PKG Fellowships 2020: Kelly Wagman Part IV

Check our Part I, Part II, and Part III of Kelly’s experience this summer!

As I’ve described in earlier blog posts, I spent this summer working on building a trash-collecting robot (Trashbot) with Urban Rivers in Chicago. In my original plan, I anticipated focusing on user research in-person with the Trashbot. Due to a number of factors including COVID-19, however, I ended up working mainly on the product launch, including coding features in JavaScript, helping with product management and planning, running a survey with the original Kickstarter backers of the project, and outlining ethical considerations for robot boats in urban environments.

One of my biggest takeaways from the project was the overall excitement generated by the idea of a trash-collecting robot. The Trashbot had over 180 backers on Kickstarter, some local to Chicago and others from places like Hawaii who wanted to see a Trashbot in their own waterways. The problems of climate change and pollution often seem overwhelming; I think the Trashbot provides people with a tangible solution. In this sense, it is important that the Trashbot is not autonomous: it requires humans and robots to collaborate to solve the problem.

When researching the product roadmap, I discovered and studied other similar projects and found some common themes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of these projects are based at MIT. For example, I was able to connect with Indrayud Mandal who worked with a team of other graduate students from the SDM program this past spring on the problem of ocean cleanup posed by the Oshima Shipbuilding Company. During their research, the team uncovered that stopping the inflow of pollution at specific river systems and targeting micro-litter (<5 mm in size) along with macro-litter would have a much greater environmental impact than directly cleaning oceans. They also came up with an initial draft prototype for the system that they envisioned could be a possible solution. There is also the Roboat Project, where MIT researchers are collaborating with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions to develop autonomous multi-purpose boats for the city of Amsterdam. One of the functions of the boats will be to collect waste in the city. Additionally, I researched the High Line in New York City. While not a waterway, the High Line is an urban renewal project that transformed an old railway into a popular park. This is similar to Urban Rivers’ overall mission to create a floating park in the Chicago River. All of these projects, as well as Urban Rivers itself, have required interdisciplinary teams as well as partnerships between public and private entities. Having only worked in the private sector previously, it was interesting and inspiring for me to understand how complex groups come together to improve urban space for public good.

Going forward, I am going to remember the Trashbot as a model for how technology can be used effectively in cities. While not all technology in cities is good—e.g. it is concerning when big, private tech companies want to install large numbers of sensors and cameras in public infrastructure—building a product that has public support and is developed by a non-profit with aid from private corporations is one path towards providing something valuable to communities and mitigating ethical concerns such as surveillance. Lastly, I will take with me the “get-stuff-done” mentality of a start-up non-profit–while theoretical research is certainly useful, it is very satisfying (and hard!) to turn it into reality.​

Is your organization looking to hire for fall 2020 internships? Visit our Internship Partners page to learn more about how to partner with PKG and connect with MIT students. 

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Tags: Climate Change, PKG Fellowships, PKG Fellowships Summer 2020, Tech for Good

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