Virginia Tech researchers garner NSF grant to connect AI with urban planning to improve decision making and service delivery
Tom Sanchez, professor of urban affairs and planning, and Chris North, professor of computer science and associate director of the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, have been awarded a planning grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program.
The program is committed to accelerating creation of scientific and engineering foundations that will enable smart and connected communities to bring about new levels of economic opportunity and growth, safety and security, health and wellness, accessibility and inclusivity, and overall quality of life.
“Urban planning anticipates and guides the future physical and social conditions of communities to improve quality of life — all with a heavy reliance on increasingly large and varied datasets,” said Sanchez, who serves as principal investigator for the project. “In fact, cities have become primary sites of data collection and algorithm deployment, but the professional field of urban planning lacks a comprehensive evaluation of how artificial intelligence can and should be used to improve analytical processes. Our project will address that question.”
North, a co-principal investigator, will lend 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 increase efficiency.
“We will apply AI to the future of smart and connected communities, focusing on data and analytical tools that enable human stakeholders to interact with AI algorithms during plan making and municipal decision making,” said North. “A major goal of the human-AI interaction is to help expose and reduce potential hidden racial biases, digital divides, and infringements on privacy.”
In addition to North, Sanchez’s project team includes Theo Lim, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning; Alec Smith, professor of behavioral economics, experimental economics, and neuroeconomics; and Trey Gordner, a master’s degree student in urban and regional planning who is also pursuing the multidisciplinary National Foundation-sponsored Urban Computing certificate, administered through the Sanghani Center.
Sanchez said inspiration for the project came from the UrbComp program, which trains students in the latest methods in analyzing massive datasets to study key issues concerning urban populations.
The American Planning Association, with about 40,000 members, will help the team connect with professional planners around the country. Arlington County Planning is partnering with the research team as a specific case study to determine which operations have the highest likelihood of being assisted by AI technologies and which tasks include risks of unintended consequences that need to be addressed with caution. These include county-level responsibilities for comprehensive 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 anticipate detecting synergies between public and private sectors based on widespread adoption of AI technologies,” said North. “Our hope is that the results of this research will catalyze AI startup activity in the urban planning field.”
“Because the project is focused on public planning, there is an expectation that innovations in planning will involve public awareness and input,” Sanchez said. “We believe we may also be able to shed some light on the broader impacts of automation in urban life, such as workforce.”
In addition to specific contributions in the areas of research discovery and advances in practice, the project will expand education in the urban planning field through the development of case study materials suitable for coursework and training.
The duration of the $150,000 Smart and Connected Communities planning grant is one year and can be used to prepare NSF multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant proposals. The project has received additional funding from the 2021-22 Institute for Society, Culture and Environment Scholars program.