The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

The Houston Harris Heat Action Team is working to locate Houston's hottest spots. Screenshot via h3at.org

City of Houston works to map heat across town for larger climate resiliency plans

hot spots

On August 7, when the thermometer reached a high of 93 degrees, a squad of 85 temperature detectives fanned out across Houston and Harris County. Their objective: Map the area's urban heat.

Organizers of the one-day endeavor pinpointed 320 square miles of Houston and Harrison County for collection of data about urban heat. Hardware attached to cars and bicycles traveling on predetermined routes took temperature and humidity readings during three one-hour periods: 6-7 am, 3-4 pm, and 7-8 pm.

The devices tracked temperature changes throughout the day in places featuring various characteristics, such as lots of green space, pavement or buildings. In all, the "street scientist" volunteers measured temperature and humidity in 32 heat-mapping pockets covering 10 square miles each.

The heat-mapping initiative was coordinated by the Houston Harris Heat Action Team, a collaboration of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, Houston Advanced Research Center, City of Houston, and Harris County Public Health. The team's corporate partners are Lowe's and Shell.

The team says urban areas are especially prone to high temperatures due to a combination of hard surfaces (buildings and roads), limited vegetation (such as trees), and heat generators like cars and factories.

"This problem, known as the urban heat island effect, can create issues for human health, infrastructure, and quality of life. Understanding how temperatures vary based on qualities of the natural and built landscape can inform how we reduce the impacts of rising summer temperatures in our communities," the team says.

Marissa Aho, the city of Houston's chief resilience officer, says the heat-mapping data will be available this fall through an open-source platform. Aho offers a heat-mapping project in Honolulu as an example of how Houston's data will be presented.

The Resilient Houston plan, released in February by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, called for a heat-mapping effort like the one carried out August 7 and outlined ways to reduce urban heat, such as planting 4.6 million new native trees over the next 10 years and retrofitting roofs to decrease heat absorption. Aho says the heat-mapping data will bolster initiatives to lessen the "urban heat island" effect.

"Houstonians do not prepare for heat like we prepare for hurricanes, but we should," Turner says in a release. "Houston is getting hotter, and we need science and data to help identify where the greatest impacts are so we can keep Houstonians safer and our city more resilient."

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, extreme heat — defined as at least two consecutive days with temperatures above 90 degrees — ranks as the country's No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths. A 2017 study published by the National Resources Defense Council found the Houston area averaged 18 dangerously hot summer days per year from 1975 to 2010. Without any action to combat urban heat, Houston's annual number of days hit by dangerous summer heat could rise to 80 from 2046 through 2055 and 90 from 2091 to 2100.

Urban heat "leaves vulnerable communities susceptible to the dangers of stress and stroke, leads to higher ozone levels, and reduces the quality of life for all residents of the region — creating especially dangerous conditions for communities already striving to overcome historic obstacles around access and resources, as well as those who engage in outdoor work and recreation," according to the release from the Houston Harris Heat Action Team.

Aside from the human toll, urban heat exacts a financial toll. A 2017 study by researchers in the United Kingdom, Mexico, and the Netherlands indicates overheated cities face climate-change costs at least twice as high as the rest of the world due to urban heat islands.

Organizers of Houston's heat-mapping project note that last August was the second warmest on record in the city, with seven consecutive days when the temperature topped 100 degrees. As climate change takes hold and Houston continues to expand, "these heat-related challenges continue to be exacerbated," the release states.

Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities Program director at the Nature Conservancy, says the heat-mapping data gathered August 7 will help determine where to plant trees, install "green" roofs, and promote other heat-mitigation tactics.

"We have a number of nature-first solutions in our toolkit that can help us cool our cities, but the first step in combating climate- and infrastructure-caused urban heat is to know exactly where to start," González says.

Houston was one of 13 U.S. communities chosen to participate in this summer's Heat Watch program, led by Portland, Oregon-based environmental services company CAPA Strategies LLC and backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A new study ranks Houston as the country's 10th most ethnically diverse large city. Getty Images

Houston named a top 10 big city for ethnic diversity by new study

BAYOU CITY BRAGGING RIGHTS

Houston prides itself on its diversity — and rightfully so. A new study ranks Houston as the country's 10th most ethnically diverse large city.

Among 501 U.S. cities, Houston also ranks 28th overall and first in Texas, according to the study, released February 11 by personal finance website WalletHub.

To come up its ranking, WalletHub measured three key indicators of ethnic diversity: language, ethnicity and race, and birthplace. Houston ranks 25th for language diversity, 36th for ethnic and racial diversity, and 244th for birthplace diversity.

This finding differs from a study by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research that found Houston was the most ethnically and racially diverse metro area in the U.S. as of 2010. Why the disparity? The WalletHub study looked at data for the city of Houston, while the Kinder Institute study examined data for the entire Houston metro area.

The new finding also differs from a broader WalletHub study published in April 2019. In that study, Houston was crowned the most diverse city in the U.S., based on socioeconomic, cultural, economic, household, and religious diversity. Ethnic diversity is only one component of that ranking.

"Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. But diversity alone is not enough — we must always strive to be more inclusive," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted in December 2019. "As your mayor, I know that diversity and inclusivity are what makes us strong. And I will always work to build one complete Houston."

However you slice it, Houston leads the pack in Texas for ethnic and racial diversity. Here's how other major cities in the Lone Star State fare in the new WalletHub study:

  • Arlington, No. 38
  • Plano, No. 46
  • Dallas, No. 47
  • Fort Worth, No. 62
  • Austin, No. 73
  • San Antonio, No. 136

While Austin and cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area don't rank particularly high in the WalletHub study, Austin and DFW do show up on a recent list of the country's most racially diverse metro areas.

DFW held the No. 11 spot in the Bloomberg news service's 2018 ranking of racial diversity among the 100 largest U.S. metros, while Austin stood at No. 19. Houston bested both of those areas, though, landing at No. 5.

Austin and Dallas didn't perform as well in a racial and ethnic index compiled by U.S. News & World Report.

The index shows the racial and ethnic diversity of Dallas actually slipped 3.4 percent from 2010 to 2018, with Austin's diversity declining by 0.10 percent. The decrease was 2.6 percent in San Antonio and 1.2 percent in Houston, the index shows.

The diversity picture was brighter in other Texas cities included in the U.S. New & World Report index, which measured racial and ethnic diversity in U.S. cities with at least 300,000 residents. Arlington saw its racial and ethnic diversity rise 3.6 percent from 2010 to 2018, with Fort Worth at 1.8 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston's seen the effect on climate change. Now, Impact Hub Houston is putting together a brainstorming event to find sustainable solutions. Getty Images

Houston organization to host a hackathon to find sustainable solutions to climate change

It's not easy being green

Houstonians are teaming up to put on a hackathon that will gather designers, developers, entrepreneurs, students, policymakers, and more to find sustainable solutions to climate change.

Impact Hub Houston is organizing Houston's fist Climathon for October 25. The local nonprofit is teaming up with global organizer EIT Climate-KIC, the City of Houston, Citizens' Environmental Coalition, Sketch City, January Advisors, Bunker Labs, WeWork Labs, Syzygy Plasmonics, and GoodFair.

"During Hurricane Harvey, we saw Houston's talent rise to these challenges and develop solutions that not only helped rescue, feed and shelter local Houstonians, but went on to help people in Florida and Puerto Rico," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "We're excited to join the global Climathon challenge in order to give Houston's changemakers a platform to develop sustainable air, water, energy, etc., solutions and take them to the next level. In such a diverse city with so many resources, it seems only natural that Houston can help lead the way in developing local solutions that can scale to other contexts."

The city of Houston has seen its fair share of extreme weather as a result of climate change. The Energy Capital of the World among the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and mayor's office recently-announced Climate Action Plan to address the concerns of climate change.

"Houston has a lot to lose as the weather changes," says Jeff Reichman, founder of January Advisors and Sketch City, in the release. "We should be using our talents to elevate good ideas for our region, and to connect with one another for long-term collaborations."

The event will zero in on Houston's biggest emissions problems: transportation and commercial and residential buildings. The best ideas coming out of the Climathon will be sent to the international database for consideration for the global awards in Paris.

For more information and to register, view partnership opportunities, or sign up to volunteer, visit the website.

When it comes to 5G, Houston is setting itself up as a leader within the United States. Getty Images

Overheard: Ted Cruz, experts weigh in on why 5G is a game changer for Houston

Eavesdropping in Houston

Last year, Houstonians Clayton and Emily Harris became the first commercial 5G customers. Now, a full year later, the Houston has a major seat at the table that's discussing the advancement of 5G technology.

At a forum on Tuesday, October 1, hosted by CTIA and the Center for Houston's Future, experts discussed Houston's role in the conversation about 5G. Here are some overheards from the morning event.

“We cannot take our leadership in 4G for granted as we transition to 5G.”

— Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz's keynote address warns of the United States resting on its laurels in the race to 5G. While the country had the edge on foreign competition for 4G, that doesn't mean 5G will have the same result, he says. In fact, Cruz cites multiple studies that show China and South Korea lead the race in 5G. Deloitte's research found that China has outspent the U.S. by $24 billion and has built 350,000 new sites, while the U.S. has built fewer than 30,000. The study also showed China is prepared to invest $400 billion. This information aside, Cruz tells the crowd that America has the ability to win the race to 5G.

“I think it’s a wonderful story to see how Texas has been leading the way.” 

— Brendan Carr, FCC commissioner. Carr references the Harris family, as well as other Texas cities he's visited that have been working hard to advance 5G. For Carr, expanding and implementing 5G is a huge opportunity for job creation. "The U.S. isn't the only country in the world that wants these jobs," he says to the crowd. "They're not the only country that wants to see the half a trillion dollars in economic growth that's going to come from this next-generation technology."

“I’ll admit, I’m an optimist, but there are significant challenges to making this 5G future a reality.”

— Jesse Bounds, director of innovation for the city of Houston. Bounds cited a few obstacles to overcome. There's a need for massive investment in infrastructure to blanket cities in 5G, and telecom companies are expected to spend $8 billion over the next five years to build this infrastructure, and cities too will need to invest in smart city technology. Consumers will need to pay more for data, and US consumers pay some of the highest rates in the world already. Not to mention the fact that a third of Americans don't have access to home internet. "As we build the infrastructure of the future, we must do so in a way that closes the digital divide so that those Americans can enjoy the same level of opportunity and prosperity that we do," Bounds says.

"Houston’s 5G network performance is 17 times better than the 4G. That’s today, in the very early days of 5G.”

— Paul Challoner, vice president of network product solutions at Ericsson. Challoner tells the crowd that of course this affects speed of data transferring and that is a huge pro for the technology, but there are other important perks for 5G advancement. The tech also affects device density, meaning that, a very large city like Houston, might have issues in dense areas. 5G also improves connectivity in crucial situations, like in the case of a surgeon using a device during surgery. Lastly, Challoner mentioned 5G is the most advanced technology when it comes to cybersecurity.

"One area that I’m most excited about is all the things that we don't talk about. All the applications that haven't yet been imagined, that are being dreamt up by software developers in their dorm rooms."

— Mishka Dehghan, vice president of 5G development at Sprint. Dehghan points out that 10 years ago, no one could have imagined ride sharing, now that is a huge industry with developing technology thanks to mobile data usage. With with the onset of 5G, she says she can't wait to see what technology is created in the next 10 years.

Houston buildings — old and new — need to think about their emergency communication compliance. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

When it comes to emergency preparation, Houston buildings need to focus on communication and compliance, says this expert

Guest column

Like most of us, I remember where I was when I learned that terrorists had crashed hijacked planes into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

In addition to the high cost of civilian life, 412 firefighters, EMTs and police officers lost their lives — many the result of not receiving an order to evacuate. Many just did not get the order because the existing first responder radio system and private cellular services were too jammed with calls as a result of the emergency and as a result of damage to the buildings. We also saw the same lack of decent communications with law enforcement in the Mandalay Bay mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The lessons of the Twin Towers were not lost on the city of Houston and Harris County which require all new buildings to have a specially designed emergency responder radio system, or ERRS, installed which passes a rigorous testing procedure. Buildings over three stories, without a basement or over 50,000 square feet are not exempt but do not have to submit plans to the city. If the system is not designed properly, The city and county will not issue a certificate of occupancy. Repeated violations of an order to install an ERRS can result not only in fines and city tickets, but also in a referral to the district attorney's office to consider whether a felony level crime has occurred. It is not a trivial building code provision obviously.

Unfortunately, this ordinance is either not known or is not known well yet. I serve as the chairman of the Houston Tower Commission, am a former Houston council member and chairman of the Regulatory Affairs Committee, an attorney for almost 28 years, a law professor in legislation, and the owner of a professional design/build company involved in wireless electrical engineering and installation.

While I can't issue a formal advisory opinion on behalf of the city, on an industry level this is what businesses and commercial builders need to know:

  • Every building is different, and the systems are not off the shelf or cheap.
  • The publicly broadcast FirstNet signal, if being received throughout your building, does not exempt a building owner from compliance.
  • Compliance is not entirely based on the equipment installed, but primarily on results. Each floor of a covered building is divided in to 20 grids and each grid is tested to see if the signal strength is 95 dBm. If more than two consecutive grids fail, then the floor is divided into 40 grids and if four consecutive grids fail, the system must be redesigned.
  • The systems must be designed by an engineer utilizing iBwave software that should be submitted with your permit package. Again, these are not off the shelf products.
  • Because the systems are designed to work when a building is on fire, most cabling must be done with a fire resistant conduit, fiber or even fireproof antennas in certain jurisdictions.
  • Existing buildings are not required by code to install an ERRS unless they undergo a major renovation. However, a building owner can install one of the systems voluntarily.

It is the nature of the evolving world of wireless technology that our "smart buildings" of the future will be required to install technology of all sorts that allows for modern communications. Certain cities are already requiring new buildings to also install private wireless systems that allow you to use your private cell phone throughout your building. The correlation is clearly with sprinkler systems, the requirement for which is found in the same section of the fire code which requires an ERRS. Sprinkler systems were invented in 1872 but were not required by code until the 1960s. Amazingly, there are many cities that have not modernized their codes to require an ERRS in new buildings, including Dallas.

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Rob Todd is the founder of Amplified Solutions and chair of the Tower Permit Commission for the city of Houston.

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Houston company receives FDA approval for tech that uses sound to blast away cellulite

Zip zap

Soliton, a Houston-based technology company, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry.

The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

MIT engineer and doctor Christopher Capelli first developed the basis of the tool while he led the Office of Technology Based Ventures at M.D. Anderson.

Capelli uncovered that he could remove tattoos more effectively by treating the skin with up to 100 waves per second (about five to 10 times greater than other devices on the market), giving birth to the company's proprietary Rapid Acoustic Pulse (RAP) platform.

In 2012 he formed Soliton with co-founder and entrepreneur Walter Klemp, who also founded Houston-based Moleculin, and later brought on Brad Hauser as CEO. By 2019, the company had received FDA approval for using the technology for tattoo removal.

"The original indication was tattoo removal, which is what Chris envisioned," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time.

Brad Hauser is the CEO of Soliton. Photo courtesy of Soliton

"It works similarly in the fibrous septa, which are the tethered bands that create the dimples and cellulite and the uneven skin. Those are stiffer than the surrounding fat cells in the subcutaneous tissue," Hauser says. "That allows the technology to disrupt those fibrous septa and loosen and release the dimples."

In 2021 the company plans to commercialize their product and get it into the hands of dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and other medical professionals for 25 key accounts—potentially including ones Houston—with a plan for a national rollout in 2022.

And they don't plan to stop there.

The company has already announced a partnership for a proof-of-concept study with the U.S. Navy in which Soliton will aim to use its technology to reduce the visibility of fibrotic scars, and more importantly work to increase mobility or playability of scars.

"Often the scar ends up causing restrictions in motion and discomfort with pressure of even clothing and certainly with sleeping," Hauser says. "We believe based on the reduction in volume and the increase in playability that we saw in our original proof-of-concept study that we will be able to bring benefits to these military patients."

Work on the study is slated to begin in the first half of this year.

In the meantime, the company is making headway with treatment of liver fibrosis, announcing just this week that it's pre-clinical study in animals demonstrated positive results and a reduction in effects by 42 percent seven days after the completion of carbon tetrachloride (CCL4) induction. The RAP technology was also named the best new technology by the Aesthetic Industry Association earlier this month.

"It's really targeting collagen fiber and fibroblasts on a cellular level" Hauser says. "Which we think has numerous potential uses in the future."

UH launches online MBA, plus six new digital degree programs

online ed

The University of Houston's C. T. Bauer College of Business announced this month that it will begin offering fully online Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Business Administration programs in the upcoming fall semester.

The new offerings are part of the college's 2020-2025 Strategic Plan that focuses on becoming a leader in digital learning and affordable education options.

In addition to the online BBA and MBA degrees, Bauer is launching five other fully online business-minded graduate programs:

  • Online Master of Science in Business Analytics
  • Online Master of Science in Finance
  • Online Master of Science in Management & Leadership
  • Online Master of Science in Management Information Systems
  • Online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management

Over the summer, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer School and Cullen Distinguished Chair Professor, told InnovationMap that enrollment in the Bauer College had increased by about 70 percent, as the school focused on accessibility and affordability amid the pandemic and record job losses.

According to Pavlou, these new degree programs will be an extension of that effort.

"Given the recent developments due to COVID-19, and the broader challenges for higher education, it has become imperative to enhance our ability to leverage technology to offer courses remotely," he says in a statement.

The seven programs will cost between 15 to 20 percent less than traditional degree programs at the university, according to UH. The new programs will charge in-state tuition for all students, regardless of residency, and online students will not pay additional fees.

"These new offerings demonstrate our dedication to providing students financially accessible programs that emphasize innovation, technology, and experiential learning," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. "Student success is our top priority, and as the need for flexible instruction and course delivery increases, we will meet that need."

The Bauer School has long been touted as one of the top schools for entrepreneurship in the country. In late 2020, UH announced that it received a $13 million donation from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation to go toward Bauer's well-known programs, as part of the school's $1.2 billion "Here We Go" initiative.

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.