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UC engineer receives $1M grant from NSF

Urban Flood Open Knowledge Network will anticipate, plan for, avoid and respond to flooding

In the last 15 years, many tragedies experienced in the United States involved water.

Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, and Harvey devastated Texas. Flint, Michigan is, at best, still recovering from a water-supply disaster.

University of Cincinnati environmental engineering associate professor Lilit Yeghiazarian is solving the underlying issues that lead to such suffering. Her team is connecting the data produced by urban systems like power grids, stormwater and transportation networks, and drinking water infrastructure. The end product is digestible information that is available at critical times to anticipate, plan for, avoid and respond to flooding.

Lilit Yeghiazarian in her office

University of Cincinnati environmental engineering associate professor Lilit Yeghiazarian recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Photo/Corrie Stookey/CEAS Marketing

To minimize economic and human losses from future urban floods in the United States, Yeghiazarian and her team will develop an Urban Flood Open Knowledge Network. This network will merge the fields of water-related engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, systems analysis, controls, machine learning, epidemiology, socioeconomics and transportation.

“The Urban Flooding Open Knowledge Network will help everybody understand what to do during a flood and how to reduce damage from future floods,” said Yeghiazarian.

Her work is a prime example of UC's commitment to research as described in its strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

The Urban Flooding Open Knowledge Network will help everybody understand what to do during a flood and how to reduce damage from future floods.

Lilit Yeghiazarian, UC environmental engineering professor

The National Science Foundation, or NSF, recently announced a $1 million award to fund the first phase of this project. The award came from the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator, which supports team-based, multidisciplinary efforts that address challenges of national importance and show potential for deliverables in the near future.

Yeghiazarian’s grant is one of 43 new awards totaling $39 million from the NSF to identify areas of research where investment in convergent approaches -- those bringing together people from across disciplines -- can solve problems that have the potential to yield high-benefit results.

“Awards of this size are a great opportunity to do team science and engineering,” Yeghiazarian said. “Many important scientific and societal problems are so complex that they can only be solved by interdisciplinary teams. In our team we have experts in multiple fields who represent academia, city governments and utilities, national labs, private industry, non-profits, federal and state agencies.”

Yeghiazarian explained several examples of the possible applications of this research.

“If you are driving home from work, you need to know which streets are flooded and unsafe to drive. If you are a first responder, you need to know which neighborhoods to evacuate first. If you are a city planner, you need to know how to modernize old cities and design new ones to avoid damages from future floods. The network will put this information at your fingertips.”

Flooding tends to have a cascading impact on an urban area. People are trapped. Electricity goes out. Schools and commerce shut down. Recovery is long and complicated. Insurance rates go up. UC's network will provide simple data by analyzing complex systems to understand such impacts, avoid them, or mitigate them in an emergency – saving lives, reducing suffering, and safeguarding infrastructure.

If you are driving home from work, you need to know which streets are flooded and unsafe to drive. If you are a first responder, you need to know which neighborhoods to evacuate first. If you are a city planner, you need to know how to modernize old cities and design new ones to avoid damages from future floods.

Lilit Yeghiazarian, UC environmental engineering professor

Yeghiazarian connects this work to her fondness for urban areas.

“I love cities. I think they are fascinating - so incredibly complex and dynamic. We still do not fully understand how different elements of cities interact with one another. So when you have a catastrophic event like a severe storm, things start breaking down and triggering other failures. The interconnectivity of cities becomes more apparent. And that’s when we can try to understand how cities are wired and how to improve them, so that they withstand future catastrophes.”

The network is envisioned to empower decision makers and the general public by providing information not just on how much flooding may occur from a future event, but also to show the cascading impact of a flood event on natural and engineered infrastructure of an urban area, so that more effective planning and decision-making can occur.

“I am very pleased that our ideas got so much traction within the scientific community,” said Yeghiazarian. “It is a validation of the science that we do. We are addressing very important societal challenges, and this award means that the reviewers agreed with our approach to solving them.”

With the NSF’s support, Yeghiazarian could be an unsung hero of future disasters not yet experienced. UC's team could preemptively turn a name like Katrina into one of the hundreds of past hurricane names that we do not remember because their damage was contained or limited.

Featured image at top: A truck is submerged in New Orleans. Photo/Bart Everson/Wikimedia Commons

Innovation Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati, classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission, is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-40 public research universities and secured a spot on Reuter’s World’s Most Innovative Universities list. UC's students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.