Software Engineer Lead, Replica HQ
“I started to understand that there was a role for software engineers in this area–and an important one. I realized that I am passionate about smart cities and urban computing, and finding a path where I can apply software engineering to work on meaningful problems.”
We spoke with Chris about how earning his MS in Applied Urban Science and Informatics helped to shape his future career aspirations. Read our interview for more insights about what it's like to be a student at CUSP!
How did you get interested in software engineering and computer programming as a career?
I was lucky to go to high school with a lot of computer science curriculum, and for my undergraduate degree I was really focused on the software engineering aspects and its application in the industry. There were limitless opportunities for web and mobile apps, and I wanted to focus on being part of that. During that period, I built my own resume builder website and I worked on it for about a year full-time.
After a while, I had this choice between going into the tech industry full-time and continuing building the website, which I was passionate about, but at that point I was an unemployed college student building a free website. I had interned at Google back in 2012 and I stayed in touch with the recruiter, who I had helped with some recruiting events. Because of that prior experience and connection, I was able to go through the interview process and I joined the Google Analytics team.
What did you work on as part of the Google Analytics team?
I worked on “Analysis,” which is now called “Explorations.” This product creates interactive visualizations to query data, and allows you to easily configure and switch between techniques.
It’s a collection of visualizations, and the one that I built is called “Path Analysis,” which shows user flow between web pages and helps to highlight behavioral trends. Later I became the front-end tech lead for the whole Analysis/Explorations product.
What made you interested in CUSP and what created that shift in your focus?
I think for a long time even since I joined Google, I wanted to find a deeper specialization that I really cared about. I found that I liked building data visualization tools, but I knew there were so many things that I could apply them to.
My interest in cities started forming slowly over these years, when I traveled more here and internationally. My friends from undergrad ended up all across the country: Seattle, Boston, Austin, so I ended up visiting them more. Seeing other cities helped me to see how different global communities are and how they succeed in their great ideas. I felt like here in the US we should be learning from less car-centric cities of Europe and appreciate outside pedestrian spaces. In the San Francisco Bay area there has been an increasing challenge with housing costs and homelessness, while transportation is stagnant as it’s not growing as much as it could be. When I got to visit Hong Kong and Singapore, I felt like they were well designed and connected, but each city has their own unique problems and strengths.
I wanted to learn more about the causes of these problems, what solutions had worked in the past and what can be done now so I kept reading a lot and watched some great YouTube video channels on those topics.
I got most excited when I started to understand that there was a role for software engineers in this area–and an important one. I hadn’t made that connection with urban planners, architects, policymakers and economists. I realized that it was something I am passionate about–learning about smart cities and urban computing, and finding a path where I can apply software engineering to work on meaningful problems.
At CUSP, some students have more of an urban background, but they don’t have as strong of a technical background. For you it’s the opposite. How was that transition?
I went through the CUSP website which has links to Udacity courses and spent the first few weeks before classes just going through all of them. So then, when we started I was familiar with what was happening. It was more like doing those initial Python boot camps but in an urban context. I took Civic Analytics and Urban Intelligence in the first semester and it reminded me of books I would read to learn more about urban science, but from a policymakers perspective. It was about taking a step back and sort of assessing the non-technical aspect. I was reading all these books on urban computing and civic analytics, understanding the perspective of someone who’s not a technologist. It helped me go through all these cases of where technology worked well, where it has risks and how technology can make things worse if you do it improperly. There is a huge difference between how I was thinking about it a year ago.
How did your view of the use of technology change once you started studying at CUSP?
Before CUSP, I would describe myself as a bit naive of the harm that technology could do. There are supposedly neutral algorithms that you’re doing for improvement–for example automating decision-making systems, any sort of processing of the 311 system–that technologists see as a more efficient way for people to report things. But after learning more about data bias, we understand that it might make it more efficient for one group of people but might be excluding others who don’t have access to that technology.
I didn’t know the right critical questions to ask in terms of applying technology until I read more of those perspectives and got into class, debating the creation of technology that is helpful for some people, but less helpful for others.
You worked on a few different research projects while at CUSP. Can you describe some of the work you did?
One project I worked on was about electric buses and bus routes speed profiling. I took urban transportation logistics systems and derived the speed profiles for buses along the routes to create a map of where buses are traveling slower or faster. You can do this by taking a look at the timetables that they publish. If you collect that for all the buses, you can estimate their speed that they travel with based on their timetable.
There is technology to wirelessly charge buses, just the way you wirelessly charge your phone on a charging pad. One of the research problems is to figure out where to place wireless charging pads for buses that would be embedded into the road. The challenge is to figure out the optimal placement because it is affected by how much time the bus spends over the charging lane, which is based on its speed.
In another project, I worked with Prof. Debra Laefer and other CUSP students to create an interactive 3D heatmap visualization of human behaviors near COVID-exposed healthcare facilities during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in NYC. We visualized the frequency of human-observed actions such as touching surfaces, congregating, wearing PPE, and using public transit as density plots within the built environment represented by point cloud data. It provided a path to remotely explore the data in 3D to identify characteristics of the built environment that were more conducive to the spread of COVID-19. This work ended up being published in The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences.
Since you graduated from CUSP, you now work at Replica, a startup that is organizing the world’s information about the built environment and making it accessible, valuable, and actionable. How did you find this opportunity and what do you do there?
I learned about Replica back in 2017 while it was the Model Lab at Sidewalk Labs. My interest in urban computing was just beginning and their work in modeling synthetic populations to enable privacy-preserving urban mobility analysis was fascinating to me. I quickly found that there was much more for me to learn in this space, so I joined CUSP while also remaining in touch with the newly independent Replica. A few months after graduating, I joined as a Software Engineer Tech Lead on the Application team where I now help build the software for customers in city management, urban planning, public policy, and academia to query and visualize Replica data. I love my job! It’s challenging, fun, and gives me a real sense of purpose in my work.