Posts Tagged: engineering

Bridging data science with traditional engineering

Alumnus Ivan Damnjanovic on stage at the Google Hackathon event in Singapore.

University of Toronto Engineering graduate Ivan Damnjanovic (CivE 1T4+PEY) has developed software that harnesses the power of data science and traditional engineering to make sustainable building management less expensive and more productive than ever before.

The engineer and computer scientist turned entrepreneur earned his Civil Engineering degree from U of T with a minor in Sustainable Energy. Right after graduation, Damnjanovic easily scored a job with a well-known Canadian management consulting firm but knew he wanted to take his skills and start his own business.

“Eventually I realized that the fastest growing companies are based on software innovation, so I pursued a master’s degree in computer science to prepare myself and build credibility with investors.”

Then he started Ambient Systems, a subscription-based software that provides property developers and facility managers with valuable, data-driven insights about how structures are developed, operated, and maintained.

“I was somewhat of an adventure seeker when I was younger,” he said. “For better or worse, this transferred into my academic and professional choices.”

The software’s goal is to deliver a new data-driven way to build with the goal of decarbonizing real estate development, financing, and operation through an open-source platform.

Ambient Systems was conceptualized during the pandemic as Damnjanovic and his team realized that more than ever, building operators were going to need to tap into the power of data science to efficiently manage processes traditionally bogged down by complicated workflows and archaic legacy systems.

According to the company’s website, the platform uses comprehensive open-source data to empower property developers and building managers to make timely, informed decisions, thereby leaving nothing to chance. Regardless of whether the facility that they are managing is new or existing, they can Ambient Systems to reduce operating costs, increase revenue, and vastly improve their customer experience.

Damnjanovic launched the product in mid-June through a Google Cloud competition in Singapore, where his team won a second spot in the city-state.

He estimates that his proprietary data science models — delivered through a cloud-based software — can reduce time spent on data collection and analysis to around 5 hours per month, compared to a typical process which takes 100+ hours and multiple teams to coordinate.

Furthermore, Damnjanovic estimates that the cost of these activities can be further reduced by 80% compared to the current amount of time and money being spent on using multiple software vendors.

“Most importantly, the customers will be able to see the results fast, in just a few days. We’re making delivery faster by doing data engineering and machine learning on the cloud.”

Damnjanovic says that the engineering degree at the University of Toronto gave him the solid foundation he needed to succeed on his current career trajectory.

“Although I took the entrepreneurial route, my time at the Faculty of Engineering gave me the confidence to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges, such as the current environmental and economic crises.”

By David Goldberg


Can hemp and mushrooms make the construction industry greener? 

Picture of John Kabanda.

John Kabanda is using his PhD studies in steel structure durability and applying it to a natural building material.

Are panels made from mushrooms and hemp a realistic solution to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the construction industry?  

The construction industry has a pollution problem, but University of Toronto alumnus John Kabanda (CivE MASc Structural and Geotechnical Engineering 1T3) has developed a new building material that promises to cut costs for contractors and reduce a project’s carbon footprint.  

“With the environment, we’re almost at a point of no return, and we can’t just keep building things the way we used to. As a structural engineer, I care about the environment we live in, so I thought maybe I can make a difference here.” 

Kabanda is vice-president, engineering with okom wrks labs, overseeing the development and testing of a structural mycelium composite that would replace plywood panels typically used to cover the exterior walls of building before any siding is installed.  

This mycelium biocomposite known as zero-frm is made from hemp and fungi to create a durable and eco-friendly building material, which Kabanda contends to be 33% stronger than competitors’ offerings.  

He hopes it will be the first mycelium composite to be cleared for structural use soon and one day, it may be suitable for roofs and subfloors too.  

“The process is not too complicated and not too energy-consuming. I was really taken with this idea of making something very simple that can have a huge impact.” 

The production of this mycelium composite can reduce carbon emissions in several ways.  

All the raw materials and resulting products are lighter and therefore cheaper to transport.  

Hemp used in manufacturing is recycled by farmers who simply grow it and then throw it away to keep their soil nutrient-rich between crop cycles.  

And because all the ingredients are naturally occurring materials, the panels can be sent to the landfill in good conscience.  

They’re also entirely edible, although Kabanda would never advise anyone to start chewing the scenery.  

“I think every company right now must embrace change and if we work together, we can solve this,” says Kabanda. “There’s a lot of pressure on engineers to look for innovative methods to reduce the emissions we’re producing.” 

The future is green, says Kabanda, who believes that young engineers can learn a lot from University of Toronto researchers, just like he did.  

“Many U of T professors are putting a lot of effort into sustainability, which tells you that’s where the industry’s headed. And if we can all work together, that’s how we can solve this climate crisis.”

By David Goldberg 

Doug Hooton wins C01 Bryant Mather Award

Professor Doug Hooton accepts C01 Bryant Mather Award.

Prof. Doug Hooton (L) accepts the C01 Bryant Mather Award in Seattle, WA.

Another great honour this week for Prof. Emeritus Doug Hooton as the ASTM International Committee C01 on Cement presented the CivMin professor with the C01 Bryant Mather Award in Seattle, WA.

The Committee says Prof. Hooton has received the award for his “…Leadership on numerous C01 subcommittees, and as Chair of Committee, and also for many years of impactful #research contributions that have advanced the cement industry and strengthened cement standard specifications and tests worldwide.”

By David Goldberg

U of T’s Concrete Canoe team victorious in Quebec

University of Toronto’s Concrete Canoe Team has returned from the Canadian National Concrete Canoe Competition 2022 in Sherbrooke, QC with a handful of awards.

The 25th annual competition saw University of Toronto’s team take 3rd overall, in addition to many other honours including:

  • Innovation of the Year (with using Capacitance to measure canoe thickness and zero portland cement in concrete mix)
  • 1st place in Enhanced Focus Area
  • 2nd in Project Proposal (Tech report)
  • 3rd in Final Product
  • 4th in Paddling
  • 5th in Presentation

Concrete Canoe Project Manager 2T1-2T2 Ernie Lee says he’s extremely proud that his team managed to reach the podium.

“This competition is a great example of team collaboration and talent among all engineering disciplines to make our concrete canoe float,” says Lee. “We were especially proud to have won the Innovation Award.”

This year’s squad was under intense pressure to complete its canoe during a pressed work schedule with COVID-19 restrictions, but Lee says they had fantastic support from faculty and friends.

“Clear communication among team members and casual social events are examples of how we establish this tight bond within the Skule™ community. Shoutout to all the other design teams who have helped make our design and construction process much smoother!”

The team’s faculty supervisor, Prof. Karl Peterson says he was impressed with how they pushed the limits of alternative cements this year.
“This team not only managed to overcome the extra challenges of safely coordinating the in-person construction of a canoe in the midst of a pandemic, but also created a concrete canoe without relying on the hundred-years-plus tried-and-true traditional technology of portland cement-based binders,” says Peterson.

By David Goldberg

U of T Engineering students dig through snowplow data to measure Toronto’s response to winter storms 

A city bus is pictured stuck since the morning hours in downtown Toronto after a major blizzard dumped as much as 60cm of snow on parts of Southern Ontario, closing major highways and roadways, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on January 17, 2022. (Photo by Cole Burston).

Analysis suggests that the City’s performance improved over the winter of 2022

Last January, as 55 centimetres of snow blanketed Toronto over a period of just 15 hours, the city’s snow-clearing fleet appeared to struggle to keep up. 

But was it actually different than other storms, or did it just seem that way? For three students in Data Science for Engineers, a graduate-level course taught by Professor Sebastian Goodfellow (CivMin) it was the perfect case study for their new number-crunching skills. 

“There was a lot of news coverage at the time saying the city had poorly responded,” says Katia Ossetchkina, a CivE MASc candidate. “We wanted to see if there was a way to analyze the movement and dispatch of snowplows and salt trucks across the city.” 

PlowTO shows live snowplow locations, but does not provide historic data.

Real-time data on the locations of Toronto’s more than 800 snowplows and salt trucks is publicly available during the winter months: there is even a website that tracks this data on a map. But the team — which also included CivE MASc candidates Thomas de Boer and Lucas Herzog — soon realized that this alone wasn’t going to get them what they needed. 

“There’s no historic storage,” says de Boer. “You can’t just download it as a file, so we had to create an algorithm that would ping that web server and download the data, store it on our computer, which we could then use to build up our own historic database and do our analysis off that.” 

By the time the team had this technique up and running, it was too late to gather data from the January storm. But by analyzing data from subsequent storms and gleaning stats about the first one from the city and local news articles, the young researchers were able to verify that the City’s response did improve as the winter went on. 

“We learned that Toronto had increased the number of plows on the road in February compared to January and the crews were quicker to reach certain benchmarks, such as the percentage of roads that had been plowed by a certain point during the storm,” says de Boer.  

Herzog says that the team picked up other interesting trends as well.  

“Of course, they plow the arterial roads first, but we saw that they would stop plowing around 6a.m., just before the morning commute,” says Herzog.  

“And that’s where a lot of these Twitter complaints stemmed from,” adds de Boer. “People were wondering how they are supposed to get to an arterial road when the street outside their driveway is blocked by two feet of snow?” 

Spurred on by observations like these, the team decided to take the project a step further by applying their data analysis to Tweets. The team used Twitter’s application programming interface to gather the comments those tweeting to Toronto 311 and the City of Toronto Winter Operations account. They were then able to perform what is known as “sentiment analysis,” measuring whether the words used in those tweets were positive or negative. 

In this way, they could compare the public response to the January storm to another one that happened in February.  

“We saw lots of negative tweets in January with people complaining about not being serviced yet, and that came with a lot of geographical information as well so we could see the hardest hit areas,” says Ossetchkina. 

“Then we saw this reversing trend in February where people were saying ‘thank you ‘ and saying that the city was doing a good job in specific regions. It was a very interesting performance metric.”   

The team says that this type of data analysis could help other engineers on future projects. They have made their historical database publicly available, and even crafted detailed instructions so that other teams can replicate their approach. 

While they don’t have their final grade yet, Goodfellow says he was very impressed with their work.  

“What I like about this project is that it’s entirely unique,” he says. “This is a new dataset that the students have made publicly available, and that can now be used by other engineers to investigate new questions or to hone their data science skills.” 

“Even better than that, it’s a dataset from the city we all live in, which provided a special motivation for the students to truly go above and beyond.”

By David Goldberg

The Better Way: Researching the benefits of transit equity

After several pandemic-related delays, the Transit Access Project for Youth (TAP for Youth) is getting underway.

TAP for Youth is a transit equity research project of the University of Toronto student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The team comprised of several student researchers wants to know how access to free, unlimited transit will affect Toronto’s homeless youth, of which there are hundreds.

Third-year CivMin student Emma Blewett

Emma Blewett (Year 3 CivE) is the team’s Finance Lead, responsible for getting funding from community partners for the project, including the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy office.

“Transit equity means that everyone should have access to transit, whether or not they can afford it,” says Blewett, who is considering a career in transit planning. 

Last December , the team took the first step of posting a call for participants at one transitional youth home and one youth homeless shelter in the GTA. The plan is to give each of the 35 participants a free Presto card for the next three months. 

Currently, there are transit subsidy programs in place for homeless youth, but they don’t go far enough, says Blewett.  

“Shelters will give the youth transit tokens to get to school and back, but cannot afford any other travel. This prevents them taking part in extracurricular activities—or even attending important appointments. It will be interesting to see how free, unlimited transit is going to change their lives and how it will help them access more resources.”

The student researchers report monthly to an Academic Review Team and Blewett says these UofT advisors have been incredibly supportive throughout the process.  

“They let us run things and give us a lot of power in the decision-making, but they’re always there to help, which is great.”

TAP for Youth is collecting data to validate transit equity initiatives.

Tap For Youth’s final report is expected later this fall and the team hopes this pilot project will roll into an even bigger endeavour with far more homeless youth participating.  

Blewett is optimistic about the kind of change that research like this could trigger in the future.

“Compiling this type of data is going to make it way easier to convince policymakers that we need to make transit equity a priority.”  

By David Goldberg 

With files from Patricia Doherty  

Intermittent Water Supply

In a city like Toronto, the water never stops running. There’s always pressure conveniently pushing clean water into our homes for on-demand consumption. 

But that’s not how the whole world works. 

More than a billion people get their daily water needs from water networks called Intermittent Water Supplies (IWS). That means, rather than constantly flowing like we are accustomed to here on campus, 21 percent of the world’s water pipes turn on and off every day.

Homes in Delhi, India.

Some residents living in Delhi, India only get water at prescribed times of day.

In Delhi, India, the water utility typically supplies water to residents for two hours in the morning and one hour in the evening, forcing people to store all the water they’ll need to get through the day or night. 

In other cities, the process is a little more chaotic. You might never know when the water is coming on until you hear the water rushing through the pipes—and that could be at 3:00 am while you’re fast asleep, or in the middle of the afternoon when everybody’s at work or school. 

At University of Toronto, Prof. David Meyer’s research group works on building new models and tools to help improve the fairness and quality of the service provided in the cities using IWS. 

“In most intermittent supplies, the pipes are unpressurized or even negatively pressurized for hours or sometimes days at a time, which means contaminants like rainwater or even sewage can sneak into the pipes and contaminate the drinking water.” 

It’s not just a question about quality, but also a matter of how fairly the water quantity is divided (equality). 

“If you live close to the reservoir, you might get more water than the person who lives at the top of hill, far away from the reservoir,” explains Meyer. 

We’ve considered quality, quantity and equality—but what about equity? That’s the topic of Meyer’s latest research project. 

Prof. David Meyer conducting field research in India.

Prof. David Meyer’s research looks at issues of equity and quality posed by India’s intermittent water supply system.

“For five different cities in India, we’re looking at whether or not there’s a correlation between the type of water supply schedule (long, reliable, and/or convenient) you have and the degree of your social marginalization. The first step to improving equity is knowing there is a problem; we hope we’re wrong, but believe that the socially marginalized are more likely to have short, inconvenient water supply schedules.” 

Meyer hopes his research will push city planners and local governments to invest more money in this essential infrastructure that often gets ignored because we can’t necessarily see it. 

“As countries and economies grow, there’s more money for infrastructure and there’s more aspirations for high quality infrastructure. Many growing cities pay a lot of money to try and take their water pipe networks from ‘dysfunctional’ to ‘excellent’, and sometimes they succeed. But more often, aspirations of ‘excellent’ result in unrealistic projects that fail. I wish we could design projects that would make meaningful, incremental progress, but It’s hard to convince people to spend money knowing the end result will be less than ‘excellent’.” 

Learn more about Prof. Meyer’s research on IWS


By David Goldberg

Natural Purification

The aquarium on the fourth floor of the Galbraith Building is a pleasant reminder to Prof. Susan Andrews of her many trips to the Caribbean through the years, but it also makes her lament the deteriorating condition of our world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans—these majestic bodies of water she’s dedicated her life to researching as sources of the water we drink.

Picture of Prof. Susan Andrews

Prof. Susan Andrews is in the early stages of research on TiO2 Photooxidation.

“It’s concerning to me to go back to places that we used to visit and find that some of these environments are no longer as healthy as they used to be.”  

While the focus of Prof. Andrews’ research has generally been to find ways of minimizing the formation of chemical byproducts during the treatment of water for large municipalities, more recently, Prof. Andrews has also been studying how natural minerals and sunlight can be used to treat our water supply.   

“We focus on minerals containing iron or titanium dioxide. TiO2 is one of those substances that’s been used a lot recently in the photocatalytic treatment process because it’s very effective at destroying contaminants when activated by UV light or the UV component of sunlight” 

“When I first started working in TiO2 Photooxidation, I came to realize that TiO2 is in the natural environment in larger quantities than I would have ever even thought. And so, just together with the idea that it is photoactive, made me kind of think maybe we can make use of that.”  

Picture of a campsite

Perhaps Andrews’ research could one day be used to treat water in remote locations, such as campgrounds.

Andrews also points to some anecdotal evidence from a colleague in Africa, who noticed that water stored in certain types of pottery seemed to stay cleaner for longer, meaning that perhaps pottery containing TiO2 or other active minerals could have the same purifying properties.  

The research is in its infancy, with grad students recording findings they observe using glass or pottery containers and small UV or solar lamps. This technology would never be used on a large scale, says Andrews, but could be very useful in remote settings such as small facilities with limited road access, such as an isolated campground.  


By David Goldberg

Groundwater Remediation

This year’s theme for World Water Day 2022 is ‘Groundwater: ‘Making the Invisible Visible’ and groundwater just so happens to be the research specialty of Department Chair Prof. Brent Sleep.   

Among many active projects concerning groundwater, Sleep and graduate students in his research group are focusing on the remediation of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS)  compounds.  These compounds are used in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant coatings, and firefighting foams. 

PhD student Ezinneifechukwunyelu Ndubueze works on an experiment with colloidal activated carbon.

“These PFAS substances are quite resistant to the remediation processes, and they’re not easily broken down by bacteria,” says Sleep. “There’s a big focus now on treating these compounds that are so resistant to degradation.” 

Sleep and his research team are testing one method which uses colloidal activated carbon injected into the ground.   

“The goal is to create a permeable barrier that adsorbs contaminants as the groundwater passes through, in theory leaving harmful compounds behind to be safely treated later,” explains Sleep. 

Sleep appreciates how World Water Day brings attention to important water issues, such as groundwater contamination, because for most people this water is out of sight and out of mind.   

“Groundwater is a hidden resource to many people who don’t think about it, yet it’s everywhere below the ground surface.” 


By David Goldberg

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