Research News

Vanderbilt civil engineer to design tech-driven decision-making and disaster response tools for Houston-area food banks

Hiba Baroud, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is a co-principal investigator on a project that will develop and deploy tools to intelligently aid in disaster preparation, response and recovery. The project is centered in Harris County, Texas—a region that suffered through this year’s winter storms and associated public health emergencies—and includes the Houston Food Bank as a key community partner.

The project, Equitable Food-Security: Disaster-resilient supply chains for pandemics and extreme weather events, was selected as a stage 1 awardee of the Civic Innovation Challenge, a national research and action competition in the smart and connected communities domain. The challenge is funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Hiba Baroud (Vanderbilt University)

“Our project aims to produce technology-enabled and data-driven decision-making tools that improve the resilience and coordination of Houston Food Bank and its supply chain,” said Baroud, also Littlejohn Dean’s Faculty Fellow. Its objectives include designing tools that assess relief organizations’ capacities and map area food needs using computational game theory, plus rapidly collect and sort key data from vulnerable populations while protecting their privacy, she added.

Food insecurity—the lack of consistent and reliable access to nutritious food—affected 23 percent of children and 14 percent of households in Harris County in 2020. Extreme weather, including this year’s winter storm, the global pandemic and economic hardship, exacerbated this problem, but incomplete data and unsteady pro-bono input limited area food banks’ disaster preparation and decision-making.

The work is being led by Ioannis A. Kakadiaris, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of Computer Science at the University of Houston. Other co-principal investigators on the project are Elizabeth FletcherSusie GronsethAaron Laszka and Bruce Race at the University of Houston, and the CIVIC parter is Kenia Way.

“This unprecedented time has made clear the need for projects like these, to apply available technology solutions to ensure the health and well-being of our communities,” Kakadiaris said. “We co-design with our community partners the solution as we prepare for stage 2 of the Civic Innovation Challenge.”

The team has been awarded $50,000 to support the refinement of their project. At the end of stage 1, NSF will select a number of stage 2 awardees who will each receive awards of up to $1 million to help implement their projects.

“This competition’s inclusion of civic and community partners, coupled with an aggressive and fast-paced timeline, empowers awardees to bridge the gap between research and impact in a unique and compelling way,” Margaret Martonosi, NSF assistant director for computer and information science and engineering, said in a release. “We are excited about our partnership with DOE and DHS on this program. We’re eager to see the projects develop, the teams strengthen and a national community emerge around the common goal of innovative local solutions over the course of the competition.”

Civic Innovation Challenge projects work to understand how factors such as climate change, financial resilience, resource allocation, food security and the ability to deliver clean water during disasters affect community responses.

“The events of the last year have shown us the importance of preparing our communities for all kinds of disasters,” said David J. Alexander, senior science adviser for resilience for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. “At DHS, we are inspired by the work underway by the Resilience Track awardees and are confident they will generate meaningful impact on a national scale.”