be replicated elsewhere — especially during crises.” 

    The researchers will be developing an MITx course teaching government officials and MIT students how to collaboratively use CDR data during crises, with a focus on how to do the analysis in a way that protects people’s privacy.

    Ndubuisi-Obi Jr. also has led a training on CDR analysis for Sierra Leonean government officials and has written a guide on how policymakers can use CDRs safely and effectively. “Some of these data sets will help us answer really important policy questions, and we have to balance that with the privacy risks,” he says. More