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ORNL, City of Oak Ridge partner on sensor project to capture trends in cities

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are partnering with the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 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 (UDI), centers on addressing cities’ real-world challenges through applied urban science. 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.

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,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 director Budhendra Bhaduri

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 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 national 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.

UrbanSense passively collects anonymous, open-source data from cellular towers to generate real-time estimates of population density in cities. Insights on how people interact with urban infrastructure helps cities like Oak Ridge, Tennessee (above), assess their needs and plan effectively for future development. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy Click to enlarge.


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.

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 US 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. 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.

—Gautam Thakur

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

Thakur also highlighted 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.

—Gautam Thakur

Kuruganti and Thakur are working to optimize UrbanSense and expand on the prototype.

The Urban Dynamics Institute, located at ORNL, is pursuing novel science and technological solutions for global to local urban challenges.


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