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Sensor Network Captures City Data

By Oak Ridge National Laboratory

October 31, 2017

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Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering with the city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., to develop UrbanSense, a comprehensive sensor network and real-time visualization platform that helps cities evaluate trends in urban activity.

The project, initiated by ORNL's Urban Dynamics Institute, centers on addressing cities' real-world challenges through applied urban science.

"Preparing for urban growth and planning for future infrastructure development and resource demands are global problems, but cities need ways to be proactive on a local level," says UDI director Budhendra Bhaduri. "Our goal in bringing science to cities is to put the right tools and resources in the hands of city managers and urban planners so that they can assess local impacts and make strategic decisions to get the best return on future investments."

UDI researchers Teja Kuruganti and Gautam Thakur from ORNL's Computer Science and Engineering Division are collaborating with Oak Ridge director of administrative services Bruce Applegate on the design and deployment of UrbanSense.

The prototype designed for Oak Ridge monitors population density, traffic flow, and environmental data including air and water quality, with a total of seven sensors to be installed in the city. "The longer they are in place and the more data they collect, the better the city's sense of its trends will be," Thakur says.

The platform gathers open-source, anonymous data from virtual and physical sensors to generate population dynamics in real time. Virtual sensors include online public data sets such as AirNow.gov, which reports U.S. air quality information, and other self-reported data from social media, such as Facebook "check-ins" and Twitter posts. UrbanSense also uses sensors that passively collect anonymous cellular tower data from open broadcasts by mobile networks as they manage their capacity, which can help estimate population density.

Commercially available physical sensors that monitor traffic flow, water, and air quality can provide additional information relevant to strategic planning on a city level.

The cloud-based system, supported by ORNL servers, captures these multimodal trends and displays real-time dynamics via an online dashboard.

"We want to give cities like Oak Ridge a better sense of their population distribution and dynamics," says Kuruganti. "Our project is about bringing technology to cities. We are using sensors to generate observations and insights to help cities measure their growth and success."

As cities consider development, urban planners look at issues such as how many people travel in and out of the city, which events are attended and which roads are used most frequently. But the real-time population data necessary to assess these trends is not readily available.  

Population information now available to U.S. cities comes from census reports and other kinds of static data that are infrequently updated. Estimates of population density, a measure of the number of people in a given area, are limited to "ambient" populations or activity averaged over 24 hours.

"These data do not tell cities where people are at a given time of day," Thakur says. "UrbanSense augments existing technologies by offering near real-time estimates of urban population activity. This is a huge improvement over anything cities have had before."

Cities can use this fine-resolution population and traffic data to optimize infrastructure, evaluate retail markets, manage traffic for local events, and more strategtically assess their development potential. The initial feedback from users has been positive.

"The UrbanSense platform provides the city of Oak Ridge staff a 21st-century tool to analyze the rapid changes our community is undergoing through both commercial and residential development," Applegate says. "The real-time data collected will not only increase our understanding of the city's usage by residents and visitors but will also aid in the selection and prioritization of city-funded projects."

As the first city to test the new technology, Oak Ridge is well positioned to share the outcomes and benefits of the project with other cities. "We are excited for the opportunity to demonstrate the ways UrbanSense can shift a municipality from a day-to-day approach to a longer range vision of urban development," Applegate says.

Thakur also highlights another advantage — the sensor network can be configured to include other kinds of data. "Our design is scalable and can include additional sensors, so it can easily be tailored to the unique needs of individual cities and the kinds of trends they are interested in examining."

Kuruganti and Thakur are working to optimize UrbanSense and expand on the prototype. "We want to bring the technology to other cities," Kuruganti says.


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