The social influence of effluence
Your poop says a lot about you.
What you've eaten. Whether or not you're carrying viruses. How healthy you are overall. So what if planners could collect that data from an entire neighbourhood?
That's exactly the goal of MIT's Underworlds project, which is analyzing the collective human waste of a Boston neighbourhood and discovering an amazing source of information.
"There's a massive amount of data stored in an individual's microbiome," says Newsha Ghaeli, the Canadian researcher in charge of the project. Examining the waste can describe trends in eating habits, genetics and disease, she adds.
"All of this data is getting flushed down the toilet."
Now, however, some of it is being recovered. The project initially involved scientists lowering a bucket into a sewer to collect the waste to carry back to a lab for analysis. Today, they have a robot called "Luigi," which collects a sample and passes it through a filter, and only the filter has to be examined.
They can isolate the waste from neighbourhoods with as few as 1,000 people, Newsha says. "We can almost get an immediate imprint of human behaviour through sewage."
In the one neighbourhood they've been studying, the researchers have been able to identify the top ten plant-based foods people have been eating. The list includes wheat, beans, rice, and, surprisingly, pomegranates.
"There might have been a restaurant in the catchment area that had a lot of pomegranate on the menu," Newsha says.
The sewage is also a valuable early warning system for disease outbreaks. The flu virus, for example, incubates for about six weeks. If it shows up in the sewage of a particular neighbourhood, health officials can be better prepared to deal with a forthcoming surge of influenza patients, she adds.
But it's the chemical analysis of the material that can have real value when it comes to urban planning. Through human waste, they can compare the incidence of obesity in, say, suburban areas where people depend on cars, versus densely populated areas where walking is more common. They can also compare areas near parks and grocery stores as opposed to highways and fast food.
"We're really hoping that this data becomes useful for planners and designers in cities."
Be sure to check out the Underworlds site to see a very cool data visualization of viruses!