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Underworlds 2015

Underworlds

MIT's Sensible City Lab project Underworlds attempts to provide better sensory capacities for understanding bacterial and viral activities in sewer systems to better serve the cities that rely on them. Technosphere Magazine talked with Professor Carlo Ratti and Eric Alms about urban infrastructures, biochemical layers and real-time disease surveillance.
Technosphere Magazine: Often, technological infrastructure is understood as something rigid and non-organic. How could studying biochemical effects expand the way we understand both infrastructure itself and our understanding of technology?
  • Carlo Ratti: The biochemical layer in our cities has long been an invisible one. However, with advancements in sensing technologies, we can now begin to tap into it: whether it’s in the sewers or in the air. Studying and understanding the fluctuations in this layer require dynamic responses – such as those that can be put in place to counter infectious disease outbreaks or high air-pollution levels. This could include changes in policy (reduction of vehicular traffic at certain times to mitigate pollution levels), or preventative measures (emergency vaccinations for children following the detection of the poliovirus in sewage). The above are just a couple of examples of responsive measures that can arise from studying the biochemical layer in a city. In general, I believe that we will increasingly start considering infrastructure as something not rigid but flexible.
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Underworlds 2015

TM: How do the biochemical strata of the city influence the construction and creation of infrastructure? Conversely, how do you build infrastructure to work with and against the biochemical strata?
  • Carlo Ratti: It depends on which infrastructure we are talking about: in the case of Underworlds, we are tapping into an existing infrastructure (the sewage network) and we use it for our research purposes. This opportunistic approach is rather common – so much so, that in research we often talk about “opportunistic sensing.” So far, I do not think that infrastructure was built to work with biochemical strata – although this might happen in the future.
TM: For us, the technosphere is an equivalent earth sphere to that of the Hydrosphere, Lithosphere, Biosphere, etc. In this case, what are the more dynamic relationships to this Earth technosphere and the biosphere that seem particularly salient in your work?
  • Carlo Ratti: Instead of technosphere, I would prefer to talk about the distinction between the “natural” and the “artificial” world, as outlined by Herbert Simon. He once said, “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are [. . .]. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” If we accept this definition of design, we can imagine that our role, as designers, is continuously to engage with the transformation of the present. With an analogy to natural evolution, you might consider prototypes “mutations,” which help transform the artificial world around us.
TM: There is an expressed focus on real-time disease surveillance in Underworlds. How can biochemical analytics work as a mechanism for public safety and health? Might it be possible to use similar processes in other public infrastructure such as water supply?
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Carlo Ratti: Part of our vision is eventually to monitor real-time infectious diseases. Understanding when and where illnesses originate is a huge public health insight and can reduce medical costs—by allowing health care service providers to prepare—and potentially save lives. But the applications of Underworlds extend beyond just disease monitoring to a new kind of urban population census. We can begin to understand non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and use this knowledge to inform public health policy. We can quantify the use of prescription and illicit drugs and target outreach services. We can also begin to understand the impact of urban form, if any, on the health of a community. This knowledge not only informs health care practitioners, but also planners, designers, and citizens.
TM: In the project to date, have there been any surprises in regards to the data? As in, are there certain norms that one could qualify as “acceptable,” levels or compositions of viral/bacterial populations? And, if so, has the data from the project demonstrated new norms or potential unforeseen aberrance?
  • Carlo Ratti: Perhaps the most surprising thing about the data has been how accurately it represents human behavior. In conducting a study where we sampled every hour for twenty-four hours, we were able to see patterns in the abundance of human derived (gut) bacteria in correlation to daily activities.
TM: What tools and technologies are being deployed for the testing?
  • Carlo Ratti: The Underworlds platform includes both physical and analytical infrastructures. We have a network of robotic samplers that facilitate collection at scale in multiple manholes across a city. Currently, this network is designed to relay real-time information on environmental parameters from the sewers, such as flow-rate, temperature, pH, and oxygen concentration, while collecting sewage for further molecular characterization. We have established laboratory protocols to characterize the microbes, human viruses, antibiotic-resistance genes, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals in the sewage. However, this raw data provides little insight for public health officials and other stakeholders. We’ve developed methods to normalize and compare samples across time and space; for example, what microbial or chemical signatures are associated with particular population parameters? We then integrate this data with demographic data and other urban datasets to draw insights on the connections between urban life and health. A series of front-end interactive visualizations help to engage the wider public.
TM: It is mentioned on you website that the platform is “open-data.” How can this data be shared and are there any plans for doing so? Will the data be shared with city entities or contribute as part of a community effort, as it is envisaged right now?
  • Eric Alm: An enormous mass of water moves in and out of our cities everyday. Clean water is converted to sewage, leaving an imprint of nearly all human activities in the process. But we don’t yet understand how to infer those activities from sewage. We believe this information is so valuable that most cities will be mining data from sewage within the next ten years. Underworlds is designed to help stakeholders extract data from sewage to improve the lives of residents.
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TM: How does the physical infrastructure itself play into this? How does the project navigate variables such as old sewage networks with potential leaching or water contamination prior to becoming waste?
  • Eric Alm: It is interesting – through the analysis, we can discover something not only about population but about humans as well. Underworlds is probably not the easiest platform to monitor the status of the sewage network – but it can be used for that as well . . .
Prof. Carlo Ratti is Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the Principal investigator of Underworlds. Eric Alm is associate professor of biological engineering at MIT and a co-Principal Investigator of Underworlds. For more info visit the Underworlds website.