Making Communities Smarter and More Connected

UAlbany researchers awarded a $1 million grant to develop technology that will connect those in need with those willing to help.

UAlbany Researchers Charalampos Chelmis, Daphney Zois, and Wonhyung Lee

Professors Charalampos Chelmis, Daphney Zois, and Wonhyung Lee are collaborating on a multidisciplinary $1 million research project to develop a technology that will make community communication smarter. (Photo by Daphne Jorgensen)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 30, 2017) – Daphney Zois, Charalampos Chelmis, and Wonhyung Lee, assistant professors in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science, and Social Welfare, respectively, were awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of approximately $1million to develop technology that will connect people who need services with service providers. This will address a social problem where those in need of help often do not know how to locate or access service providers, service-providing agencies are often poorly coordinated, and volunteers who would like to donate time or money cannot easily determine who to help or how to best use their resources. This becomes more problematic when a situation demands the coordination of service providers, volunteers, and government structures, or when people are searching for help after business hours when communication channels become sparse.  

This multidisciplinary research project will address this gap by developing an integrated “one-stop shop” for services that will simplify the discovery and use of services, enable two-way communication between stakeholders (e.g., residents and service providers), deploy resources more efficiently, and assist stakeholders in assessing and promoting the wellbeing of their communities.  

The researchers envision that when ready to be deployed, the technology will be delivered through a website or a mobile app, that will provide users’ access to different sets of information and services depending on their specific interest and task at hand. With the technology in place, the routes that people navigate to access services and organizations will be shortened. For example, instead of going through multiple agencies and referrals, a person looking for food after business hours will use the website or mobile app to locate the closest food pantry quickly and in a user-friendly way.  In collaboration with local authorities and community members, the new system also has potential to sort through public reports and street camera footage to inform city management teams, police officers, and street outreach workers about pertinent issues (e.g. street lighting, tree falls, altercations) in the neighborhood. Another example would be coordination among service-providing agencies. With shared data available in the system, organizations can check real-time capacity and eligibility criteria of one another (e.g., homeless shelters or medical clinics), which can then help refer clients more efficiently.  

Zois says, “I am very excited to be part of this innovative and multi-disciplinary research project that tries to streamline the work of humanitarian organizations by connecting those in need with those willing to help. I am looking forward to engaging with community partners and designing practical solutions that can meet their needs. Science and Technology in the service of society!”  

A Powerful Partnership  

This interdisciplinary research partnership is illustrative of the powerful synergistic effect of collaboration. Each researcher brings strengths and expertise to collaboratively tackle a broad problem from multiple dimensions.  

It all started back in Fall 2016 when the NSF Smart & Connected Communities solicitation came out. Zois discussed her ideas with Chelmis, and they quickly realized they needed a collaborator outside of the computer science and electrical and computer engineering disciplines. Zois searched for an expert to address the social component of the project and discovered Lee, whose expertise in community development and engagement with a focus on “access” was a perfect fit.  

Chelmis says, “‘What does it take to engineer a better world? For sure, not more engineers and computer scientists.’ At least that is the feedback we received when we first pitched our idea to an NSF program officer. With a lot of effort, and great collaborative spirit, this team was ultimately able to convince our peers that this is indeed an effort worth pursuing. With us all being assistant professors, this is a big deal. Therefore, we do not intend to rest until the very end. Ultimately, our technology has the potential to change the lives of real people. Making communities smarter was never looking better!”  

Zois will lead the project and apply her engineering expertise in decision making under uncertainty; Chelmis will develop novel data mining and machine learning algorithms to identify best practices in helping those in need navigate the maze of available services; and Lee will connect the team with community stakeholders, integrate community feedback into their solution, and examine community dynamics before and after the use of their proposed technology to understand what a “smart and connected community” looks like.  

This truly will be a collaborative work as each of their focus areas intersect with and inform the others: Chelmis will work closely with Lee to study the limitations of extant networks of human service delivery, and to quantify the impact of the proposed solution on the dynamics, characteristics, and behaviors of “customers” and “suppliers.” Zois and Chelmis will work closely to develop adaptive techniques that will leverage the insights acquired by the data analysis tasks. Lee and Zois will collaborate on incorporating human factors with sufficient behavioral realism into the formal methods that Zois will develop.  

Kim Boyer, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said, “It is extremely gratifying to witness the early success of Profs. Zois and Chelmis in establishing research programs that matter, and to see the connections they’re building across the University beginning with Prof. Lee in Social Welfare. Their work together exemplifies the CEAS mission of “Science in Service to Society.”   

Lee says, “Creating smarter AND more connected communities is definitely an exciting task but also a challenging one, both conceptually and empirically. I am very excited to work with this team and learn from the community about how they think and communicate with one another. It is a blessing that we have many community partners who are very supportive and excited to share the same vision that we have. I look forward to the changes that this project will bring along toward 2020!”  

(Daphne Jorgensen)