Solutions Lab Partnership Tackles Houston’s Biggest Problems

The collaboration with Rice University is focused on bridging the gap between the on-campus research and the city’s real-world needs.

by Leah Binkovitz, The Urban Edge / November 7, 2017
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Gather some of the brightest minds of Houston in a room and here are the issues they want to tackle: wastewater, flood management, emergency services logistics, downtown parking, and the city’s Complete Communities program. As part of a conversation started over a year ago in October 2016 between the City of Houston and Rice University, the issues identified in that first workshop provided the basis for $225,000 in grants that have now been awarded to three collaborative research projects in a partnership between the city and university dubbed the Houston Solutions Lab.

Two of the projects deal with a topic that’s been top of mind for Houstonians lately: flooding. The other project will help the Houston Police Department identify sites to open regional holding facilities to relieve the pressure on the central booking station.

“The Houston Solutions Lab leverages the resources of Rice University researchers to help solve the City’s most pressing challenges,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “The projects selected focus on two of my top priorities: flood prevention and public safety.”

The program is intended to bridge what is often a gap between research done on campuses and the needs of cities. “The goal of Houston Solutions Lab is to bring those entities together at the front end to identify questions where researchers can inform city choices with their work,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “These happen on shorter timelines than typical research so that we can respond to immediate city needs.”

Though the finalists, each eligible for up to $75,000, were selected before Harvey hit, two proposals address concerns that reemerged in the wake of that devastating storm. Representing Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters center, civil engineering professor Jamie Padgett’s project will develop a flood warning system for White Oak Bayou. In addition to developing a real-time alert system modeled on the one used for the Texas Medical Center, Padgett said her project will also help identify roadway flooding and infrastructure likely to be damaged during a flood event.

“That’s really the mission of the project; to be able to alert people in real time,” she said. “And even pre-event, [to] have information about potential major roadways we might expect to have inundation on and what challenges that might pose.”

Working with the mayor’s chief resilience officer, Steve Costello, Padgett said she hopes to expand the efforts beyond White Oak Bayou, “Our idea with this project is then to extend that out and be able to alert other regions of the city.”

Complementing these efforts, Phil Bedient, director of the SSPEED center, was also awarded a grant through the Houston Solutions Lab for his proposal to use hydrological modeling to document street-flooding and determine which techniques in use now by the city are effective in remediating street flooding.

“I think all possibilities need to be considered now,” said Bedient after Harvey, “instead of the standard. It’s definitely an unprecedented rain event but my gosh, we’ve had three in a row.”

Bedient will also be working with Costello.

Rounding out the projects is a collaboration between the Houston Police Department and the applied mathematics department at Rice University.

Professors Andrew Schaefer and Illya Hicks, in anticipation of the consolidation of the downtown jail to serve as both city and county central booking, will help identify locations around the county to determine the best place to open regional jails.

“That way cops, once they arrest somebody they don’t have to take them all the way to the central,” said Hicks. “They can take them to strategic places around Houston and the county where they’ll just be holding them.”

The move is expected to save money in transportation costs, according to Hicks and will likely utilize properties already owned by the department.

Each project is on a roughly one-year timeline. Funded by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Office of Research and Ken Kennedy Institute, the next round of awards will be announced in summer 2018.

“I look forward to seeing the results of these partnerships with our Resilience Office and the Houston Police Department,” said Turner.

This story was originally publishedo The Urban Edge