Class to crunch social media data during UCI Road World Cycling Championships

Students in a class organized by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Office of Sustainability will log, map and analyze tweets sent by the 450,000 spectators anticipated at the upcoming UCI Road World Cycling Championships to learn how geographic information systems can impact green event planning.

Wyatt Carpenter
Wyatt Carpenter

“This assignment is really happening in front of them, so they can think on their feet,” said Wyatt Carpenter, VCU’s sustainability projects and program coordinator. The world’s elite cyclists will crisscross VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and MCV Campus during races and practices being held Sept. 19–27, with the finish line situated roughly halfway between the campuses in Richmond.

Carpenter will join Jennifer Ciminelli, research and data coordinator for the VCU Rice Rivers Center, to teach the special topics course, “Adaptive Response Modeling Using GIS” around the race. As the highlight, students will take part in a race-day exercise pulling social media feeds into GIS modeling to figure out how to best meet recycling demand from crowds of race fans.

“The race provides a really unique opportunity for us to have this type of situational awareness,” Ciminelli said. “When’s the next time we’re going to get a situation like this?”

Jennifer Ciminelli
Jennifer Ciminelli

Before the race, the class will meet online and in-person to go over the basics. What is data? What is GIS? How do we make a map? Staff from the City of Richmond’s Office of Sustainability will give a lecture on the real-life planning process of determining where recycling and trash resources will be situated during the race.

During a race day, students will take over a computer lab in the Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences to pull in social media feeds and overlay them onto maps.

“We’ll prep and then we’ll go live. What we’re hoping that we’ll see is population hot spots,” Ciminelli said. She expects it to emulate a real-life emergency operations center, where GIS-derived maps are a vital tool for decision-makers.

“The race will start and we’ll be looking at the crowds, if and how they are shifting around,” Carpenter said. The students will break into groups to focus on the impact to different neighborhoods of the city.

They will produce maps, study the location of existing recycling resources and create proposals on how to guide crowds toward resources with signage. During the final class, they will discuss the process and experience.

The race organizers, Richmond 2015, this spring received the “UCI reCycling” eco-friendly label from the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s international governing body.

Initiatives visible to cycling fans will include mobile water-filling stations provided by the city’s Department of Public Utilities, and a “Green Team” of volunteers who are focused on carrying out the eco-label initiatives.

This is among more than two dozen special one-credit classes hosted by VCU to celebrate the championships, ranging from “Guile, Hubris and Teamwork” to “Anthropology of the Crowd.”

There are a lot of applications outside of just this race. It is very marketable.

Carpenter said the course is a great opportunity for students from all majors and backgrounds to “get their feet wet” with GIS, and decide if they want to pursue further studies.

“There are a lot of applications outside of just this race,” he said. “It is very marketable.”

Ciminelli, who has a background in GIS analysis working for local government, agreed.

“You would really do this in life,” she said. She hopes to see students develop critical-thinking and spatial-thinking skills in the course.

Carpenter, who holds two bachelor’s degrees from VCU, was recently hired by the Office of Sustainability after two years as an intern. He is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental studies.

Erin Stanforth, VCU’s director of sustainability, said Carpenter brings a deep understanding of sustainability issues and the local community to the course.

“He’s the perfect person for it,” she said. “He’s a systems thinker. It’s not just the piece of paper in the recycling bin. He sees it as an entire system.”

“To be able to take the skills that he has in this office, and transpose them into a class, he’ll actually be able to influence behavior change in real time with students who want to learn and want to change,” Stanforth said.

People can think that data is pretty boring, but I think it’s exciting. It tells a story if you know what to look for.

Carpenter, who rides his bicycle to work most days, is looking forward to the championships and the eyes of the world turning to Richmond and VCU.

Ciminelli is also a VCU alumnus, earning her master’s degree in environmental studies in 2006. In addition to her responsibilities supporting researchers at the Rice Rivers Center and analyzing data, she teaches environmental courses at VCU.

“This is the closest we can get to make it really interactive with the data. People can think that data is pretty boring, but I think it’s exciting,” Ciminelli said. “It tells a story if you know what to look for.”


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