A vast reservoir of information on human health
and behavior lives in our sewage.
Virus Treemap
Human Virus

One of the most unique aspects of the Underworld platform is its ability to capture and analyze viruses.

Human viruses are of major interest to public health authorities, but actually represent only a tiny fraction of the total viruses found in sewage.

Most of the viruses identified in the platform are bacteriophages, which means that they attack bacteria. A smaller proportion infects plants and non-human animals, and a few others remain unidentified.

A vast reservoir of information on
human health and behavior lives
in our sewage.
And this resource is untapped.
In a sample of sewage water
In a sample of sewage water
Viruses whose hosts are human
and may cause influenza, papilloma,
chickenpox and so on.



We imagine a future in which sewage is mined for
real-time information that can inform policy makers, health practitioners, designers, and researchers alike.

Such is the idea behind Underworlds: a cross-disciplinary, open-data platform for monitoring urban health patterns, shaping more inclusive public health strategies, and pushing the boundaries of urban epidemiology. Pioneered by the Senseable City Lab and the Alm Lab, and sponsored by the MIT-Kuwait Center for Natural Resources and the Environment, a prototype smart sewage platform is being developed at MIT consisting of physical infrastructure, biochemical measurement technologies, and the down­stream computational tools and analytics necessary to interpret and act on our findings.

The Underworlds project is the first of its kind, and a proof of concept that cities can make use of their waste water system to do near real-time urban epidemiology and understand human health and behavior with a fine spatio-temporal resolution. Probably the most obvious first application of smart sewage technology is infectious disease surveillance, and the prediction of outbreaks.

Early warnings in relation to the presence of new flu strains in urban centers could significantly reduce a community’s medical costs and even help mitigate outbreaks. In addition, smart sewage could impact the
way non-communicable diseases are studied, because biomarkers for diseases such as obesity and diabetes
can be measured at unprecedented scale and temporal resolution.

The implications of this platform extend beyond just disease surveillance to the development of a new type
of human population census. Analyzed in tandem with demographic data, this platform can study the aggregate health of a city to the particular health of a neighborhood.

Underworlds will study the urban geography, network topology, and demographic distribution in conjunction with wastewater loads over time, to propose and validate a model that informs wastewater sampling and correlates to target population samples. Together with the Depart­ment of Public Works, this work has already started in a pilot study in Cambridge.


The material on this web site can be used freely
in any publication provided that

  1. It is duly credited as a project by
    the MIT Senseable City Lab and Alm Lab
  2. A PDF copy of the publication is sent to
Download Press Release


Project Lead

MIT Senseable City Lab

Carlo Ratti Principal Investigator
Newsha Ghaeli Project Manager

Engineering Team
Aline Barros, Antoine De Maleprade,
Carlos Graeves, Franco Montalvo, Jessica Snyder,
Peter Kang, Youjin Shin

Web & Visualization
Paul Bouisset, Wonyoung So, Youjin Shin

Network Modeling & Analysis
Alaa Al-Radwan, Aldo Treville, Alexander Belyi,
Yaniv Turgeman, Youjin Shin

Concept Phase Lead
Yaniv Turgeman

Undergraduate Researchers
Anuj Khandelwal, Cyndia Cao, Dang Pham,
Katherine Adler

Biology Lead

MIT Alm Lab

Eric Alm Co-Principal Investigator

Biological Research Team
Claire Duvallet, Ilana Brito, Mariana Matus

Concept Phase Lead
Yaniv Turgeman

Undergraduate Researchers
Kathy Lin, Minyi Lee

Together With


Daniela Rus Co-Principal Investigator

MIT Polz Lab

Martin Polz Co-Principal Investigator

MIT Runstadler Lab

Jon Runstadler Co-Principal Investigator

Graduate Research Assistant
Christopher Bandoro

MIT Eltahir Research Group

Elfatih Eltahir Co-Principal Investigator


Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and
the Environment

Kuwait Collaborators

Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research

Sameer Al-Zenki Principal Investigator
Kazi M. Jamil Co-Principal Investigator
Tareq Al-Ati Co-Principal Investigator
Ashraf I. Ahmad Co-Principal Investigator

Kuwait University

Entesar H. Husain Principal Investigator
Rawa Aljarallah Co-Principal Investigator