ECE’s Anvitha Ramachandran Works on UMass iCons Team to Protect Marginalized Communities from Electricity Failures
With every day, society grows increasingly dependent on electricity, but extreme weather caused by climate change is disrupting Americans’ access to power, especially in low-income and disadvantaged communities. To address this mushrooming problem, a team of six UMass Amherst students – including senior Anvitha Ramachandran of the Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science Departments – has answered a U.S. government challenge to create user-friendly digital tools and guarantee that vulnerable communities are never short-circuited by power outages.
The U.S. government has challenged teams from UMass Amherst and eight other top universities to create user-friendly digital tools and analyses to ensure that disadvantaged communities are not left powerless during severe-weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes.
In this context, students from UMass Amherst’s Integrated Concentration in STEM (iCons) Program were recently recruited by the U.S. Census Bureau’s The Opportunity Project (TOP) for a 10-week “sprint challenge” called “Improving Access to Electrical Power for Climate Resilience.” The goal of the sprint challenge is to help the Department of Energy (DoE) address power lapses more equitably during emergency situations.
The UMass iCons team is developing a smart website called “ASSERT” (AI-Supported Smart Electricity Restoration Tool). ASSERT is designed to inform utility emergency response teams on the geographic locations of vulnerable populations during power outages, allowing faster responses to restore power with social equity in mind. The UMass team is scheduled to unveil and demonstrate its prototype ASSERT website in December.
As Ramachandran said about the ASSERT project, “I believe that ASSERT will be beneficial to populations that are overburdened by power outages by being a tool that functions in a larger framework, where electric-utility companies target equitable restoration and deployment of resources.”
Ramachandran also explained that “The Opportunity Project provided an excellent supplement to my engineering education by enabling me to work in a team and apply the skills I’ve received in a practical environment with a collaborative culture from other students across the nation.”
The UMass iCons team includes six juniors and seniors—Ramachandran, Suhani Chawla, Jose Cruz Mendez, Kushagra Srivastava, Sarojini Torchon and Gabby Walczak—majoring in computer science, mathematics, and computer systems engineering. These students were chosen to participate in the iCons Program based on their interest and prior training in the topic. They are collaborating during the fall 2023 semester and earn iCons credit for their work.
Meanwhile, the UMass team members have received unique access to federal datasets on power outages to inform their work and are receiving mentorship from national experts in end-user needs, digital-product design, and data analytics—all coordinated by TOP.
The UMass team presented the concept of its ASSERT website at the Justice Week 2023 conference in Washington, D.C., in early November. The UMass team was invited with the eight other participating universities to present at the conference, themed “Equity Empowered.” The five-day event was aimed at advancing equity and environmental justice in the clean-energy transition and safeguarding that climate-change investments benefit the communities that are often left behind.
The U.S. Census Bureau administers the project through the TOP in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology. Other universities participating in the project include the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Tufts University.
“It’s exciting to see the [UMass] iCons team bring together ideas from applied math, artificial intelligence, graphical information systems, and human-centered design to address this real-world problem,” said Scott Auerbach, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct in the Chemical Engineering Department, and the executive director of iCons. “I can’t wait to see what they come up with in a few short weeks.”
Read more at the UMass News Office story.