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Study Seeks to Apply AI to the Future of Smart and Connected Communities

A planning grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program has been awarded to Tom Sanchez, professor of urban affairs and planning, and Chris North, professor of computer science and associate director of the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics.

Study Seeks to Apply AI to Future of Smart and Connected Communities.
Tom Sanchez (left) and Chris North (right). Image Credit: Virginia Tech.

The aim of the program is to accelerate the making of scientific and engineering foundations that will power smart and connected communities to create new levels of economic opportunity and growth, safety and security, accessibility and inclusivity, health and wellness and overall quality of life.

Urban planning anticipates and guides the future physical and social conditions of communities to improve quality of life—all with a heavy reliance on increasingly large and varied datasets.

Tom Sanchez, Project Principal Investigator, Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics

In fact, cities have become primary sites of data collection and algorithm deployment, but the professional field of urban planning lacks a comprehensive evaluation of how artificial intelligence can and should be used to improve analytical processes. Our project will address that question,” added Sanchez.

North is a co-principal investigator of the project and will lend his expertise in computer science and interactive artificial intelligence to use new technologies to produce more and improved data that can help enhance decision-making and service delivery, as well as improve efficiency.

We will apply AI to the future of smart and connected communities, focusing on data and analytical tools that enable human stakeholders to interact with AI algorithms during plan making and municipal decision making. A major goal of the human-AI interaction is to help expose and reduce potential hidden racial biases, digital divides, and infringements on privacy.

Chris North, Professor of Computer Science and Associate Director, Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics

Besides North, Sanchez’s project team included Theo Lim, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning; Alec Smith, professor of behavioral economics, experimental economics, and neuroeconomics; and Trey Gordner, a master’s degree student in urban and regional planning who is also pursuing the multidisciplinary National Foundation-sponsored Urban Computing certificate, administered through the Sanghani Center.

According to Sanchez, the inspiration for the project came from the UrbComp program, which trains students in the most advanced methods of analyzing enormous datasets to study crucial issues related to urban populations.

The American Planning Association includes about 40,000 members and will help the team connect with professional planners around the country. Arlington County Planning has been collaborating with the researchers as a particular case study to identify which operations have the highest possibility of being supported by AI technologies and which tasks include risks of unexpected consequences that must be addressed with caution.

These involve county-level responsibilities for extensive planning, capital improvements, land use, transportation, environment, utilities and parks.

As we develop creative solutions to urban planning processes that have relied on traditional, analog approaches, we anticipate detecting synergies between public and private sectors based on widespread adoption of AI technologies. Our hope is that the results of this research will catalyze AI startup activity in the urban planning field.

Chris North, Professor of Computer Science and Associate Director, Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics

Because the project is focused on public planning, there is an expectation that innovations in planning will involve public awareness and input,” added Sanchez. “We believe we may also be able to shed some light on the broader impacts of automation in urban life, such as workforce.”

Apart from specific contributions in the fields of research discovery and developments in practice, the project will improve education in the urban planning field by developing case study materials appropriate for coursework and training.

The duration of the $150,000 Smart and Connected Communities planning grant is one year and can be used to make NSF multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant proposals. The project has been awarded additional funding from the 2021-22 Institute for Society, Culture and Environment Scholars program.


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