Uncovering a Smart City’s Impact: A Conversation with Chandana Vangapalli

21 Jul 2016 | AT&T

There’s a lot of talk about how smart cities of the future will benefit society and the world around us. Take the environment, for example. We believe that the technology enabling smart cities has the potential to reduce carbon emissions and other air pollution, and could help empower cities to better manage resources like water and energy. 

We’ve established a Smart Cities Team to connect cities across the nation with Internet of Things (IoT) technology that can help make cities smarter, safer and more connected.

What we’re currently lacking is the proof.  

So this summer, AT&T is working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and their Climate Corps program. Through Climate Corps, EDF recruits and trains top graduate students to work as summer fellows in leading organizations. These fellows hit the ground running; armed with best practices, sustainability tools and fresh perspectives to provide hands-on support to organizations tackling environment challenges.

Earlier this year, AT&T announced that we’ve established a Smart Cities Team to connect cities across the nation with Internet of Things (IoT) technology that can help make cities smarter, safer and more connected. Our Climate Corps fellow will help us start to measure the benefits of our technology over her 10 weeks with AT&T’s Smart Cities Team.

To learn more about the project, we sat down with AT&T’s EDF Climate Corps fellow, Chandana Vangapalli – an MBA candidate with a passion for sustainability.

First, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Chandana:  I am an MBA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am originally from India and received my undergraduate degree from National Institute of Technology in Warangal, India in 2012.  After college, I went to work with Enzen Global Solutions – a global energy and environment company that provides high-end solutions to the energy and utilities industries.

With locations in both the UK and India, Enzen gave me the opportunity to work in both countries, where I learned about navigating two very different cultures. I also developed an interest in the energy industry. In 2015, I had to make a choice: I could work another five years in the UK, or go back to school to get my MBA. I was at an intersection in my life. There was so much more to learn and I realized that there was no better time than the present.

That decision brought me to the USA. After the fellowship, I will be going back to school to complete my MBA.

What encouraged you to join EDF’s Climate Corps program?

Chandana: I’ve had an interest in the environment nearly all of my life. My mom is a science teacher and my sister is in the U.S. getting her master’s degree in environmental engineering. My family has always been involved in sustainability in some shape or form, and has had conversations about big topics like climate change. It all made more sense when I started working with Enzen - I wasn’t just talking about climate change anymore…but actually doing something about it. Working closely with the energy industry was a great opportunity to really understand the scale of these issues. When I found EDF, I thought, “This is amazing!” because they’re doing phenomenal work in the areas of energy and sustainability, they train their Climate Corps fellows thoroughly, set tangible goals and track the entire fellowship. EDF was a very easy decision!

What do you think about the climate change conversation in India?

Chandana:The conversation about climate change in India is very different than it is in other parts of the world. India is developing very rapidly and it has different challenges than those in the U.S. However, it is making some big moves in renewable energy, corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Much of the sustainable development discussion in India is focused on citizen inclusion – to start a public dialogue about climate change and the environment. People are beginning to talk. 

Can you tell us about the work you’re doing this summer with AT&T?

Chandana: This summer, I’m building a methodology to measure the environmental benefits of smart cities technology so that we can calculate actual savings. One of the challenges is that the methodologies and findings need to be in language that people understand. In general, it’s difficult to communicate urban environmental challenges because people don’t actually see many of the problems. For instance, carbon emissions cannot be seen with the naked eye. So how else can we demonstrate that these issues are important? That’s what I’m working on.

With the AT&T Smart Cities team, I’ve already started developing metrics to measure the carbon emissions savings of smart cities technology. In my work, I aim to help AT&T reach its “10x” goal, which is to enable carbon savings 10 times the footprint of its operations by 2025. To align with the Smart Cities solutions, I’m also looking at metrics around water, waste management and energy conservation in several of AT&T’s announced spotlight cities: Atlanta, Georgia Institute of Technology, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County (FL), Chapel Hill (NC) and Montgomery County (MD).

What does your day-to-day look like so far?

Chandana: Members of the AT&T Smart Cities team and I have picked some pilot technology solutions in the spotlight cities to work on. For example, we’re looking at water solutions and trying to understand the potential water savings enabled by sensors that can alert city officials when pipes are leaking.

In other locations, we’re trying to connect buses to improve the experience and encourage ridership. To an extent, we’re aiming to change mindsets and human behavior. We will measure carbon savings associated with more people taking mass transit. Say a bus holds 30 people – one bus has far fewer emissions than 30 people driving cars.

What opportunities do you see already emerging for smart cities to help tackle urban environmental challenges?

Chandana: The things we can do with today’s technology, our ability to connect everything… it’s amazing. Sensors on water pipes are detecting leaks in a timely manner to save water. Street lights will have video cameras on them, which can make streets safer. Smart waste bins can tell those in waste management, “It’s time to empty me,” so they don’t have to waste time and fuel driving around to check the bins. All of the smart city technology combined can help citizens and city officials make better decisions. Every small step adds up to make a big impact in our world.

Have you encountered any challenges in your work thus far? 

Chandana: Smart Cities technologies are constantly evolving. All of my work is happening in real time and it’s challenging to keep up with the changes sometimes, but that makes it exciting too. It’s quite interesting and surprising to see how AT&T is making a difference. 

Has anything surprised you so far in your first few weeks? 

Chandana: Honestly, I never could have imagined that something of this scale is happening to tackle environmental issues. People have no idea that they’re already living in a city that’s becoming “smart.” That’s where my work comes in - to help tell the smart cities story so that people are aware of AT&T’s efforts to make cities cleaner, stronger and safer. With my work with EDF and AT&T, I feel like I’m leaving a legacy. It makes me feel very satisfied. 

What are your hobbies? What keeps you busy outside of work and school?

Chandana: I love badminton! I was a professional badminton player at one time. I am also an avid reader and a huge movie buff. At the top of my list I’d put The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler's List and several Indian films.

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