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Can studying sewage reveal new insights about public health?

Big data, which is usually used by organizations to find order within an expanding digital world, is coming to city planning. As part of our Urban Ideas series, the NewsHour’s Christopher Booker takes us under the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts to learn about a new public health effort: mining data about infectious diseases from sewer waste.

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  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The most unpleasant job in all of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston next door neighbor, may well belong to a robot named Luigi.

    These researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lower Luigi into the city's sewer system to collect samples of human wastewater.

    More than two-feet long this robot is on the cutting edge of data collection and public health research. He was created by M.I.T.'s Senseable City lab, which innovates new approaches to study urban environments.

  • ERIC ALM:

    It's a great way to get behavioral data that would be very difficult to get on a person-by-person basis.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    M.I.T. Biological Engineering professor Eric Alm helps oversee the project.

  • ERIC ALM:

    There's a lot of folks looking at sewage often at the wastewater treatment plant. We're trying to go closer to people's homes and say, 'Well, what's really coming out?' What can we learn about the human activities that are going on in a city by looking at these bacteria, viruses, chemicals, closer to the people that encounter them?

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Once Luigi is finished gathering, the students pull him out of the sewer and take his data to Alm's lab.

    Launched last year, the robot is a key player in a pilot program known as "Underworlds" launched last year.

    The premise is that sewage can be mined for data in real-time to inform policy makers, health officials, and city planners about the health of residents.

  • ERIC ALM:

    People in public works want to know, 'Are there people who are illegally dumping their sewage into the storm drains?' People in the department of defense want to know, 'Are people making bombs in their bathtub? Could we detect those chemicals.' People in public health want to know, 'What are the new diseases that are emerging? Can we sequence them? Can we get identification of these bacteria before people get sick.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Such knowledge could potentially alter Cambridge's understanding of issues ranging from demographic patterns, nutritional intake and even illicit drug use.

    Sam Lipson is Director of Environment Health with Cambridge's Public Health department.

  • SAM LIPSON:

    We're so used to having broader outcome measures like, 'How many people showed up in the emergency room? Or 'What's the rate of an infectious disease?'"

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Lipson envisions a future where the city's health efforts will be more precise and more easily measured.

  • SAM LIPSON:

    Resources are always limited, and you may identify that there is one or two neighborhoods within the city where there's a greater indication of a greater likelihood of diabetes developing in that neighborhood. This would be a way of allocating resources and then being able to measure whether or not you've actually had an impact.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But there are broader social implications surrounding just what Luigi and the lab are capable of learning and revealing about people.

  • ERIC ALM:

    The big question for us is going to be privacy, and we've tried to make sure that we're monitoring an area that has at least 5,000 people, so we give people some extent of anonymity that way.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Is it reasonable to think you could take this down to the micro level, single household?

  • ERIC ALM:

    We're not going to do that. I think it would be expensive to do that, so you'd have to have a very targeted question. And I don't think people would want that."

  • SAM LIPSON:

    There's no real possibility of tracking any piece of data back to any individual, these are really combined samples through a combined waste stream, and there's simply no tags or metadata. There are going to be questions down the road about how you work with a community, since in my view the community would own this data, to make that then available and beneficial.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Because I can also envision commercial implications.

  • SAM LIPSON:

    Exactly, right, you could imagine if they could target a neighborhood, or even a city that has a high rate of a certain chronic disease, or maybe of indicators to suggest those diseases will occur later on, that they might find that valuable information. And so there are some really important questions eventually that need to get addressed, but we have a little time to work that out.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    This summer the underworld's project plans to deploy ten more robots like :uigi to sample sewers throughout Cambridge and Boston.

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