Technology on parade at eMerge Americas

Marisa Hightower and Robin Bachin from the University's Office of Civic and Community Engagement demonstrate the recently launched LAND online mapping tool. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Amanda M. Perez

Marisa Hightower and Robin Bachin from the University's Office of Civic and Community Engagement demonstrate the recently launched LAND online mapping tool. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Technology on parade at eMerge Americas

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Amanda M. Perez
The University of Miami showcases its tech projects and groundbreaking research at the annual technology conference.

Five minutes after the doors swung open to the exhibition space inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, Jorge Damian de la Paz and his cohorts from the University of Miami were already fully engaged with a group of curiosity seekers wanting to know more about the computer aid his office developed to help solve Miami-Dade’s affordable housing shortage. 

“Before, we’d have to use more time-consuming and less-sophisticated methods. But now with just a few clicks, we’re getting the same data a lot faster,” explained de la Paz, program manager of UM’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement (CCE), tapping his finger on a computer display of county parcels. “It’s by far the easier, smarter way of going about it.” 

De la Paz was referring to CCE’s Land Access for Neighborhood Development, or LAND, a new interactive mapping tool that identifies vacant, unused, or underutilized land across Miami-Dade County and its 34 municipalities. 

It was just one of the many high-tech UM projects that were featured Monday as the 2019 eMerge Americas conference got underway on Miami Beach. 

The two-day technology summit connects start-ups, government leaders, innovators, and investors through workshops, networking, high-tech demonstrations, keynote speakers, and panel discussions.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk led a panel discussion that brought together a distinguished set of speakers to discuss the issues surrounding the building of education systems to promote and advance innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

“As our university is approaching its centennial, I think we share with eMerge the same vision of making Miami the innovation hub of the Americas,” said Frenk.

He discussed three ways in which the innovation and education systems intersect.

“First, schools and universities are multipliers of innovation because they actually train and educate innovators in every field,” said Frenk. “Second, schools and universities are themselves the object of innovation, and third, schools are generators of innovation because a lot of the fundamental discoveries that fuel innovation happen in universities.” 

Frenk asked the panel what they think the main challenges the region of the Americas faces where innovations can play a major role. 

Miguel Brechner, president of Ceibal Center, said he believes educators tend to spend too much time discussing curriculum instead of discussing how to inspire students to pursue what they want.

“How do you expect someone to be inspired if he has to listen to a master lecturer. Instead we must put the student in a project that immerses them in the studies of their choice,” said Brechner.

Frenk added to the statement saying “Due to cognitive scientific advances in the 20th century, we’re learning how children and adults learn. We now know that the old paradigm that you study theory and practice then apply is all wrong. It most often works the other way around.”

Frenk also mentioned that graduates are facing the most dynamic, rapidly changing labor market because of advances in technology.

“Developing the educators of this new era is a huge challenge we must face. Educational systems must become open systems of people coming in and out at different parts of their evolving career needs.”


Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, was on a panel discussing the "Internet of Things," or IoT, and how it will shape future business. The world is more interconnected than ever. This year, it's estimated that there are about 5 billion connected things, and some predict that by 2020, the number of Internet-connected things will reach or even exceed 50 billion.

“Part of my responsibility is to prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs that the industry can benefit from,” said Duerk. “We are investing a huge amount of money in high performance computing and recruiting data specific expertise that looks at data as a resource and opportunity.”

He added that the University is exploring different ways in which the institution is immersing in big data.

“Our recruitment patterns in high tech has changed considerably. For example, we’re exposing students who have a background in gaming in the school of Communication,” he said. “The ability to communicate and look at data visualization problems is part of the technology and training we’re providing our students.”

Duerk also noted the University is continually engaging with the private sector to enhance curriculum, and help industry leaders learn first-hand about some of the skillsets being developed at the University. 

“The University of Miami is open for business and always looking forward to collaborations and we have a number of ways in which instructors in our classes are brought in from the industry,” said Duerk.

In addition to the LAND project, other UM research initiatives featured included a virtual reality cadaver table; technology that simulates the function of a heart, pancreas, and other organs on a chip about the size of a USB stick; and an investigation into zebrafish that could lead to cures for a wide spectrum of diseases.

As the conference opened early Monday, it was CCE and its LAND tool that drew quite a bit of scrutiny.

“It’s an issue many people are concerned about,” said Chelsea Lafrance, an AmeriCorps VISTA inclusive communities coordinator with CCE. 

Created in collaboration with UM’s Center for Computational Science and funded by a $100,000 investment from Citi Community Development, the tool provides a snapshot of the location, size, and ownership of publicly or institutionally owned lots that could be assembled across jurisdictions and along transportation hubs to house low- and middle-income residents who are being priced or pushed out of the rapidly gentrifying housing market. 

Low- and middle-income families, according to de la Paz, spend about 70 percent of their income on housing and transportation, the highest in the nation. As such, LAND also includes overlays of the county’s transportation network. 

The tool has identified more than 500 million square feet of vacant, unused, or underutilized land across Miami-Dade County, with faith-based organizations owning a fair percentage of that land. De la Paz noted that churches in the Washington, D.C. have been creating low-income housing to alleviate the affordable housing shortage around the nation’s capital—a model he feels could be replicated here. 

Among the other UM research endeavors featured at this year’s eMerge: 

  • The School of Nursing and Health Studies’ anatomage table. A digital cadaver, the table displays various layers of the human body, featuring a computer touch screen with software that allows students to visualize organs and tissue and their functions in a digital format. 
  • The work of Ashutosh Agarwal, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, whose organs-on-a-chip research simulates the activities, mechanics, and physiological response of entire organs and organ systems, leading to a less time-consuming and more effective way to test new drugs. 
  • Research led by Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric science at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who spearheaded the development of a seasonal forecasting system that uses prediction models from a number of different agencies to produce forecasts that are superior to any single model. The North American Multi-Model Ensemble he helped develop has been issuing forecasts in real time since August 2011. 
  • And the research of Julia Dallman, an associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, who helped discover a clue in the digestive tract of zebrafish that, one day, could help people on the autism spectrum alleviate one of the most common yet least studied symptoms of their disorder: gastrointestinal distress.