Vanderbilt receives two CIVIC Awards from the National Science Foundation

Two Vanderbilt researchers are among a handful nationwide that have received Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) planning grants from the National Science Foundation, which were announced October 17. The purpose of the NSF CIVIC program is to accelerate the transition to practice of foundational research and emerging technologies into communities through civic-engaged research.

Both pilot projects—one focused on equity for neurodiverse adults and the other on improving emergency responder outcomes—draw on artificial intelligence technology to strengthen current public resources.

The Vanderbilt-led initiatives are part of a 30-team cohort in the CIVIC program’s Resource and Service Equity track. Each team receives a $50,000 Stage-1 planning grant, and in early 2023, teams can apply for Stage-2 awards, which provide $1 million over one-year to implement approved pilot projects.

Neurodiverse Driver Training

Nilanjan Sarkar, David K. Wilson Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is the principal investigator of the driver training pilot project. Team members are Keivan Stassun, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, professor of computer science, and director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt, and Mary Baker-Ericzen, a research professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University.

Nilanjan Sarkar

They will explore an integrated AI and behavioral science-based driving training (AIDT) system designed for neurodiverse individuals to address the large need of transportation independence.

Some 85 percent of autistic adults are unemployed or under-employed—at a cost to the economy of more than $400 billion annually. Research shows that adults on the autism spectrum rate employment as their top concern for improved quality of life. However, fewer than 30 percent of driving-age autistic individuals are licensed to drive, limiting access to employment opportunities.

The project will bring together vocational training centers, schools, clinics, and insurance providers, to understand how to package the AIDT system for seamless deployment across the community, effectively train community service providers in its use and develop mechanisms within the community for its financial sustainability.

Improving Emergency Response

This project, led by Meiyi Ma, assistant professor of computer science, grew out of a workshop held at Vanderbilt in early 2022 with representatives from numerous agencies in the Nashville area. Team members are Jules White, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, Ayan Mukhopadhyay, research scientist at the Vanderbilt Institute for Software Integrated Systems, Gregory Porumbescu, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University–Newark. Team members also include Stephen Martini, director of the Metropolitan Nashville Department of Emergency Communications, and Captain Kelly Napier, from the Nashville Fire Department.

Meiyi Ma

The primary goal of public safety emergency response is to dispatch the right help to the right place at the right time, every time. Emergency management officials identified several key issues for the researchers, including increased call volumes, labor shortages, employee safety and community relations.

As a result, the primary goal of this university-community collaboration is to use AI and related Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology to improve how the appropriate services are being dispatched and doing so more quickly. For example, 911 dispatchers spend a significant amount of time answering non-emergency calls, often leaving those needing assistance waiting for a dispatcher to answer. Researchers propose automating that initial non-emergency call volume to help triage true emergencies.

Ma and her team are also examining ways to track emergency vehicle data and optimize fire and medical apparatus location and utilization so responders can arrive on-scene more efficiently. And once there, they are investigating the use of drones and other IoT technology to increase their speed and effectiveness in search and rescue, more efficiently assess and monitor Haz-Mat incidents and provide a safety overwatch on fire scenes.