Fanglan Chen (left), Mohammed Almannaa (middle), and Swapna Thorve (right)

Current Virginia Tech graduate students Mohammed Almannaa, Fanglan Chen, and Swapna Thorve have earned the Urban Computing (UrbComp) certificate, a cross disciplinary program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and led by the Discovery Analytics Center.

The program is a collaboration between eight departments and five colleges and trains students to use both foundational and applied aspects of data science to help solve problems related to urban issues like transportation, affordable housing, and policing.

Almannaa holds a master’s degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech and, advised by Hesham Rakha, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the same major.

Among his research interests are bike sharing systems, eco-driving, highway transportation safety, and intelligent transportation systems.

“I was fortunate to enroll in the UrbComp program during the first semester of my Ph.D. journey. It was an invaluable experience, giving me the ability to think out of the box and come up with innovative approaches to solving complex problems,” said Almannaa.

He specifically cites the core course, Urban Computing, for “motivating and pushing me substantially.”

“It gave me the chance to work on a group project with people in different disciplines, providing an appreciable opportunity to look at issues and problems from different perspectives,” said Almannaa.

Chen is a Ph.D. computer science major at the Discovery Analytics Center, advised by Chang-Tien Lu, and working toward a simultaneous doctoral degree in urban planning. Her research focuses on both housing and transportation.

Chen said she decided on the UrbComp program because she wanted to explore how new data sources and methods might be usefully applied to the challenging issues faced by today’s urban planners.

“For example, while creating more attractive and pedestrian-friendly cities, we also aim to provide affordable housing and a convenient transportation system,” said Chen, whose research focuses on both housing and transportation. “A growing network of sensors, wireless devices, and data centers of the key infrastructure make big data easier to gather and analyze to help address urban issues like this more effectively.”

She said that UrbComp also exposed her to a large range of research topics, including energy analytics, epidemiology computing, and social media mining and to the ethical implications and consequences of algorithmic decisions.

For Swapna Thorve, it was the variety and freedom of courses that drew her to the UrbComp program.  A Ph.D. student in computer science, Thorve said the program offers a different and unique skill set that computer scientists should develop.

“Converting real world problems to computer science problems and understanding the different perspectives of students from various backgrounds are two important things I have learned from this program,”  said Thorve, who is a graduate research assistant in the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory and advised by Madhav Marathe.

Her research interests include developing machine learning models, simulations, and smart grid analytical platforms. UrbComp, Thorve said, has provided her the opportunity to collaborate on an array of research problems with students in other departments and disciplines.

(Gloria Kang and Huthaifa Ashqar were the first two Ph.D. students to graduate from Virginia Tech with an Urban Computing program certificate. Read what they have to say about the program here.)

For more information about the Urban Computing certificate, contact Wanawsha Shalaby, program coordinator.