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Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Sewage Samples Could Be Used to Prevent the Next Viral Outbreak

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Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Indoor plumbing is a beautiful thing. With a single flush, it transports all your nasty business to a far-off place where you never have to think about it again. But according to a group of researchers at MIT, we shouldn’t be writing off our waste so quickly. 

Sewage contains information about a population’s microbiomes that could be potentially life-saving. One stool sample can provide a look at a person’s genetic tendencies, potential illnesses, and overall health. Descending into the sewers to gather this data is not a pretty job, but thankfully the scientists at MIT’S Senseable City Lab are willing to take the plunge. 

The Underworlds project began at the start of this year with researchers donning biohazard suits and climbing through manholes to collect samples by hand. They’ve since developed a network of robots to do the dirty work for them. The automated samplers are stationed throughout the city in residential neighborhoods, industrial areas, and the Harvard and MIT campuses. Almost as soon as the information is gathered, it's transmitted back to MIT, where the Underworlds labs get to work analyzing it for biochemical information. 

To give you an idea of how this data could be useful: Just one sample they studied contained more than 58,000 viruses. By gathering this type of information on a large scale, cities would be better equipped to predict outbreaks of disease and detect new viral strains. Data on everything from deadly pandemics to the common flu could be used to inform policies makers, health practitioners, and researchers in the future. 

The information could also be used to map city demographics. If they find that a certain neighborhood has higher amounts of antibiotics in their sewage, for instance, they might assume it's home to a larger population of children and elderly people. While this could be used as a new way to survey a population, being able to trace the samples back to specific individuals is much less likely. 

It’s still too early to say what the full impact of Underworlds will be. The team is now expanding their operation to Kuwait, where the platform can be used to detect potential enterovirus outbreaks. For a stunning visualization of the Cambridge sewage–sourced data they've compiled so far, head over to Underworlds' webpage.

[h/t: City Lab]

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Courtesy Umbrellium
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Tokyo Tops List of Safest Cities in the World, New Report Says
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When choosing a city to call home, some might weigh factors like affordability, potential for job growth, and even the number of bookstores and libraries. But for many aspiring urbanites, safety is a top concern. This list of the world’s safest cities from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) proves you don’t need to trade your sense of welfare for the hustle and bustle of city life—especially if you're headed to Tokyo.

As Quartz reports, the EIU assessed the overall safety of 60 major cities using categories like health safety, infrastructure safety, personal safety, and the cybersecurity of smart city technology. With an overall score in 89.80 out of 100 points, Tokyo is the 2017 Safe Cities Index's highest-ranking city for the third year in a row.

While it was rated in the top five places for cybersecurity, health security, and personal security, Tokyo's No. 12 spot in the infrastructure security category kept it from receiving an even higher score. The next two spots on the EIU list also belong to East Asian cities, with Singapore snagging second place with a score of 89.64 and Osaka coming in third with 88.67. Toronto and Melbourne round out the top five. View more from the list below.

1. Tokyo
2. Singapore
3. Osaka
4. Toronto
5. Melbourne
6. Amsterdam
7. Sydney
8. Stockholm
9. Hong Kong
10. Zurich

You may have noticed that no U.S. cities broke into the top 10. The best-rated American metropolis is San Francisco, which came in 15th place with a score of 83.55. Meanwhile, New York, which used to hold the No. 10 slot, fell to No. 21 this year. The report blames the U.S.'s poor performance in part on America's aging infrastructure, which regularly receives failing grades from reports like these due to lack of maintenance and upgrades.

Surprised by your city's rank? For an idea of how other countries view the U.S. in terms of safety, check out this list of travel warnings to foreign visitors.

[h/t Quartz]


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