By Yuliya Klochan
Fabio Miranda, then a Ph.D. student in computer science at New York University, was mapping shadows produced by buildings throughout the day in New York City in 2016. He intended for his project to help urban planners, architects and developers select potential construction sites and test different building types at sites where shadows can cut off light to new buildings.
Then The New York Times featured his shadow maps in an article. And shortly after, an occupational therapist reached out to Miranda about his research. Turns out, she’d been printing Miranda’s shadow maps and showing them to her older adult clients. More shadows meant higher chances of snow accumulation and black ice. Miranda’s maps highlighted places for her clients to avoid.
“That element of surprise really made me engage more with that type of work — accessibility and mobility — in ways that I would never expect to engage if she hadn’t reached out, and if she had not told me that she was using the data,” Miranda said. “So one paper that was mostly focused on urban planning led to this collaboration with an occupational therapist that led to different research projects trying to answer more concrete questions of accessibility.”
Miranda, now an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), works at the school’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) and continues to use the power of computer simulations and visualizations to address essential problems. Accessibility is still a big part of his work, but Miranda is also tackling telltale signs of environmental pollution in Chicago, extreme weather events like landslides in Brazil (with Brazilian collaborators) and COVID-19 forecasting models and maps.
“I’m really motivated in tackling real-life problems and, specifically, urban problems,” Miranda said. He manages the different topics by threading that urban aspect throughout and maintaining the same data management and visual analytics features. “No project is like trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s always leveraging something that was developed in the previous paper or in the previous project, and then expanding from that,” he said.
Miranda is in good company — many EVL researchers pursue a variety of interests. Carla Floricel, a third-year Ph.D. student in computer science, researches visual analytics of head and neck cancer, aircraft simulations and illegal fishing activities. “It is hard to connect everything,” Floricel said. “But I’m sure I’ll find a way to do it.”
Sanjana Srabanti, also a third-year Ph.D. student in computer science, focuses on medical data, but, like Miranda and Floricel, she works on multiple projects at EVL. Her first is finding socioeconomic or demographic factors, such as lack of health insurance, that affect head and neck cancer patients in two facilities, in Texas and Illinois. Her other project, a collaboration with Miranda, is forecasting COVID-19 spread.
“What I’m doing, the visualization, is the main key factor over here,” Srabanti said. It’s the overarching theme of EVL as well, along with virtual reality and immersive environments.
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EVL has been a part of the computer science department at UIC since its inception in 1973.
In the 1970s, “the Lab pioneered real-time interactive graphics and videogame technology,” according to the EVL website. By the 1990s, lab founders created an immersive virtual environment known as the CAVE, a walk-in sanctuary where every movement activated experiences such as seeming free flight through downtown Chicago.
EVL specializes in data visualizations and virtual reality initiatives of different kinds. In a testament to the interdisciplinary breadth of research, EVL is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in addition to UIC funding.
Before COVID-19 struck, EVL faculty and contributors would discuss the history of computer graphics during Friday movie nights, where they’d watch old sci-fi films together.
“You were not just watching movies for the sake of watching them,” Floricel said. “We would also analyze them, compare (them) to the years that they were released.” Of course, graphics analysis was not the only reason for movie nights. “Our director, he tried to host those things every Friday, so that we are not burdened (all the time) with the work we are doing, so that we can also have some amusement,” Srabanti said.
Outside of research, EVL faculty teach courses on a variety of topics, such as visualizations, game development, game design and user interaction (UI). The classes are typically full, according to Floricel.
Lab members regularly collaborate with other departments, such as chemistry, civil and mechanical engineering, and art at UIC, to facilitate visualizations and visual data displays.
At weekly meetings, lab members share personal updates in addition to their research. They also get to present their findings as practice for formal talks and conferences.
Faculty also find time to support their students, academically and personally. “If I want to get help from anyone, they are very willing to help each of the students,” Srabanti said.
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Miranda’s other recent project is modeling the material composition of city sidewalks using a large collection of image data. He and his team generate maps with the spatial distribution of materials such as concrete, brick, asphalt or granite in different cities. “The material of the sidewalk that you might have, that material might impact people differently in how they walk around the city,” Miranda said.
For example, uneven or low-friction surfaces can lead to more falls, especially for older populations. There’s an environmental component as well: Surface material can impact water runoff, leading to flooding or pollution, or raise temperatures in the area. These and other factors are demonstrated in visualizations.
Miranda published a paper about sidewalk composition with colleagues in February (in print in April) in Sustainable Cities and Society. It came out of his collaboration with the occupational therapist in New York who’d used his shadow maps.
In collaboration with the UIC School of Public Health, Miranda created a dashboard of environmental burdens in Chicago communities (accessible to the public here), using data from sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory.
“We leveraged all of this data to come up with how much burden that particular community is being impacted by,” Miranda said. “We found that most of the burden is on underrepresented communities, specifically in the Southwest Side of Chicago.” The results, made available in January, have already led to some community awareness, with more than 7,000 views of the data tool and an article in a local newspaper, McKinley Park News. The dashboard showed high pollution burdens in predominantly Latinx communities in the city’s industrial corridors where people suffered more serious symptoms of COVID-19.
Miranda has more projects in the pipeline. And his work has real-life impact: “It’s very motivated by real life problems faced by certain communities or by domain experts that are involved in urban problems.”
Yuliya Klochan is a health, environment and science graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @YuliyaKlochan.