Communities Changing Lives

The Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (Partnership) at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute has been using its Community Research Grant program to help Georgia communities with innovative technology-based projects that improve the lives of residents and visitors since 2020. In Warner Robins, crime has been reduced thanks to a digital twin project. In Columbus, the Chattahoochee River is safer for swimmers and boaters because of another digital twin application. In Valdosta, first responders now make it across town much more quickly, saving lives and property.

The Community Research program is a competitive grant process that supports teams of university researchers and local governments by providing funding, expert advice, program management, access to the Partnership’s Summer Internship Program, and a network of peers, on year-long pilot projects. Alumni cities and counties have successfully implemented projects and garnered additional funding and technical assistance to continue serving residents and meet community goals. Projects have also achieved national and international recognition and served as models for communities addressing similar problems.

This year’s Community Research projects, which are at the halfway point, have the potential to positively impact lives in equally important ways for Georgians in Atlanta, Brunswick, Milledgeville, and Statesboro. Recently, project leaders presented information on progress, challenges, and lessons learned to date.

Atlanta: Active Transportation

Sensors on the back of bikes help researchers in Atlanta

Across the city of Atlanta scooter drivers, pedestrians, and wheelchair users take their lives into their own hands — or into the hands of distracted drivers — every day. Atlanta’s project seeks to make roads safer for all users by studying transportation issues in four neighborhoods: Grove Park and Cascade II, on the westside, and South Boulevard and East Atlanta, in the city’s southeastern quadrant.

The goals of the Atlanta project — a collaborative effort that includes the City of Atlanta Department of Transportation (DOT), MARTA, Propel ATL, Georgia State University’s Micromobility Lab, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Engineering — are to develop policies and initiatives that incorporate smart transportation technology and contribute to a cleaner, safer, and a more connected Atlanta.

Fei Li, of Georgia State University’s Urban Institute, is the project lead and presented at the event. To achieve the project goals, Li laid out the objectives of the group’s research: to understand the barriers to active transportation — which she defined as “human powered. So that may include walking, biking, or rolling, like scooters.”

Using a multi-pronged approach to get at the information needed, the research team will do neighborhood surveys; assess the current physical infrastructure, including sidewalks, bike racks, and more; track activity; and monitor air pollution in the project neighborhoods.

To date, data has been collected from light detection and ranging (LiDAR) equipment mounted to cars to map the neighborhoods; 25 students have canvassed 24 blocks to recruit participants and administer surveys; and 3 Fitbits and 2 Airbeams have been deployed to track individual residents’ physical activities and exposure to air pollution.

Working with DOT, the project has identified low-hanging fruit that can help improve mobility and safety. Locations for micromobility (bikes, scooters) device parking corrals have been scouted, which will not only keep parked devices off sidewalks and streets, but will also make the streets safer for pedestrians.

“We’re calling these quick builds,” said Ashley Finch, the Atlanta DOT’s shared micromobility coordinator, “because it’s things that we’re able to do in house, with our in-house maintenance crews and materials that we keep in our warehouses.”

Going forward, the team will continue to build community support for the project and seek additional funding to expand the project and implement the findings that will create safer neighborhoods for all.

Brunswick: Safe Water Together

Citizen scientists learn to test water

Brunswick and Glynn County on the coast of Georgia are home to beautiful marsh lands, historic sites, and popular beaches. The region is also home to four U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites — areas of toxic, hazardous waste that can leach into the ground and the water – that are being cleaned by federal Superfund dollars with the goal of returning them to productive use.

The Safe Water Together project focuses on addressing these and other environmental health and justice issues in a region with socio-economic disparities.

“Toxic waste pollution is significantly impacting human health on our coastline,” said Asli Aslan, project lead, associate professor of environmental health sciences, and director of the Institute for Water and Health at Georgia Southern University. “One in every six Americans lives within a mile of a toxic waste site, and nearly 30% of those are minorities. Brunswick is specifically important in that sense because they have four of those [Superfund sites] and other hazardous waste sites as well.”

The polluted areas threaten rivers, ecosystems, water supplies, air quality, food supplies, and, ultimately, the health of residents.

A collaboration with Rebuilding Together Glynn County, the local school system, Georgia Southern University, and Georgia Tech, the project aims to develop solutions based on community experiences and scientific data. By utilizing advanced water quality detection technology, the initiative targets microbial and chemical contamination exacerbated by sea-level rise.

Working with 12 pastors in the Black and Brown communities of Brunswick, researchers have assembled a group of citizen scientists that will help measure the chemicals in water and determine community needs.

“One of the objectives for this grant is to build the foundations of a community-led citizen science group,” Aslan said. “Working with community leaders is extremely important for us because those are the liaisons that will be spreading the word, creating more awareness, and increasing perceptions and knowledge in the area about what these toxic chemicals may do for health for the communities. The other objective is to identify and disseminate [information about] existing water and health hazards by looking at the data. It’s not like a research presentation, but really taking this to the communities and working with them to see what that data means for them and how they can use it.”

To meet these objectives, the research team is setting up a water quality lab in Brunswick that will be owned by the citizens. The team will train the citizen science group to collect field samples, assess them, and develop protocols for ensuring the data is collected properly. The team will also work with citizens on creating outreach and education materials.

The project team has been approached by other universities and local governments for information about how to set up a community approach to improving water quality.

Ultimately, this endeavor seeks to improve water quality, address environmental disparities, and contribute to long-term solutions for a more sustainable and just community in Brunswick and Glynn County.

Milledgeville: Workforce Development Study in Solar Technology and Eco-entrepreneurship

A solar class meets

As technology changes, so do the skills needed to deploy those technologies. Nowhere is this more evident that in the shift around the world to green energy. Often the people left behind by these technology shifts are those who can’t afford or don’t have access to the training they need to work in a new sector.

To help combat the lack of trained solar technicians in Middle Georgia, the city of Milledgeville is working with researchers from Georgia College & State University’s (GCSU) Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Education, as well as Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. That consortium of researchers aims to launch a no-cost certificate program in solar power systems combined with business education for aspiring entrepreneurs in the green energy sector. The program is making a special effort at recruiting disadvantaged and underserved individuals. The program aims to address the lack of accessible certification options in the middle and south regions of Georgia.

Hasitha Mahabaduge, associate professor of physics at GCSU, presented the project for the team.

“We, like most of rural Georgia, have seen our share of economic hardship,” Mahabaduge said. “We at Georgia College came together and discussed that we could use some of our expertise to help the city of Milledgeville to reverse the trend of this economic hardship. It would be a win-win situation for all of us.”

In addition to teaching people how to install solar panels, they are taking the training a step further, teaching participants how to create and manage their own business in the solar energy industry.

The certification course in solar energy and eco-entrepreneurship is free to all participants. The team has scheduled four cohorts of 10 students each for the classes, with people coming from as far as three hours away for the training.

In addition to training people for a new industry, researchers are looking at the economic impact of the program on the community and measuring attitude changes related to green energy by the participants. At the end of the four cohorts, students will be certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, the established certification organization in the field of renewable energy. Finally, all the students from all cohorts will come together to install a solar project for the city of Milledgeville.

“We are teaching the basic physics engineering aspects of working in the solar field,” Mahabaduge said. “On top of that, we are providing them with the tools to not only work for someone else, but to start their own business.”

The project has received media coverage in Middle Georgia, which has resulted in a waiting list of more than 150 potential students. By providing hands-on experience and relevant skills, the project strives to build a sustainable, eco-conscious workforce and economy.

Statesboro: Improving Indoor Air Quality

Measuring air quality

Live, green plants do more than brighten a drab office. They can also help to improve air quality, making spaces healthier and more comfortable for the people who work in them. But how much can plants help with odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in older, government-owned buildings? That’s the question a pilot project in Statesboro is working to answer.

“We are spending most of our time indoors, but unfortunately, the current national regulatory standards are not protecting indoor environments,” said Atin Adhikari, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Georgia Southern University.

In an office building there may be many indoor air pollution sources, including housekeeping practices, dirty ventilation systems, and water damage, which can create health problems for office workers.

“Unlike in our home environments, office workers may not have adequate resources for changing their indoor air quality,” Adhikari said. “In this project we are focusing on the application of indoor plants, which can be used for absorbing different types of gases. It’s not a new concept. NASA and some other laboratories already did laboratory experiments. But nobody applied the simple, green, and cost-effective approach in office environments.”

The project measured VOC levels in 16 public buildings in Bullock County, from office buildings to city hall to a fire station. For the study, six buildings were selected. Three are control buildings and three buildings had plants added. Students collect data at the buildings and care for the plants, which include bamboo, rubber plants, and areca palms, plants that have been shown to absorb toxins from the air.

An initial round of data was collected before the plants were added. After reviewing that data and measuring both data and perception of employees following the plant installation, the pilot project will wrap up.

“We will conduct statistical testing to determine the impact of the implant intervention on indoor air quality and parse it into the air quality,” Adhikari said.

The City of Statesboro is partnering with a multidisciplinary research team from Georgia Southern University and Fayetteville State University, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to look at  both objective sensor data and subjective perceptions of employees on air quality before and after intervention.

The study involves active engagement with stakeholders, including students, administrators, and city employees and aims to improve indoor air quality for city employees and the larger local population, offering scalability potential, and serving as a reference for similar areas on indoor air quality evaluation and intervention.