Alumni spotlight on Junfeng Jiao: Transforming cities with technology
Dr. Junfeng Jiao is an associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning Program at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
He is the founding director of Urban Information Lab, director of UT NSF Ethical AI Program, director of Texas Smart Cities, and a founding member of UT Austin's Good Systems Grand Challenge. Jiao completed the Urban Design and Planning CSSS track while at the University of Washington (UW), and graduated in 2010. His research focuses on smart cities, smart transportation, urban informatics, and ethical AI, using information technologies to quantify urban infrastructures and their influences on people’s behaviors.
Jiao shared with CSSS in Fall 2023 about how his time at the UW has informed his career path and current research. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: What was your path to your current work?
Answer: After my undergraduate at Wuhan, I got into a Master’s program and received a Netherlands government fellowship to study at the University of Twente. That was my first time moving out of Asia and I really appreciated the experience. From there, I decided to study in the U.S. and was admitted at the UW.
I got a master’s degree in the Civil Engineering Department, and earned my PhD in Urban Planning. After graduating, I got an assistant professor job at Ball State University in Indiana, and spent two years there before I had the chance to move to UT Austin. Now, I have my lab with awesome research assistants and postdocs working for me, and I feel very lucky.
CSSS was one of the fundamental reasons why I got to where I am now. I always liked quantitative research and statistics, and I was able to access rigorous training through CSSS. When I talk with other urban planning PhD’s from peer universities, they’re not as comfortable with stats as UW people. Why? They don’t have CSSS! So that gave me confidence to compete. I think CSSS training should be standard for all UW social sciences and engineering students.
Q: What drew you to your research area?
A: I’ve always considered myself an engineer and I’ve always liked technology. I feel like urban areas or cities are places that have not been fully transformed by technology, but that transformation is happening right now.
All kinds of technology are affecting our cities — from robots to large language models to “Internet of things (IoT)” devices to autonomous driving deliveries. And I think it’s a wonderful time for people to use technology to better plan, manage, and design cities.
For instance, I'm now the director of the Ethical AI program at UT Austin, where we design, develop, and deploy different ethical AI systems in society and that includes smart city robotics, disinformation, and racial justice work across domains.
Q: How did you first get involved with CSSS?
A: I was studying in a PhD program in the College of Built Environment, and we were required to learn statistics for our research, but we didn’t have the resources within the department to teach the level of statistics needed.
We needed real statistics, like from a computer science or stats department. So, CSSS offered us a unique opportunity. For us in the program, it was like finding treasure island – not just me, but a bunch of our urban planning PhD students all started doing CSSS tracks. It became a tradition for many in urban planning grad school.
Q: What from your CSSS training have you found most helpful?
A: All the skills I learned have been useful: ordinary regression, logic regression, all kinds of regressions. I think the quant skills are the best thing I ever learned at UW, because UW’s biostats and stats offer world-class resources. Now that I’ve been to many other universities, I really appreciate the high level of statistics expertise UW offers.
Q: Did you always want to be a professor?
A: Not really — I just developed and followed my interests along the way. In China, we talk about teachers as “engineers of the human soul.” Just pause to think about that — how, in research and teaching, we are generating knowledge and building human’s souls for mankind.
I think it’s really meaningful to educate the next generation of human beings, not just from a knowledge perspective, but also about their behavior and responsibilities. I think you can make some meaningful impacts on the earth by teaching.
Q: How do you explain your research to friends and family who aren't in your field?
A: Number one: if they don't understand, that's not their problem, it's your problem. If you don't have the capacity to clearly explain what you do, that's your failure, that's not their failure.
Number two: you need to look at what’s happening in the world and translate your research into pop culture language or current references. For example, if you talk about the generative AI and large language models, they might not know, but if you say ChatGPT, then that’s a starting point they’ve probably heard of. If you talk about ‘last mile delivery,’ they might not know about that. But if you start by mentioning Amazon deliveries, they probably recognize the idea.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself during your PhD, what would you say?
A: I should have studied more statistics! I don't think I studied enough statistics, honestly. I should have gotten a master’s or PhD in a statistics department. I keep thinking I need more statistics knowledge and training, because now I’m teaching a machine learning course for UT’s computer science department. Luckily, the CSSS certificate was easy to fit into my non-stats PhD program. CSSS is a great community, super useful, and totally awesome.
Beyond that, my advice for people early in their academic career is to try to make friends, shake hands, and be there to present your work. Don’t get discouraged too easily – you need to keep trying and eventually will get to where you want to be.
Q: What was one of your favorite spots around the UW campus or the university district in Seattle?
A: I miss the whole campus! Especially the marina by the biology buildings. I used to walk there after a long day, just to see the water, and dream of someday having a boat. I actually really like the rain and climate in Seattle too.
Q: What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately that you’d recommend?
A: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. I started reading Gladwell with his book Outliers — it’s totally a statistical concept, and that’s why I started reading his writing and enjoying his books.
While at UW, Jiao enjoyed the campus and it's waterfront, and exploring Seattle.