Chinese scientists get a taste of data-driven research at U.S. State Department-sponsored visit

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Chinese and American scientists take a break for a group photo during an afternoon of discussion on data analytics in environmental sciences.

Science, and the process of sharing scientific knowledge and ideas to solve problems, knows no national or political boundaries. That’s why when a group of Chinese scientists visited RENCI as guests of the South Big Data Hub, the discussion was lively, timely, and productive.

Ten scientists from the People’s Republic of China visited with University of North Carolina faculty members in January, where they learned about research that uses big data and data science to understand problems related to smart and connected cities, environmental quality, air pollution, and urban quality of life.

The scientists were part of the International Visitor Leadership Program Young Scientist Forum, a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Visitors Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. They represented a variety of Chinese research institutes and agencies and their research interests included urbanization, urban air quality, soil contamination, air pollution, environmental health risks and data standards, and water quality.

Lea Shanley, PhD, co-executive director of the South BD Hub, introduced the visitors to the National Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs program and its efforts address a wide range of regional challenges by building partnerships that span industry, academia, and government. The Hubs, she explained, use data science and analytics to improve healthcare decision making, streamline and update manufacturing processes, develop smart and connected cities, and more. During their visit, the participants in the Young Scientist Forum learned about three specific research projects relevant to their fields of study.

Smart and Connected Communities

Urbanization has put massive pressure on city infrastructure, including utilities, transportation, public safety systems, housing, and civil services. However, the wealth of data available through the growing Internet of Things, social media, and other sources offers the opportunity to use data to create cities that better serve the needs of their citizens.  Arcot Rajasekar, PhD, a professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and chief data scientist at RENCI, leads the North Carolina Smart and Connected Cities Initiative, a one-year pilot program funded through a Research Opportunity Initiative grant from University of North Carolina General Administration.

Rajasekar’s short term goal is to create a clearinghouse of information about smart technologies, communication infrastructure, and emerging technologies so that government officials, industry, and academia can begin working together to harness the power of the IoT, cloud services, and mobile platforms to create smart and connected communities. Through a series of workshops, North Carolina organizations will explore the gaps that need to be filled in order to use data to create better policies and more efficient and effective communities.

The research team hopes to soon win a larger grant to take its ideas from the planning to the implementation stage, he said.

Environmental Modeling and Policy Development

The Center for Environmental Modeling and Policy Development (CEMPD), part of UNC’s Institute for the Environment, conducts air quality and climate modeling, and data analysis to serve the environmental science research community and public policymakers. Led by Adel Hanna, PhD, an atmospheric scientist with more than 30 years of experience in environmental modeling and data analysis, the CEMPD, which hosts the Center for Community Modeling and Analysis System (CMAS), builds models on air quality health impacts, wildfire impacts on air quality, tools for understanding the impact of climate change, and much more. Through CMAS, the center supports 10 major modeling and analysis tools, data exchanges, and training and outreach efforts to a global audience.

The models reveal a host of interesting phenomena. For example, wildfires, always a source of air pollution in the southeast, are becoming a more significant problem because droughts made more severe by climate change provide abundant fuel (e.g. trees and brush) for fires. The center’s models have also mapped a correlation between rises in hospital emissions for asthma-related conditions and high levels of ozone in the atmosphere under varying types of air masses.

Air Quality Modeling

 Sarav Arunachalam, PhD, another scientist at the CEMPD, talked about a suite of open source air quality modeling tools developed by the scientific community and distributed by CEMPD and CMAS. The tools help community decision-makers understand the impact on air quality of various local sources of air pollution. For example, a new hybrid model developed by Arunachalam’s group shows that premature deaths related to traffic emissions is about 24 percent greater than previously thought because of very localized particulate matter dispersion, such as along heavily traveled areas of I-40 and I-85 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Another modeling framework under development will characterize the air quality impacts of airplane emissions at multiple scales: at the aircraft exhaust, in the community near the airport, and at the regional, national and global levels. All the tools in the suite are modular and can model at many scales from very local (a few kilometers spatial resolution) to regional (hundreds of kilometers) to inter-continental (thousands of kilometers).

Arunachalam also presented a new web-based modeling system with dynamic and interactive mapping capabilities that CEMPD is developing.  The system allows users to assess near-source air quality impacts of traffic-related and port-related emissions at very fine spatial scales, and to assess potential benefits of various “what if” scenarios.

The Young Scientists Forum is an annual engagement under the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, which aims to strengthen the ties between U.S. and Chinese citizens in the areas of culture, education, science and technology, sports, and women’s issues. This particular forum was in the U.S. to explore best practices for connecting with, and engaging, the public on scientific research related to air, water, and soil pollution. For more information, visit the program’s website.

-Karen Green, South Big Data Hub communications team

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