Students using AI to help reshape public transportation during COVID-19

July 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.  — Penn State students are using artificial intelligence to analyze how COVID-19 is affecting the number of people who telework and the impact that will make on public transportation in Philadelphia. The students are working remotely as part of the Nittany AI Associates program, under the direction of the Nittany AI Alliance, and alongside the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), the city of Philadelphia and the Accenture Pennsylvania Public Sector Practice.

The students are using AI to take a look at the structural shift in the commuting habits of Philadelphia’s labor force as teleworkers will rely less on commuter rail, subways or buses to commute. Their goal is to deliver a working model that can assist SEPTA in creating a viable business plan.

Erik Johanson, director of Innovation for SEPTA, said they are facing several challenges due to COVID-19. Ridership is down due to more people teleworking, but the responsibility to continue to provide services for essential workers is more important than ever.

“The strength of the region’s transit network will play a prominent role in improving equity outcomes in COVID-19 recovery,” Johanson said. “The Nittany AI Associates are using AI to help us determine changing travel patterns so SEPTA can be more knowledgeable in addressing these unprecedented changes. We hope that AI can give us more nuanced forecasts of future trends and identify trends as they emerge.”

Joel Seidel, a senior in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State, said the project is focused on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on public transportation.

“Our project with SEPTA, the city of Philadelphia and Accenture seeks to employ AI to estimate the magnitude of jobs converting to telework over the next 6–18 months within each of Philadelphia’s census tracts. These estimates will assist SEPTA to determine what transport demand will return, and potentially adjust services accordingly,” Seidel said. “Our team has worked directly with SEPTA to collect data sets crucial to making these estimates.”

Kevin Brown, Pennsylvania education lead for Accenture, said the firm is working with both the students, the city of Philadelphia and SEPTA to develop the project and share deliverables that can assist SEPTA after the project ends.

“Through dialogue with SEPTA and Philadelphia Smart City Director Emily Yates, we identified a project the associates could undertake using AI, data analytics and machine learning,” said Brown. “The more data an agency has, the better it can respond to the impact caused by COVID-19. A data-driven approach will help provide the City and SEPTA with scenarios based upon the estimates generated from the model. Our goal is to create a living model that can be updated as circumstances change, even after the project ends.”

Seidel described the living model: “We will be delivering a web-based interface with estimates of teleworking to inform SEPTA on conditions that affect their business and future transport service decisions. As we plan for a new normal post-COVID-19, SEPTA will need to adjust to the changes in ridership and the resulting effect this will have on revenue streams, transport supply and labor considerations — as many other companies and government organizations will as well. I believe our project will be one of the tool’s SEPTA employs to make the necessary adjustments to provide the best possible transit service for the people of Philadelphia.”

Yates said a key part of the SmartCityPHL Roadmap is about facilitating partnerships to build, implement and sustain smart-city solutions.

“This project is a great example of how public-private-plus utilities and universities combined with cutting-edge technology and data can have a lasting impact on the quality of life for all residents of Philadelphia,” said Yates. “The city hopes this is the first of many opportunities like this to work with students of Penn State to help solve critical municipal challenges.”

Daren Coudriet, director of Innovation for Penn State Outreach and executive director for the Nittany AI Alliance, said projects such as this one enable students to get real-world working experience, as well as provide a lasting benefit to the companies and organizations they work with.

“The model established with our Nittany AI Associates program, led by Peyton Politewicz, provides tangible benefits for all involved," Coudriet said. "The client, in this case SEPTA, is provided with a proof-of-concept on how AI can be used to address a challenge that has been created by COVID-19. The industry partner, Accenture, has the opportunity to work directly with the students and actively recruit top talent. The students are provided a team-based, AI project experience that will help jumpstart their careers by preparing them to lead on future projects. I believe we have created a model that has the capability of delivering societal, student and industry benefits, creating a win-win-win for all involved.”

Visit the Nittany AI Alliance for more information about the Nittany AI Associates program and the Nittany AI Challenge.

  • SEPTA Public Transportation

    SEPTA customers practice social distancing while riding a bus in Philadelphia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    IMAGE: SEPTA
  • SEPTA Public Transportation

    SEPTA offers public transportation throughout the Greater Philadelphia Region.

    IMAGE: SEPTA
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Last Updated July 29, 2020