CEE prof leading green infrastructure project in Chicago

9/14/2015 9:52:00 AM

Joshua Peschel (left) and Spyros Sakellariadis answer audience questions after their invited talk, “Real-World Data Collection for Cortana Analytics,” at the 2015 Cortana Analytics Workshop on the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Wash. Photo Credit: Vetala Hawkins, Filmateria Digital.

The streets of Chicago will be getting smarter, literally, through a new UI LABSCity Digital project being led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Civil and Environmental Engineering Research Assistant Professor Joshua M. Peschel. As part of a unique interdisciplinary effort, including personnel from the University of Illinois, Argonne National Laboratory and the City of Chicago, along with UI LABS’s corporate partners, Peschel and his team will develop the next generation of sensing and sense-making tools for green storm water infrastructure.

The Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring project is one of two pilot projects announced today by City Digital, a Chicago-based consortium focused on data-driven urban innovation with the built environment. It was also one of a handful of projects nationwide highlighted today by the White House at its Smart Cities Forum, which kicks off Smart Cities Week. The goal of the White House event is “to bring together leading thinkers and practitioners from government, the research community, cities, civil society and the tech sector to discuss the multi-sector collaborations that will help our cities thrive in the 21st century.”

Green infrastructure brings into engineering design vegetation, soils and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. Examples include permeable pavements and green roofs. Peschel’s project will measure the health, performance and effectiveness of green infrastructure in the City of Chicago by deploying new low-cost sensors and innovative software tools across five pilot urban streetscapes.

“The traditional way of monitoring storm water infrastructure, if done at all, is with expensive measurements that are often very sparse in space and time,” Peschel said. “This project seeks to fill the data gaps by adding unique measurement techniques and intelligence to these new green streets in Chicago.”

City Digital’s pilot experiments are supported by a commitment from the City of Chicago to open its assets and infrastructure for technology experimentation to drive innovation and change. Each pilot’s completion plan includes a pathway to commercialization so that successful pilots can be extended throughout Chicago and to other cities nationally and globally almost immediately.

UI LABS provides a neutral environment for companies, cities and universities to jointly identify and solve large infrastructure challenges and then commercialize those solutions broadly.

Microsoft, who has a strong focus on cloud-computing and ubiquitous sensing, is a key corporate collaborator in this project. Peschel is working closely with Spyros Sakellariadis, Principal Program Manager of MS Applied Technologies in the Azure Machine Learning Team, to develop the smart infrastructure analytics toolset in the cloud for civil and environmental engineers.

“This is a great opportunity to bring value to the urban and scientific communities using many of the tools Microsoft has created in the IoT (Internet of Things) and data analytics spaces,” Sakellariadis said. “We are collecting and analyzing data at a rate that would be impossible without the use of cloud-based computing and plan to be modernizing many of the legacy statistical models with our machine learning tools within the Cortana Analytics suite. This partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign brings together the best of both worlds – the top civil and environmental engineering department at Illinois with Microsoft’s data scientists and best-of-class software tools.”

This past week Peschel and Sakellariadis presented an initial set of smart water recommendations to key software engineers, data scientists and business decision-makers, at the first-of-its-kind Cortana Analytics Workshop at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Wash. Among these recommendations were to parallelize and transition existing water models to web services running in the cloud. Doing so allows for the ease of extending the capabilities of the models and improving substantially the computational speeds to obtain predictive results.

 “As we transition to a smart infrastructure and send billions of data points to the cloud – over one million data points per month will come from the five Chicago sites alone – it is imperative that we adopt a new paradigm in civil and environmental engineering tools. This is the new foundation we are building right now,” Peschel said.

The smart cities initiative in UILABS came about as a result of a white paper authored by CEE professors William G. Buttlar and Daniel B. Work, with input from other CEE at Illinois faculty.

“We took a chance and, unlike other smart city initiatives, focused our center concept on challenges related to infrastructure, transportation, water and the environment,” said Buttlar, who is also the Associate Dean for Graduate and Professional Programs in the College of Engineering.“The strategy paid off, as Microsoft and several other Fortune-500 companies quickly came on board, along with the City of Chicago.”

The smart cities of the future will use ever-improving computing, sensing and communications technologies to improve mobility, water and air, energy, healthcare and commerce, Buttlar said. Civil and environmental engineers are natural leaders of this initiative, he said.

“With major gains to be made in transportation, water, air, infrastructure and sustainability, civil and environmental engineers must harness the digital revolution and help lead the way toward smarter and healthier cities,” he said.