Iowa State University and city of Des Moines partner on big data research project

Newer model

 AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University and the city of Des Moines have teamed up on a big data research project that could transform the way cities handle sustainability and mitigate climate change, particularly in marginalized neighborhoods.

The ISU researchers are developing a prototype decision-making tool that integrates data-driven science and human behavior to address environmental and social challenges, said Ulrike Passe, the lead faculty investigator. Passe is an associate professor of architecture and director of the Center for Building Energy Research.

"There's so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model," she said. "At the same time, we need to gather new data on how people operate their buildings and how the urban context impacts those buildings."

And city governments need to have "a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management," Passe added.

"The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities," said Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager.

"The growing interest in communitywide sustainability is at a critical juncture in our city's history. The demand far outweighs the city's ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints," Sanders said. "The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritze the city's investments has never been higher."

"Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making" was funded by ISU President Steven Leath's initiative for interdisciplinary research. Leath's presidential initiative provided $375,000 seed funding this fall for the three-year research start-up (and $50,000 last year for project planning).

The research is one of several projects the presidential research initiative program has funded so that cross-disciplinary faculty teams at ISU can tackle emerging societal challenges. The goal is to help the collaborations grow into well-funded projects that promote big thinking in data-driven science.

Passe's team brings together 16 campus researchers from 14 academic disciplines, including natural and social sciences, engineering, design and humanities (see sidebar list of faculty). They are partnering with Laura Graham, the sustainability officer in the Des Moines City Manager's Sustainability Office.

East Des Moines neighborhoods

DM East youth

Youth from eastside Des Moines make preparations for installing their artwork on their neighborhood garden shed.

 As a first step, the team will link complex data about how citizens interact with their homes, neighborhoods and cities with a range of computational thermal-physical models of buildings in their near-building environment and urban infrastructure systems.

"The energy performance of a building in an urban context is different from rural areas because of the surrounding conditions, such as the amount of pavement versus green landscapes. Also, energy performance is impacted by the way people operate the building, which in turn is impacted by the weather," Passe said.

The research team is working in east Des Moines neighborhoods (Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park), interacting with Community Housing Initiatives, neighborhood associations, Boys and Girls Clubs and an outreach-minded group high school group called East High Cares/East TOP. They are interacting with youth who can be powerful, but often unheard, voices in leading community change.

"We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection," said Linda Shenk, associate professor of English, who conducts research with the communities in the project.

Shenk and artwork

Linda Shenk with neighborhood art installation.

 During the past year, Shenk worked with the East High Cares youth to discuss their ideas about climate change in their community and to brainstorm projects for taking positive action. The group chose to revitalize a neighborhood garden and install artwork — artwork they designed to emphasize the integration of the natural and built environments through the importance of neighborhood unity. Such an action project enables the ISU faculty to tap into the neighborhood's needs and strengths.

"Through projects like these, people see actual positive, tangible changes that can also be folded in to the larger issues of our research," Shenk said. "We're working within the neighborhoods to make our research relevant to the particular community and to work with neighborhoods as active partners in our research."

The team is developing data-driven collection instruments geared specifically to these neighborhoods. These will include community-based storytelling, experiential mapping, interviews and online games, as well as actual measurements within the near-building environment.

Tree inventory and weather data

Another team member, Janette Thompson, Morrill Professor and professor of natural resource ecology and management, is coordinating a tree inventory in the Capitol East neighborhood.

Students from two ISU forestry classes, workers from the forestry division of the Des Moines Public Works department and neighborhood association volunteers have completed the initial fieldwork. The ISU students will use the data in their term projects.

Forestry students

Forestry students doing tree inventory in Des Moines.

"The ISU Sustainable Cities research team will work with the data to get it ready for input into a comprehensive data model on energy use," Thompson said.

"The inventory data will be analyzed to determine a number of different metrics to describe the role of neighborhood trees in each area for storm water absorption, avoided energy costs associated with air conditioning or heating in buildings, carbon storage and other ecological functions," she said.

The tree population data will also be used in a comprehensive model that takes into account building and building-occupant behavior, and features exterior to buildings to predict their energy use profiles.

Passe said a mobile weather station funded by a previous National Science Foundation (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant will be used to measure the near-building environment (everything between buildings) through sensors connected to a data logger. The data will be used to determine the microclimate effects in the neighborhood.

Test simulations with the Interlock House

The team can build further on existing ISU research infrastructure developed with NSF funds. The Interlock House is a net-zero energy house built by ISU students for the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon. Located at Honey Creek Resort State Park at Lake Rathbun, it has been developed over the past five years into a community laboratory for energy efficiency research. Passe and other ISU energy researchers have used the house for the past several years to collect real-time, long-term building performance data.

"We have a lot of data about the Interlock House that we can use in test simulations," Passe said. "We know how that building operates, so we can do comparative study by 'placing' the Interlock House into the Des Moines neighborhood as a model and see how it interacts."

The researchers are also developing an agent-based modeling simulation tool in which agents are created to have certain values, opinions and affinities. The model can simulate group behavior and 'what if' scenarios regarding the resident’s decision on energy use.

A unique integration

The goal for this year is to refine data collection about human energy behavior through action projects and novel game-based surveys. This will serve as input into quantitative, agent-based models and refined, urban-energy models regarding urban microclimate and vegetation.

"The data-science faculty on the team will then connect all these different scales through mathematical models," Passe said.

Over the longer term, they will develop a novel, data-driven, human-food-energy-water system modeling approach to "integrate environment (water and energy) impacts from urban built environments with urban food production," she said.

Their approach is unique, Passe said, because it connects physical and human systems to models (agent-based models, computational fluid dynamics, urban energy models, economic models) "on multiple scales through unexplored ways of data modeling." It will allow cities to do "what if" simulations to make decisions.

"Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience."