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Climate Hackathon yields ideas for managing urban heat

When the new Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy announced in the fall of 2022 that it would host a 24-hour Climate Solutions “Hackathon,” there was some confusion across the College of Science.

Hackathons were for coders and computer geeks, right? It turns out, not necessarily. This was to be an activity of intense solving, with a focus on a pernicious climate change-related problem: urban heat.

Urban heat is the phenomenon of cities becoming excessively hot because of urbanization, lack of vegetation and climate change. It is increasingly causing a range of harmful effects across the world, such as air pollution, health problems and increased energy consumption.

Ready, set, go!

By the time the event kicked off at noon on Friday, Jan. 27 at the Crocker Science Center, close to 140 undergraduate and graduate students had registered. Some arrived as teams of three or four, while others showed up alone, ready to partner with anyone. They were given “hack packs” with “hacking sheets” providing prompts and background information to get them rolling.

“We did as much background research as we could beforehand,” said Hollis Belnap, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering. “But once the hackathon started, that’s when we just started throwing out ideas, like, what about this? What about that?”

As the evening progressed, dozens of teams burrowed in for a long night of brainstorming, surrounded by snacks, whiteboards and laptops. U faculty with specialties in urban engineering or atmospheric studies also made the rounds and offered feedback.

“It was really an urban heat crisis crash course for me,” said Victoria Carrington, a biochemistry and law major. “It was intense, but in a positive way. It’s not like being in a competition to beat other people. It’s like we were all working towards a solution. Even if we didn’t win, we were still doing something really important in that 24 hours.”

Ultimately, the submissions that won over the Wilkes Center staff and leadership team were those that recognized the complexity of the problem and found ways to creatively integrate technologies, data and policies.

Winning submissions

First place: Schools as heat shelters ($3,000 prize)

Four students line up along staircase, leaning over the railing.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Chambless

Team Green Campus, from left to right: Adrian Sucahyo, Victoria Carrington, Vivek Anandh and Aarushi Verma.

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Team Green Campus Solutions

  • Aarushi Verma (undergraduate, quantitative economics)
  • Vivek Anandh (undergraduate, computer science)
  • Adrian Sucahyo (undergraduate, electrical engineering)
  • Victoria Carrington (graduate, law, biochemistry)

Team Green Campus Solutions proposed using public school buildings as places for shelter during the hot summer months, and upgrading schools with renewable generation stations utilizing existing funding mechanisms in ways that would be scalable.

“When I was a senior in high school, I tried to get our school district to transition to 100% clean energy,” said Verma. “So, I knew a lot about schools and how schools can be a hub for clean energy. I also knew the challenges that came with that.”

Verma’s teammates also brought their own shared experiences with asthma and struggling to learn in hot classrooms. “We really focused on how the urban heat crisis impacts children, and how we can make K-12 schools better prepared to support them,” said Carrington. “It took some finessing, but I think we got there.”

Second place: Resiliency hubs and portable cooling centers ($2,000 prize)

Three students lean over the railing looking down.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Chambless

Team USmart Solutions, from left to right: Sevda Zeinal Kheiri, Hollis Belnap and Luis Rodriguez-Garcia.

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Team USmart Solutions

  • Sevda Zeinal Kheiri, (graduate, electrical and computer engineering)
  • Luis Rodriguez-Garcia, (graduate, electrical and computer engineering)
  • Hollis Belnap, (graduate, electrical and computer engineering)

Team USmart Solutions proposed a combination of resilience hubs that would not overburden the grid, portable cooling stations and incentives for community members to use less energy during extreme heat periods.

“The ‘resiliency hubs’ would be large buildings that could generate its own power, it would be green, and could be used to house people during heat wave emergencies—a community resource for people who don’t have AC,” said Belnap. “But then we thought, what if someone cannot go there?” said Rodriguez-Garcia. “We’re thinking of older adults or people who require specific medical equipment. So, then we brought in another layer for portable cooling resources.”

The USmart Solutions team also integrated planning for energy equity—a system that would be equitable for all members of a community.

Third Place: An urban heat formula ($1,000 prize)

Three students lean over a railing, looking down.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Chambless

Team Hacking Urban Heat, from left to right: Jack Perry, Nathanael Busath and Thomas Stewart.

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Team Hacking Urban Heat

  • Jack Perry, (undergraduate, mathematics and quantitative analysis of markets and organizations)
  • Thomas Stewart (undergraduate, chemical engineering)
  • Nathanael Busath (undergraduate, finance)

Team Hacking Urban Heat created an urban heat index formula using data that cities could analyze to determine and mitigate their own unique urban heat challenges.

“We wanted our solution to be as broad-reaching as possible,” said Busath. “It’s a framework for different cities to figure out what they can do to change.”

“As we maximize green space, the denominator for the equation, the urban heat index is going to go down,” added Stewart. “So, that was the really cool thing about developing the equation. Now we can go in and look at a specific situation, say, is there a lot of green space in this area already? All right, where can we reduce building materials and their albedo, and minimize that on the numerator.”

Crossing the finish line

Carrington, who like many participants did not know her teammates before the competition, remembered the thrill as the Saturday noon deadline approached.

“I woke up at 4:30 a.m. that second day, and it was like, we’ve gotta get this done! And I think we submitted it with two minutes to spare. It was that super adrenaline-filled type of competition.”

Thirteen teams submitted Hackathon slide decks in total. The top three teams were invited to share posters showcasing their ideas at the upcoming Wilkes Climate Summit on May 16-17.

More information about the Climate Solutions Hackathon can be found on the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy website.