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A secret city opens up

Oak Ridge scientists use data to help a rapidly urbanizing planet

During World War II, the then-brand-new city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, housed a population of 75,000, boasted the nation’s sixth-largest bus system, and consumed a significant percentage of the country’s electricity on huge industrial operations that ran around the clock. The average age of the population was 27, and when residents were not working long shifts at the huge government plants, they met their future partners at local dances, went bowling, attended the theater and the symphony, and swam in one of the nation’s largest swimming pools. It was a young, loud, energetic city, imbued with wartime patriotism and camaraderie.

Seventy-five years after its heyday, the population of Oak Ridge, now at a median age of 42.3 (the national median is 37.9), languishes around 30,000, less than half of what it was in 1945. Bruce Applegate, who carries a variety of job titles but calls himself the city catchall, thinks the city has more to offer. Every day at his desk in the municipal building, Applegate logs onto his computer and pulls up a colorful dashboard full of maps, charts, and graphs displaying real-time data on the city’s water and air quality, traffic, population dynamics, social media use, and a variety of other metrics. This information, Applegate thinks, is the key to bringing new vitality to Oak Ridge.

The city of Oak Ridge is partnering with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to develop UrbanSense, a sensor network and visualization platform to enable cities to monitor population movement, traffic, social dynamics, and environmental conditions in real time. Using a combination of publicly available datasets, self-reported data from social media, and physical sensors, UrbanSense gives Applegate a dynamic, holistic view of how people use the city, and under what sorts of conditions.

Pings to cellphone towers and traffic sensors show the city’s population swells by 10,000 or 20,000 during the day, and drops back to 30,000 at night, confirming what city administrators already knew: “We’re being looked at as kind of a commute-to-and-leave community, as opposed to a stay, play sort of location,” explains Applegate.

Disheartening as that revelation might be, Applegate feels empowered by the data; he thinks it will allow the city to make more informed decisions to better serve residents and engage neighboring communities. Over time, data about weather can be correlated with information routinely collected on events such as water main breaks and power outages to help the city anticipate the impacts of certain conditions. Information about the use of commercial and recreational spaces, gleaned through cell tower pings, traffic patterns, and social media, can help the city direct development funds wisely.

“As a city administrator, my goal is to make my home community as great as I can, and unfortunately that’s usually [dependant on] how much money we have budgeted to do something,” Applegate says. “If I can see further into the future through the tool they’re providing me, that just means that I can allocate my resources even better, and provide the best services that I can, today.”

The UrbanSense project comes out of the Urban Dynamics Institute (UDI), an interdisciplinary effort founded at ORNL in 2014 to address the societal and environmental challenges of our rapidly urbanizing planet through a “data-driven understanding of complex urban systems.” Dense urban populations are resource-hungry and vulnerable to challenges of climate change, public health, poverty, crime, and food security. By bringing together teams of scientists with city planners and policymakers, and leveraging ORNL’s supercomputing capabilities (the lab launched the world’s fastest computer on June 8), the UDI aims to provide scalable solutions for the problems of urban life.

The Urban Dynamics Institute is part of a larger movement to use electronically collected data to study and optimize urban life. MIT’s Senseable City Lab develops sensors, algorithms, and visualizations to tackle problems from boat traffic in Amsterdam to air quality in Nairobi. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent company, Alphabet, is designing a smart neighborhood in Toronto’s underdeveloped industrial waterfront, promising modular, adaptable buildings; driverless buses; robot-delivered mail; and trash whisked away through underground tunnels. A project analogous to UrbanSense is Chicago’s Array of Things, a suite of sensors developed in collaboration between the city, the University of Chicago, and Argonne National Laboratory to capture and share data on environmental conditions and city usage, billed as a “fitness tracker” for the city.

One of the goals of UrbanSense is to offer scalable tools to smaller, second-tier cities that may not have the resources for vast smart city redesigns. Researchers made an effort to rely as much as possible on off-the-shelf sensors, making the platform both relatively cheap for cities to implement and highly customizable. While Oak Ridge wanted to emphasize air and water quality, a representative from Washington, D.C., has expressed interest in sensors evaluating the smells of neighborhoods; odors from smog, garbage, sewage, chemicals, food preparation, plants, and soil can provide indications of city hygiene, pollution, and quality of life. “Smell is a function of the health of a city,” Gautam Thakur, co-principal investigator of the project, explains. Once the pilot in Oak Ridge is complete, it should be easy to design and implement a set of sensors that addresses the unique needs of any city looking to collect real-time data from a regional scale down to a single neighborhood block.

Other UDI projects range from the specific and local to the vast and global: The precision de-icing initiative correlates data about relative sun and shade on Knoxville’s streets to enable more efficient salting during winter storms, while LandScan HD aims to, eventually, estimate the real-time population of any 90-meter square on earth, or an area slightly smaller than the size of two football fields. While many smart-city initiatives focus on the world’s largest cities, the UDI is particularly interested in working with emerging and mid-sized cities that may have fewer resources but more opportunities to adapt to changing environmental, economic, and demographic conditions as they grow.

The mission of the UDI is striking given the history of Oak Ridge, a city of strange and sudden origins. In the fall of 1942, the U.S. government seized 59,000 acres of rural farmland in East Tennessee, displacing some 1,000 families to make way for the rapid construction of a top-secret project. Within months, roads were laid and trainloads of construction materials arrived in this once-quiet landscape.

The government needed a place to hide a secret, a place where a massive influx of people and industry wouldn’t attract much attention. A letter from Albert Einstein had convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that a recent scientific development—the discovery that an atom could be split—introduced the possibility of an enormously powerful new weapon. Einstein warned the president of the dangers of the weapon in the hands of the Nazis, and urged him to put the nation’s scientific and industrial resources to work developing one first. Thus the Manhattan Project was born, and the strange fate of Oak Ridge sealed.

Oak Ridge, called Site X, would be the primary site of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. The city would house not only the scientists needed to develop and run the uranium enrichment operations, but the construction workers, secretaries, doctors, nurses, welders, pipefitters, teachers, and janitors needed to build and run the town and nuclear production plants.

Building Oak Ridge was an unprecedented challenge of urban planning. Given the circumstances, the Army Corps of Engineers might have thrown up rows of army barracks and stark mess halls and been done with it. Yet to maintain secrecy and morale, Manhattan Project planners thought it important that workers reside in reasonably pleasant conditions. They hired the Chicago-based civilian architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to come up with a design.

The architects took to the task with touching thoughtfulness, drawing roads that wound along the land’s natural contours and arranging neighborhoods of prefabricated houses equipped with porches and fireplaces around shopping centers and centrally located elementary schools. “All we wanted,” admitted architect Nathaniel Owings, “was a series of homely little American villages tied together with a road to take care of the long-distance traffic and permit the men to be on time to work.”

Ideal and reality did not entirely match up. Many of the careful plans had to be abandoned as the population of the city quickly outstripped initial estimates; unskilled laborers were housed in trailers and temporary barracks while black workers were relegated to cramped, poorly ventilated plywood “hutments” in a swampy corner of town, literally fenced from the rest.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the compromises, Oak Ridge succeeded in its mission; on August 6, 1945, President Truman’s voice crackled over the radio to announce the bombing of Hiroshima. An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly, about the same number that were living in Oak Ridge at the time.

Today, historians study Oak Ridge, along with its sister secret cities, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the ways they tested new and evolving ideas about suburban living and town design.

Seventy-three years after the city helped to produce bombs that could destroy a city with a single blast, scientists at one of the labs responsible for those bombs are thinking hard about the basic problems of human survival.

Utilizing remote-sensing, machine learning, supercomputing, and data gathered from a variety of other sources, the Urban Dynamics Institute is asking, where are all the people in the world? How are they living? Where will they be and how will they live in the future? And how can cities be efficient, sustainable, resilient, and livable in the face of the enormous social and environmental challenges of our time?

During the war, the X-10 laboratory piloted the process of plutonium production that was scaled up at Hanford to produce the fuel for the Nagasaki bomb. X-10 eventually became Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy’s national laboratory system, and its mission evolved to cover research in nuclear medicine, renewable energy, neutron science, materials science, and many other areas. “We clearly felt that as a national lab, we could bring the science and technology to bear to help the nation and also the rest of the world in successfully addressing some of these problems and challenges better than anybody else could,” says Budhendra Bhaduri, UDI’s energetic founder and director.

Bhaduri is a principal member of LandScan Global and LandScan USA, efforts which compile census data and satellite imagery to estimate global population. While censuses provide snapshots of where people live in a certain year, they do not account for population growth outside of census years, or for people’s movements throughout the day. The whole idea of LandScan, explains Amy Rose, the lead of UDI’s Population and Land Use research theme, was to “develop a more realistic population estimate that would represent what we consider an unmoored population, so populations at risk.” Accurate population data is crucial to planning for and responding to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, conflicts, and other emergencies. Rose helped to develop LandScan Global, an annually updated dataset that estimates the world’s population at every square kilometer, averaged over a 24-hour period.

The push to create LandScan USA, which aggregates census data, satellite imagery, and information about schools, hospitals, and businesses to provide both daytime and nighttime population estimates for every ninety square meters of the nation, came from the Department of Homeland Security. The agency needed more current and time-specific population estimates to better respond to emergencies, whether natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

On a daytime map of New York City, towers of dark red, indicating high density, shoot up through Midtown and the Financial District; at night, they mellow to orange and pale yellow. On a map of D.C., Bhaduri indicates an area whose population density remains steady: a prison.

The map is enriched by a technique called building extraction. After 9/11, and especially after Hurricane Katrina, the nation’s emergency response communities became acutely concerned with some of the most vulnerable residential areas: mobile home parks. The Critical Infrastructure Data Team used a concept called natural image statistics, explains Mark Tuttle, the team’s lead. Just as the cameras on our phones know to focus on a human face by recognizing the alignment of eyes, nose, and mouth, Tuttle’s team taught computers to recognize long, narrow structures arranged in rows. Though the computers did incorrectly identify some rail yards and truck stops, which appear similar to mobile home parks from above, the process was a success overall; Tuttle’s team completed the initial mapping of the country’s mobile home parks in 2015.

Using more advanced machine learning, the team taught computers to identify other types of structures; comprehensive building maps help rescue workers assess damage and prioritize rescue efforts, especially when buildings are obscured by flooding. FEMA’s urgent requests for data can come by email or phone at any hour of the day; a direct line to Tuttle assures that the agency can reach him whether or not he’s at the office.

The devastating 2017 hurricane season was a busy one for these data scientists, supplying FEMA and DHS with on-demand information on Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Southeastern United States. More recently, Tuttle’s team provided FEMA with building maps for the area around the Kilauea volcano eruption, as well as the rest of the Big Island.

The LandScan team is using a similar process, called “settlement mapping,” to more accurately estimate population in places without good census data. Such was the case in Nigeria when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began its polio eradication efforts there. Relying on outdated and inaccurate census data, the foundation’s vaccine distribution floundered; some areas ran short of doses while others wound up with great excesses. The country’s latest census, from 2006, was seven years old by the time the foundation approached ORNL scientists; that meant that the target population, children under the age of 5, were entirely uncounted.

The researchers used computer algorithms to analyze satellite images of the country for different types of residential areas. Wealthy neighborhoods have large houses and wide, gridded streets, while poorer neighborhoods, which often spring up more informally, appear cramped, with jagged, irregular streets. The hallmark of the ubiquitous American middle-class subdivision, Bhaduri likes to point out, is the cul-de-sac. Another way to tell the class difference between settlements? The poorest, most hastily constructed settlements may appear to fade into the surrounding landscape, as people without many resources often use readily available natural materials to build their homes.

To arrive at a population estimate, researchers input data about relative population density from on-the-ground micro-surveys of six different types of Nigerian settlements. Their final maps included settlements that had not been recorded on any census, people entirely unaccounted for by any government. “The missing millions,” Bhaduri calls this previously “undiscovered, undocumented” population.

Settlement mapping is especially useful in estimating populations in places where conflict, natural disasters, or environmental changes have lead to sudden massive population fluctuations that governments and humanitarian organizations struggle to keep up with. Over time, LandScan researchers observe hastily constructed, informal refugee camps become more organized as governments and aid organizations move in with their thousands of uniform tents. The researchers watched an Afghan refugee camp just over the Pakistan border transition to a camp for internally displaced persons, and then to a planned settlement. While the team updates population estimates annually, sometimes U.S. government sponsors, humanitarian organizations, or academic researchers will request more frequent estimates for a specific region. For a while, the team was performing quarterly updates on Syria and the surrounding region because the situation was so dynamic.

“By virtue of doing this, you can understand what sorts of human conditions are people living in on this planet,” Bhaduri told a packed room at an ORNL open house in June. “And you can watch it over time to understand, are countries getting better?”

In many ways, the Manhattan Project failed to consider the future. Historians are still evaluating the effects of the bomb on global history, but it’s undeniable that it ushered in horrors no one could fully anticipate. The nuclear arms race, dangerous nuclear waste, fallout from nuclear testing, and the threat of nuclear terrorism are just some of the consequences of this country’s development and use of the bomb.

Oak Ridge is one of the places that made it possible to imagine global annihilation by nuclear fire. The city remembers the Manhattan Project as a heroic story of wartime industry and sacrifice, the bomb as an unfortunate but sober necessity for ending the war and maintaining peace through nuclear deterrence ever since. Oak Ridge celebrates this history with the annual Secret City Festival, and a stylized symbol of an atom—ellipses for electrons circling a nucleus—can be found everywhere from the official seal of the city to a statue of the Virgin Mary at the local Catholic Church.

Oak Ridge is still sustained by nuclear weapons production and government-funded scientific research; the Department of Energy and its contractors, which run both ORNL and the Y-12 National Security Complex on the opposite end of town, are the biggest employers in town, and account for a major part of the region’s economy—$5.6 billion in 2017. DOE-related jobs offer nearly double the median annual salary of all workers in the state of Tennessee.

Y-12, which produced the highly enriched uranium that fueled the Hiroshima bomb, today maintains the nation’s nuclear stockpile through refurbishment and modernization. Work has begun on a new uranium processing facility, budgeted at $6.5 billion, slated to be the state’s largest construction project ever. Nuclear watchdog groups are suing the National Nuclear Security Administration, the nuclear weapons sub-agency of the DOE, for failing to assess the seismic risks in the latest design.

In the meantime, after nearly three decades on the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list, ORNL and Y-12 contain hundreds of dangerously crumbling, highly contaminated defunct process buildings; until funding is allocated for their decontamination and demolition, the DOE must spend millions annually maintaining them to stave off further dangerous deterioration. The waterways of Oak Ridge run with mercury left over from Y-12’s production of hydrogen bomb fuel in the 1950s and ’60s.

UrbanSense has the potential to further modernize Oak Ridge. But Applegate also sees the project as an opportunity to shift from a reactionary approach to city management to a more informed, forward-thinking model. And he hopes Oak Ridge can be an example for other smaller cities looking to plan for the future.

By gathering data about global urban life on the macro and micro scales, the Urban Dynamics Institute has the potential to inform similar progressive changes in urban policy and design. Bhaduri, the founder of the UDI, sees a shift in priorities of the current generation of scientists: “They are motivated by societal problems. They want to make an impact in very meaningful ways.” They want to serve the “common cause,” he says, and the complexity of urban landscapes provides a compelling canvas on which to build creative, multidisciplinary solutions that can affect the lives of millions.

Emily Strasser’s writing has appeared in Catapult, Guernica, Tricycle, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and others. She received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Minnesota, and is serving as an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University for the 2018-19 academic year.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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