eMerge Americas, University of Miami, UInnovation, Preserving Our Future

From Environmental Sensors to Climate-Proof Corals

Exploring 360-degree video at the University of Miami's booth.
By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Exploring 360-degree video at the University of Miami's booth.

From Environmental Sensors to Climate-Proof Corals

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
UM showcases its technology initiatives and projects at eMerge Americas

The black, wallet-sized sensors strategically placed on support beams inside the Miami Beach Convention Center were barely noticeable and seemed to serve no constructive purpose. But the devices, unbeknownst to the thousands of people who walked past them, were busy at work, recording noise levels inside the giant exhibition space and feeding that information back to a wall-mounted video board interface.

While a handful of such noise-monitoring sensors might not sound impressive, imagine a slew of the devices deployed around a large municipality, taking readings on everything from temperature, humidity and light to pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

“They’re the future and are examples of the type of smart city technology we’ve been working on,” Shijia Geng, a research associate in the University of Miami’s Center for Computational Science (CCS), said Monday on the opening day of eMerge Americas, the two-day technology conference that connects innovators, investors and thought leaders through workshops, talks, networking and high-tech demonstrations.

Once again the University of Miami played a key role as one of the event’s global sponsors, with UM President Julio Frenk participating in an “Innovation in the Americas” panel moderated by Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer early Monday, and David Seo, associate professor of medicine and chief medical informatics officer for UHealth, giving a talk on “The University of Miami and IBM Watson Healthcare” later that day.

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And during all of Monday and Tuesday, the University showcased its technology initiatives and projects at its eMerge exhibition space, this year appropriately themed around climate change and sustainability.

As research associate Geng pointed to a flat screen displaying the ebb and flow of decibel levels recorded by the Ubiquitous Environmental Sensors she helped develop, she and Joel Zysman, director of advanced computing at CCS, revealed that the gadgets will be tested at different locations around Miami Beach this summer. “They have the potential to tell city planners where people are moving and gathering, where they should deploy more emergency responders, and where to plan for sanitation and other services,” explained Zysman.

On another large flat screen, a video displayed the simulated category 5 hurricane-force winds and waves generated by the SUSTAIN (SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction) lab, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s 75-foot-long, 38,000-gallon wind-wave tank. During its three years of operation, it’s been used in experiments ranging from the critical air-sea interaction that plays a major role in fueling tropical cyclones to ocean-surface drifters that simulate the transport of oil.

“But we’re just scratching the surface. We need to attract collaborators, and we’re doing that now,” said Nathan Laxague, a postdoctoral associate in applied marine physics, noting that six research groups will be using the lab in the coming months.

With a piece of coral displayed in a small marine environment, Rosenstiel School marine biologist Andrew Baker talked about the technology he and his colleague Rivah Winter have developed in the lab to “climate proof” corals used in reef restoration efforts.

“Reefs are dying because of climate change,” said Baker, the recent recipient of an Inventors Prize from the new Frost Museum of Science in downtown Miami. “Temperatures get too warm, and when corals get too hot, they turn white in a process called coral bleaching. They expel their algal symbionts, which are critical for their survival, and without their algal symbionts, when they’re bleached and white, they die.”

Baker and Winter have found a way of manipulating corals to change the types of algal symbionts they contain in favor of more thermally tolerant types of algae. The process has worked in their Coral Reef Futures Lab. Now, the challenge is to tweak their method to work on coral reefs in the field. “We’ve been working with reef restoration partners who are already planting out tens of thousands of corals every year to see if there’s a way to include our technology in what they’re doing,” said Baker.

Even the study and analysis of Miami neighborhoods went high tech at this year's eMerge, with UM’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement (CCE) demonstrating its new interactive digital toolkit that features data and background information on local housing, allowing urban planners, redevelopment agencies and others to make key policy decisions. 

Thanks to a visual record of Miami’s built environment amassed by county property appraisers during the 20th century, the toolkit also includes historical photographs of many city structures, like a now-vacant Overtown Art Deco-style building that served as a legal and health care clinic during the Jim Crow era. “So now, a community land trust or developer can look at this and potentially do affordable housing development or some other type of public project,” said Jorge Damian de la Paz, CCE program manager, as he demonstrated the toolkit on a flat-screen video board. 

A number of entities are already making use of the toolkit’s extensive data. Miami-Dade County officials, he said, are using the toolkit to help determine how to spend federal housing dollars, while the South Florida Community Land Trust is using it to examine possible development opportunities. 

At UHealth Information Technology, developers are building new computer models to mine data from electronic medical records, making such information easily searchable for physicians and researchers so they can deliver better health care. 

A predictive analytics model, for example, compares a patient’s health information against other records and returns risk factors for disorders like diabetes and hypertension, allowing doctors to initiate preemptive treatment measures. 

“We’ve also built a cohort analysis tool, taking all the data that’s within our EMR (electronic medical records) and making it easily searchable for our researchers,” said Stephen DeGennaro, executive director of research informatics, clinical reporting and data environment at UHealth IT. “So if they want to search for something like breast cancer, they’ll be able to get the number of cases and understand the patient population that has it, along with external factors such as census data or if they live in low-poverty areas.” 

Using such data, UHealth has been moving away from the traditional fee-for-service approach toward a value-based model in which medical teams focus on individual patient needs.

In his Monday afternoon presentation at eMerge, Seo delved further into those plans, explaining that the goal of using data on physical environment, socioeconomic factors and health behaviors is to “improve the experience of care, improve the health of populations, and in doing so reduce the overall health care per capita cost.”

So while the health system still collects traditional data, it has rolled out an enterprise-wide patient questionnaire that covers the social determinants of health care such as median income, level of education and health literacy. “Simply through transparency and the availability of data, you can have significant health improvements,” said Seo.

He shared the stage with Steve Tolle, vice president of strategy for IBM Watson Health, with which UHealth is collaborating to bring cognitive imaging into daily practice to help physicians address some of the most challenging illnesses affecting the U.S. population—from breast, lung, and other cancers to diabetes, brain disease and heart disease.

Tolle reviewed some of his company’s achievements, noting that more than 10,000 cancer patients worldwide have been treated using Watson Health for oncology. He also said the company is also helping state Medicaid programs mine their data to solve real-world problems that arise from running such programs and working with pharmaceutical and medical device companies to accelerate research and bring technology to the market.

Among the other UM projects on display at this year’s eMerge: 

  • Zenciti, a smart city being designed from the ground up by UM’s School of Architecture, the Center for Computational Science, and IT leaders in the Yucatán 
  • A College of Engineering project called Historic Green Village on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County, Florida, that features five commercial buildings powered by solar energy, ground source heat pumps and geothermics 
  • Rapid test kits developed by Miller School of Medicine researchers for the human papillomavirus and Zika virus 
  • A sustainable aquaculture collaboration between the Rosenstiel School and Open Blue Sea Farms in Panama that allows for the commercial production of cobia