Virginia Tech researchers win NSF grant to connect AI to urban planning to improve decision-making and service delivery | VTX

Tom Sanchezprofessor of town planning and urban planning, and Chris Northprofessor of computer science and associate director of the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, received a planning grant from the National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Communities program.

The program is committed to accelerating the creation of scientific and technical foundations that will enable smart and connected communities to bring new levels of economic opportunity and growth, safety and security, health and well-being, accessibility and inclusiveness, and overall quality of life.

“Urban planning anticipates and directs the future physical and social conditions of communities to improve quality of life – all while relying heavily on increasingly large and varied datasets,” said Sanchez, who is the principal researcher of the project. “In fact, cities have become the primary sites for data collection and algorithm deployment, yet the professional field of urban planning lacks a comprehensive assessment of how artificial intelligence can and should be used to improve analytical processes Our project will answer this question.

North, Co-Principal Investigator, will bring his expertise in computer science and interactive artificial intelligence to apply new technologies to generate more and better data that can help improve decision-making and service delivery, and to increase efficiency.

“We will apply AI to the future of smart, connected communities, focusing on data and analytical tools that enable human stakeholders to interact with AI algorithms when planning and decision-making. municipal decision,” North said. “One of the primary goals of human-AI interaction is to help expose and reduce potential hidden racial biases, digital divides, and invasions of privacy.”

In addition to North, Sanchez’s project team includes Theo Lim, assistant professor of urban planning and development; Alex Smith, professor of behavioral economics, experimental economics and neuroeconomics; and Trey Gordner, a master’s student in urban and regional planning who is also pursuing the multidisciplinary program sponsored by the National Foundation Urban Computing Certificateadministered by the Sanghani Center.

Sanchez said the inspiration for the project came from the UrbComp program, which trains students in the latest methods of analyzing massive datasets to study key issues concerning urban populations.

The American Planning Association, which has about 40,000 members, will help the team connect with professional planners across the country. Arlington County Planning partners with the research team on a specific case study to determine which operations are most likely to be assisted by AI technologies and which tasks carry risks of unintended consequences that should be treated with caution. These include county-level responsibilities for overall planning, land use, capital improvements, environment, parks, transportation, and utilities.

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

“Because the project is focused on public planning, it is expected that planning innovations will involve public awareness and input,” Sanchez said. “We believe we can also shed light on the broader impacts of automation in urban life, such as the workforce.”

In addition to specific contributions in the areas of research discovery and advances in practice, the project will broaden education in the field of urban planning through the development of case study materials suitable for coursework and training.

The duration of the $150,000 Smart Connected Communities Planning Grant is one year and can be used to prepare multi-year, multi-million dollar grant proposals for the NSF. The project received additional funding from the 2021-22 Institute of Society, Culture and Environment Researchers program.