MIT researchers are monitoring a city's worth of human waste in the name of urban health

Original press release was issued by MIT Senseable City Lab and Alm Lab.

It isn’t glamorous, but these robots could be the future of public health management. Meet Mario and Luigi, the plumber probes developed by researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab, who are currently wading through the sewage of the city of Cambridge, MA, monitoring the health of local citizens at an unprecedented level. The research project is aptly named – Underworlds.

Mario and Luigi are taking very close look at the feces and urine that flow through the city sewers, studying different species of bacteria, viruses, and chemical compounds that live in the human gut and converge in the city’s sewage – our collective microbiome. Tapping into this vast reservoir of information can help monitor urban health patterns, shaping more inclusive public health strategies, and pushing the boundaries of urban epidemiology.

Underworlds began as a conversation between professors Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Eric Alm, Director of a laboratory in the Department of Biological Engineering ­ before evolving into a multi­departmental research endeavor, involving Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The first application of Underworlds will be contagious disease monitoring and prediction. Early warnings in relation to the presence of enteric disease outbreaks in urban centers could ultimately reduce a community’s medical costs and even help mitigate outbreaks.

“We can reveal the invisible in a city,” explains Professor Ratti. “For every cell in the human body there are around ten bacterial cells, constituting the human microbiome which has recently been recognized as a key determinant of an individual’s health and wellness – how can we measure something like the microbiome at the scale of an entire city, such as Cambridge?”

Image: MIT Microbiome Centre

The MIT team imagines a future where sewage is mined for information that can inform health practitioners, policy makers, and communities alike. “The availability of real-­time or near real­-time data that measures the presence of important pathogens could change how public health responds to these threats,” says Sam Lipson, of environmental health for the City of Cambridge. “Early intervention provides leverage to reduce these impacts, but this kind of surveillance information has generally not been available to public health in the past.”

The implications of Underworlds extend beyond just surveillance to the development of a new type of human population census. Analyzed in tandem with demographic data, a front­end data platform will be created to better understand and visualize the particular health of a neighborhood.