Funded Grants

Understanding the complex urban system through remote imaging

With millions of interacting people and hundreds of governing agencies, urban environments are the largest, most dynamic, and most complex human systems on earth. Some 80% of Americans (and 50% of the world’s population) now live in cities, and within those urban boundaries are a multitude of intricate interactions between the inhabitants, the natural environment, and the built environment. Further, as the data revolution has swept across society, urban settings have not been left behind. Digitized public records data, social media data, sensors within infrastructure, demographic information, and financial data are all examples of large data streams that are beginning to reveal new ways of understanding modern cities. And while the growing avalanche of new data across all disciplines has led to a myriad of opportunities for discovery, given the massive population shift towards cities, none of these holds more potential to impact society at large than the emerging field of Urban Science. In this proposal I describe a novel method for studying the complex urban system through remote imaging acquired with the new Urban Observatory facility (UO) at the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) at New York University (NYU).

For centuries, astronomers have turned their telescopes on the heavens and analyzed observations of the night sky to understand how the Universe works. In analogy, my work at the CUSP-UO is deriving actionable information and science about how the City of New York works through persistent, remote observations of its skyline. A tremendous diversity of complex phenomenology presents itself in visible and infrared imaging of the city. Variability of interior and exterior lighting along the skyline can be used to address sociological and health questions such as the effects of light pollution on circadian rhythms. Daytime imagery reveals plumes of pollution produced by the interactions of city dwellers with the built environment. Infrared images measure thermal connectivity between nearby buildings as they heat up and cool down with a diurnal “pulse.” And hyperspectral imagers—which separate light into hundreds of independent wavelength channels—can yield measurements of lighting technology penetration and the relationship of humans to that technology. Coupling the plethora of available records data to ground truth, the passive imaging will yield a more complete picture of urban functioning. Having been trained as an astronomer using all-sky images from space telescopes to study the structure of our Galaxy, my research applies these same advanced image processing and analysis techniques to deepen our understanding of the complex urban system and work towards improving quality of life for its inhabitants.

Clothing the Emperor

Clothing the Emperor, a forum for issues concerning the academic research community, discusses a pre-pandemic perspective piece framing a new vision for academic science. Read More

Subscribe to Our Mailing List

Stay up to date with JSMF news and updates by subscribing to our email mailing list.

Contact Information
The James S. McDonnell Foundation
1034 S. Brentwood Blvd., Ste 1850
Saint Louis, MO 63117
Phone: 314-721-1532