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Oak Ridge, Tenn., Turns to Sensor Network to Track Urban Change

A partnership between the city and Oak Ridge National Laboratory hopes to gain insights into trends with the deployment of sensors and a real-time visualization platform.

(TNS) -- Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering with the city of Oak Ridge to develop UrbanSense, a sensor network and real-time visualization platform that helps cities evaluate trends in urban activity.

"The project, initiated by ORNL's Urban Dynamics Institute, centers on addressing cities' real-world challenges through applied urban science," according to an ORNL news release.

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, the press release stated.

The release stated UDI researchers Teja Kuruganti and Gautam Thakur from ORNL's Computer Science and Engineering Division are collaborating with Bruce Applegate, the city of Oak Ridge's director of administrative services, on the design and deployment of UrbanSense.

At a recent Oak Ridge City Council work session, Applegate explained the project and his role.

He said he had been working with the lab on the project in his spare time. Council member Hans Vogel suggested possibly giving responsibility for the project to the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

However, in response to The Oak Ridger's questions, city public affairs specialist Sarah Self said UrbanSense had "always been an official city project." She also said the project has only required time and support from the city, and no funding has been necessary.

"This is a resource for all facets of the city," Applegate said at the work session.

"The UrbanSense platform provides the city of Oak Ridge staff a 21st-century tool to analyze the rapid changes our community is undergoing through both commercial and residential development," Applegate said in the ORNL release. "The real-time data collected will not only increase our understanding of the city's usage by residents and visitor, but will also aid in the selection and prioritization of city-funded projects."

During the work session, he specifically said the city could use it to evaluate the success of Main Street Oak Ridge, the business development at the former Oak Ridge Mall site. He also said it could measure the effects that regattas at Melton Hill Lake have on the city. In general, he said it would show trends as to where people were coming from and going.

"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," said UDI director Budhendra Bhaduri in the release. "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."

"The longer they are in place and the more data they collect, the better the city's sense of its trends will be," Thakur said.

The platform gathers open-source, anonymous data from what the release called virtual and physical sensors to generate population dynamics in real time. Virtual sensors include online public data sets such as, which reports national air quality information, and other self-reported data from social media, such as Facebook "check-ins" and Twitter posts.

During the meeting, Applegate said the greenway along Melton Hill Lake was the city's most checked-in social media spot based on the data.

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.

Commercially available physical sensors that monitor traffic flow, water and air quality can provide additional information which the release stated is relevant to strategic planning on a city level.

A cloud-based system, supported by ORNL servers, captures these multimodal trends and displays real-time dynamics on an online dashboard.

"We want to give cities like Oak Ridge a better sense of their population distribution and dynamics," said Kuruganti. "Our project is about bringing technology to cities. We are using sensors to generate observations and insights to help cities measure their growth and success."

"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 U.S. 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," the release stated.

"These data do not tell cities where people are at a given time of day," said Thakur. "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."

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

As the first city to test the new technology, the release stated Oak Ridge is positioned to share the outcomes and benefits of the project with other cities. "We are excited for the opportunity to demonstrate the ways UrbanSense can shift a municipality from a day-to-day approach to a longer range vision of urban development," said Applegate.

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."

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

"We want to bring the technology to other cities," Kuruganti said.

"Oak Ridge is unique in its opportunities to become part of experimental urban research projects like this one. If we are to be one of the leading communities in the nation, participation in programs offered by the national lab are essential to our future," a city press release stated.

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

©2017 Oak Ridger, Oak Ridge, Tenn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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