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What Super Mario Bros. Is Teaching MIT About Cities

Meet Luigi, a sewer-trawling robot that could unlock vital information about public health.

Mile after mile of sewer pipe exists beneath our cities. This infrastructural network provides critical waste management, and MIT thinks it can do even more: better educate us about public health–through poop.

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Gangnam, many. [Image: courtesy MIT Senseable City Lab/ALM Lab]
Together, the MIT Senseable City Lab–an urban innovation research group– and ALM Lab–a team investigating the human microbiome–launched Gangnam Poop: Underworlds in Seoul, an experimental “smart sewage” platform that attempts to extract health information from human waste. Using a robot named Luigi–after the Super Mario Bros. character that ventured into underground tunnels to vanquish his enemies–MIT researchers collect sewage samples and then analyze their bacterial and chemical composition. The hope is the data will reveal insights about the health of whole communities, which public-health agencies can use to understand macro trends, like how epidemics spread. In a way, the Underworlds project is like its video game namesake–scientists travel into sewer pipes and combat society’s ills.

[Image: courtesy MIT Senseable City Lab/ALM Lab]
“There is vast reservoir of urban information running underneath our feet–in the sewage system–that remains mostly untapped,” Carlo Ratti–director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and co-principal investigator of the Underworlds project, with Eric Alm of the MIT Alm Lab–tells Co.Design in an email. “By designing automatic samplers and a spatial sampling strategy, we are beginning to better understand different neighborhoods sometimes. When we correlate this information with other demographic and spatial characteristics, we can understand urban health in novel ways.”

The researchers begin by using a custom GIS tool to identify ideal sampling locations for a particular neighborhood, then they install a Luigi robot at that site. The robot then collects samples and analyzes what’s in the specimen and relays the information to scientists who then interpret the findings into data visualizations of what bacteria, viruses, and other biomarkers are present. Presently, there are sampling stations set up in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MIT is still developing the data analytics to understand what those biomarkers imply–and the team spun-off this phase of the project into the startup Biobot Analytics. The company could eventually sell its smart sewage platform–which includes the robotic hardware and the data analytics software–to cities who are eager to institute data-oriented policies. The company’s first priority is to understand the opioid crisis better. For example, by analyzing sewer waste researchers can figure out where consumption is really happening so that cities can deploy anti-addiction and treatment resources more effectively. According to a Boston Magazine report, the company also thinks the platform could be used to understand antibiotic resistance trends and epidemic outbreaks.

“Turning our scientific findings into actionable measures by public health authorities, as well as engaging the public into an active conversation about public health is key to our project,” Ratti tells Co.Design. “Once the platform is ready, the goal is that cities will be able to deploy the automatic samplers according to their needs–in terms of spatial distribution and sampling frequency–dive into the pool of data, and define applications for different public health areas.”

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In the future every flush could help make our cities healthier and more transparent. Sewage epidemiology is a growing scientific field and some researchers believe that testing wastewater can give a more accurate and immediate look at the health of a population. According to a Popsci report, with drug use specifically, public health officials rely on surveys that aren’t always reliable and some experts believe underestimate the severity of problems. Cities in the United States and Europe are already analyzing their wastewater to detect drug use, but there are logistical challenges to obtaining samples at regular intervals.

Additionally, there’s concern about privacy and mass surveillance. While individual drug users would be impossible to track down, labeling a neighborhood as a high drug-use location might have adverse effects. Will officials provide more drug treatment to a neighborhood, or will they deploy more police? Does a city want to be stigmatized because of its drug-use levels? These are issues Underworlds doesn’t answer, but its research and startup are making this data potentially more accessible to cities, and they’ll have to reckon with the implications of having this type of population-level data available.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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