2 ASU researchers end year on high note

As the calendar year drew to a close, two researchers with Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning received great news about their research.

Allianz Climate Risk Research Award 

Elizabeth Tellman, a doctoral candidate with the school, was recently recognized as a finalist for the Allianz Climate Risk Research Award. In total, researchers from 18 countries submitted their ideas to tackle the challenge of climate change. Tellman’s work on flooding in El Salvador won her second place in the competition.

Tellman was inspired after living in El Salvador for several years and seeing the effects of landslides and flooding on poor rural regions. Her goal is to create a global flood detection system with data from multiple satellites using cloud computing and remote sensing techniques. This will allow developing countries in particular to apply better flood mitigation strategies.

“In El Salvador, I worked in disaster relief and saw firsthand how communities who were impacted by floods did not receive the aid they needed because their local mayor did not include their name on aid lists, because these communities were from another political party,” Tellman said. “I felt frustrated by this situation and returned to graduate school to understand how flood science could enable better information so that politicians could not manipulate the aid process and so that vulnerable communities who needed aid in extreme events would receive it.”

As part of this effort, Tellman co-founded Cloud to Street, a tech start-up and social enterprise that produces flood information and gets that information to decision-makers and communities who can leverage it.

“I believe it takes more than one scientist to make a difference. It takes an organization of people dedicated to both producing better flood data and ensuring that data produced matches a decision context where risk can be reduced or mitigated,” Tellman said.

Insurance company Allianz Reinsurance initiated the award to help improve society’s capacity to respond to the rising impact of climate change and to deal with associated uncertainties.

“For years, we insurers have assessed future risks based on what happened in the past,” said Amer Ahmed, chief executive officer of Allianz Reinsurance. “Now, climate change is challenging this model. The past is no longer a good guide for the future.”

Tellman hopes the insurance industry and scientific community can partner for real change.

“The insurance industry can play a crucial role in climate change adaptation. Most of the flood exposure increases over the next two decades are expected to happen in developing countries, which is also where most people are uninsured or underinsured,” Tellman said. “I hope my research inspires Allianz to consider how new technologies can enable markets they can help shape.”

Fred Burggraf Award

Calvin Thigpen, a postdoctoral researcher with the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, was also recently recognized for his work at the intersections of government and public interest.

Thigpen, and co-author Kevin Fang, have been named as winners of the Fred Burggraf Award from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board. The Fred Burggraf Award was established in 1966 to stimulate and encourage young researchers to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field of transportation.

Thigpen’s paper “Transportation Policy at the Ballot Box” focused on how voters can directly determine transportation policy by proposing and voting on ballot box measures. Through analysis of 20 years of local transportation policy-related measures in California, several patterns emerged, including how the public tended to support measures that favored alternative modes to the car, but also generally voted against modern planning tools and strategies, like red light cameras and roundabouts. In some instances, the ballot box process created uncertainty, as voters changed their minds on the same topic over many years.

“One of the fundamental challenges in planning is the role of the planner, relative to citizens,” Thigpen said. “Ballot box planning, as it is called in our field, is a way for citizens to directly get involved in urban and transportation planning and policy.”

Ballot box planning, while giving the power to the voter, also means professional planners can be left on the sidelines. This can create several issues where voters may interpret that some of the changes recommended by planners are too punitive in nature, and therefore are not approved by voters. According to Thigpen, it may be that these transportation planning tools, as well as their benefits or purposes, are not thoroughly explained, leading to voters voting against for these efforts — despite their added benefits.

“I hope my research will show policymakers the potential pitfalls of being removed from the policy process,” Thigpen said. “Though voters have tended to vote in favor of society's best interests in some instances, there are several examples of where it seems clear that a top-down approach is better for the greatest societal good. Policymakers may therefore want to resolve conflicts before they end up in on the ballot box.”