Posted by Rob Knies

Yu Zheng

Location, location, location. Yu Zheng, lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia, is all about location-based services. Now, his research into urban computing has led him into a pretty exclusive neighborhood.

On Aug. 21, Zheng was named to MIT Technology Review’s TR35, the magazine’s annual list of the top 35 innovators under the age of 35. Recipients of the honor exemplify the spirit of innovation in business and technology and are honored during the EmTech MIT Conference, to be held this year from Oct. 9-11 at the MIT Media Lab, located in Cambridge, Mass. The complete list of honorees will appear in the September/October issue of the print magazine, which goes on sale on Sept. 3.

"Over the years, we've had success in choosing women and men whose innovations and companies have been profoundly influential on the direction of human affairs," says Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review. "We're proud of our selections and the variety of achievements they celebrate, and we're proud to add Yu to this prestigious list."

Zheng, 34, of the Knowledge Mining group, pursues research in location-based services, spatiotemporal data mining, ubiquitous computing, and mobile social applications.

But, as the awarding magazine made clear, it was Zheng’s current passion for urban computing that singled him out for recognition. It’s a subject he enjoys discussing.

“Big cities, which have modernized people’s lives, also have engendered big challenges,” Zheng says, “such as pollution, increased energy consumption, and traffic congestion. Tackling these challenges seemed nearly impossible years ago, given the complex and dynamic settings of cities. Nowadays, sensing technologies and large-scale computing infrastructures have produced a variety of big data in urban spaces, such as human mobility, air quality, traffic flow, and geographical data.

“The big data imply rich knowledge about a city and can help address these challenges when used correctly. Motivated by the opportunities of building more intelligent cities, I came up with a vision of urban computing, which aims to unlock the power of knowledge from big and heterogeneous data collected in urban spaces, and I apply this powerful information to solve major issues our cities face today. In short, we are able to tackle the big challenges in big cities using big data.”

Zheng’s previous projects helped to set the stage for his current focus. Photo2Search was a way to search a web-based database by using nothing more than an image captured by a mobile phone equipped with a digital camera. GeoLife was a location-based social-networking service that enabled users to share life experiences and build connections with each other using human-location history such as GPS trajectories, travel recommendations, and personalized location and friend recommendation.

He is a proponent of the value the urban-computing model can marshal—and a believer in the power of the approach.

“In my vision, urban computing is a process of acquisition, integration, and analysis of big data generated by a diversity of sources, such as sensors, devices, vehicles, buildings, and humans. Urban computing connects unobtrusive and ubiquitous sensing technologies, advanced data-management, and novel visualization methods to create win-win-win solutions that simultaneously improve urban environments, human life quality, and city operational systems.

“I hope urban computing can also help us understand the nature of urban phenomena—and even predict the future of cities.”

Zheng, along with Xiaofang Zhou of The University of Queensland, wrote the textbook Computing with Spatial Trajectories, published by Springer in 2011. That demonstrates Zheng’s belief in the opportunities available to those with an education in computer science.

“Computer science has created a new world—the digital world—that changes billions of people’s lives,” he says. “This is a field where we can tackle real-world challenges with unseen weapons. This is a field where we can create a miracle with a small group of people. This is a field where we can help other disciplines with our digital magic.

“On the other hand, computer science is still a young area with many problems that have yet to be explored, providing us with many exciting opportunities to shape our future world.”