U-M School of Education, College of Engineering partner to win Knight Cities Challenge Award

April 12, 2016
Contact: umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—A joint project of the University of Michigan School of Education and College of Engineering to bring sensor technology to Detroit communities is a winner of the 2016 Knight Cities Challenge, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The U-M project was awarded $138,339. In all, 37 winners will share $5 million as part of the challenge. Each of the ideas centers on helping cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunities and create a culture of civic engagement.

U-M faculty members Elizabeth Birr Moje and Jerome Lynch worked together to develop their winning proposal, “Sensors in a Shoebox: Engaging Detroiters in Analyzing and Meeting Community Needs.”

Moje currently serves as associate dean for research and community engagement and is the incoming interim dean of the School of Education. Lynch is professor of civil and environmental engineering and professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering.

Their winning project is a pilot program that empowers Detroit communities to observe their neighborhoods with sensors and analyze sensor data to address fundamental questions about complex urban issues.

At the core of the program is the “Sensors in a Shoebox” kit. The shoebox consists of user-friendly, ruggedized sensors that can be installed in the urban environment to allow communities to measure the world around them, including environmental parameters, noise, vibrations and motion.

Some envisioned community uses include measuring neighborhood air quality, exploring usage of city parks and public spaces, and anonymously observing residents’ mobility choices. The shoebox allows users to wirelessly stream data automatically from solar-powered sensors to the internet where the data are stored, analyzed and made ready for presentation. Community members will access a user-friendly data portal to gain unique insights about how their neighborhoods operate, while empowering community-based decision-making.

The program will engage Detroit youth in grades 8-12 as the future leaders, scientists and planners of the city. An interdisciplinary team of engineers and educators will work with students to customize the sensing kit and refine the kit’s ease of use for all members of the community. By engaging Detroit youth, the pilot project aims to strengthen the Detroit workforce pipeline while encouraging youth engagement with their communities as citizen scientists.

“We are honored to have our project chosen by Knight Foundation,” Moje said. “It is a terrific example of how partnering within the university and with the community can lead to innovations that have a real impact on people’s lives.”

“Imagine, for example,” Lynch said, “what might have happened if the residents of Flint had their own sensors to proactively measure the quality of their drinking water when safety concerns were first raised by the community.”

Open to any individual, business, government or nonprofit, the Knight Cities Challenge attracted more than 4,500 ideas to make the 26 communities where Knight invests more vibrant places to live and work. It asked innovators of all kinds to answer the question: What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?

“The project helps to foster civic engagement in an organic way, allowing young people to expand their skills, learn about their neighborhoods and contribute to problem-solving,” said Katy Locker, Knight Foundation program director for Detroit.


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