The world arrives at Tandon’s Center for Urban Science + Progress

The Center’s Capstone Program encompasses projects from around the globe

There’s an old saying that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door, and that also seems to hold true if you build an outstanding academic hub for data analytics and urban science.

Each year, NYU Tandon’s Center for Urban Science + Progress (CUSP) invites government agencies, private-sector companies, non-profit organizations, think tanks, and academics to submit project proposals and then collaborate with graduate-student teams on undertaking them.

It’s part of a Capstone Program aimed at providing master’s degree candidates with real-world experience in finding data-driven solutions to complex urban challenges, with the understanding that lessons learned in New York City–CUSP’s living laboratory–can be applied to improve areas everywhere. 

So if you’ve ever wondered what a city agency in Bogotá, a university in Athens, and a Dallas-based social service organization have in common, it’s this: each has a mission in line with that of CUSP–to make their cities more equitable, efficient, sustainable, or liveable–and each has identified an issue requiring both data science skills and deep policy knowledge to tackle. 

In 2022, the Center received its highest-ever number of proposals, with applications coming from all over the world, and those were among the sponsors chosen for this year’s program, which focuses on four major themes: disaster resilience and climate change, fairness and inclusivity, health and wellbeing, and modern civil and communications infrastructure.

Alleviating gender-based “time poverty”

Within those categories, the projects ranged widely. Diana Rodríguez Franco, from the City of Bogotá’s Office of Women’s Affairs, is, for example, intent on helping struggling female caregivers in her city. She points out that in Bogotá, the unpaid care burden falls disproportionately on women, making “time poverty” a structural cause of gender inequality. Almost a third of Bogota’s female population serve as full-time unpaid caregivers and 90% of them are low-income. Her office has launched an initiative to bring services directly into their homes but wants to do even more, including skills training and activities geared towards personal well-being.  The students signing on to her “Data-Driven Door-to-Door Care” capstone project will help measure the impact of the initiative, guide the Office of Women’s Affairs in understanding which care issues and metrics of success it should prioritize, find ways to attract new users, and confirm its efficacy in closing gender gaps and economic recovery. 

Running hot and cold

“A Tale of Two Cities: Assessing the State of the Thermal Environment for New York and Athens” is being sponsored by Professor Constantinos Cartalis and doctoral candidate Anastasios Polydoros of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. The objective of their proposed project is to develop and apply a methodological approach for recognizing areas that consistently demonstrate higher or lower urban land surface temperatures in both New York City and Athens–analyzing results separately for each city as well as together so that similarities can be considered as urban typologies.

Plans to mitigate global warming depend on understanding these thermal “hot spots” and “cold spots,”  they say, because Land Surface Temperature (LST) is a controlling factor of energy exchange between the surface and the atmosphere, and thus a cause of meteorological and climatic variation. That’s of particular concern in urban areas, where moist soil and vegetation are replaced with cement and asphalt. Because those materials have high thermal mass and tend to absorb more solar radiation than the surfaces found in rural areas, LSTs are higher, and because they are impermeable and tend to dry more quickly after precipitation, cooling evaporation does not take place as it does in greener areas. CUSP students will be using satellite data to classify land cover in each city, estimate LST, determine the correlation of “hot spots” and “cold spots” to independent factors, and more.

Determining where to direct housing aid

Students will be leveraging data of a different type for the project “Repairing Dallas,” sponsored by Ashley Flores and Owen Wilson-Chavez of that city’s Child Poverty Action Lab. They point out that it’s well-known that substandard housing is associated with asthma and respiratory illness, lead poisoning, accidental injury, anxiety and depression, and poor academic outcomes. But data on housing quality is limited to estimates at the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) level and subjective assessments by the local appraisal district, so it’s difficult for housing advocates to understand where housing quality issues are most acute and how to direct resources for repair. CUSP students, they hope, will help them identify neighborhoods in Dallas where there is poor housing quality and develop a sampling and surveying approach to collect granular data within high-repair neighborhoods–all with the aim of directing aid where it is most needed.

The work ahead

Those are just a sampling of the many CUSP capstone projects that student teams are now diving into, with the aim of providing their sponsors with practical, actionable insight. From using virtual reality technology to prepare for natural disasters to exploring what a 100% electric commute would entail, you can read more about all of them on the 2022 Capstone Projects webpage.

“With a new mayoral administration here in New York City and returning partnerships like the Data Life: Post Covid Scenarios project with Politecnico di Milano, Italy, the 2022 capstones truly speak to the objectives behind the establishment of the Center for Urban Science + Progress,” says Visiting Associate Professor Danielle Wright, CUSP’s Director of Academic Affairs. "CUSP capstones provide training experiences in the application of data science and informatics to address issues of the urban context. We are pleased to embark on this six-month process towards solution building and decision making for improved city experiences.”