From Beijing’s air quality to big data in Brazil, students’ impact stretches globally

August 10, 2017

By Cristy Lytal

During the past summer, nearly 50 students from the USC Price School of Public Policy ventured abroad to tackle topics including social media and disaster response in Italy, big data and resilience in Brazil, air quality in China and comparative governance in Germany.

The three international labs in Italy, Brazil and China drew students from the master’s programs in public policy (MPP), public administration (MPA), planning (MPL), health administration (MHA), and international public policy and management (IPPAM).

“There are three things that I think are unique about the labs,” said Professor Eric Heikkila, director of the Office Global Engagement at USC Price. “One is that they are interdisciplinary, because they draw students from multiple programs within the school. Secondly, they take classroom knowledge, and they apply it in the field to practice. And thirdly, they show that professional practice is contextual, especially in an international setting.”

The graduate and undergraduate students who participated in the “USC Price on the Rhine” program in Germany also gained valuable global perspectives.

“The number one value of the program is that the students walk away understanding that there’s not just one best way of doing things,” said Assistant Professor William Resh, who directs USC Price on the Rhine. “There are many different ways to attack complex problems in society. They learn quite a bit about other people’s preferences and how perspectives develop within different societies, and walk away with a newfound respect for differences between people.”

China lab: Developing strategies to improve air quality

Price students and Professor Marlon Boarnet attend a meeting organized by the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD) to learn regional planning and Jinjinji planning in China. (Photo courtesy CAUPD) More photos available on Flickr »

For several of the 18 Price students who participated in the China Lab, Beijing was a new experience; for others, it was a return home. Attracted by the opportunity to work on a consulting project for the World Bank, both American and Chinese students traveled to Beijing to provide recommendations for air quality management in the Jingjinji region — the mega-region surrounding Beijing with a total population of approximately 110 million persons.

China Academy of Science

During a visit to the China Academy of Science, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, students take a close-up look at an Organic Carbon analyzer. (Photo by Ginger Li)

“I was born in Beijing… I want to help my hometown and my country conquer the air quality problem — that’s the reason why I chose to do this lab,” explained MPA student Yuchen Zhang.

MPP student Danielle Guillen enjoyed experiencing China, including a trek to the Great Wall, alongside her Chinese classmates. “Our cohort was made up mostly of people who were Chinese nationals,” she said. “And so some of the highlights were just being able to experience Beijing from the perspective of someone who has lived there and who knew the city intimately.”

To gain context for the project, the students performed site visits and attended lectures at Peking University, Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, Beijing Transportation Research Institute, China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, the planning firm Atkins, and China Academy of Sciences.

Students visit the Great Wall.

“I really enjoyed the ways that the lab is designed to take students through the international consulting experience,” said Professor Marlon Boarnet, chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, who led the lab. “I found, as an instructor, international consulting is the type of thing that you just can’t simulate in a classroom; we do have to take them overseas and immerse them. And it was tremendously rewarding, watching the students learning.”

The students approached the problem of air pollution by examining land use, energy, industry and transportation. The complexity of the problem informed their key recommendation: increasing collaboration across sectors, as well as across local, regional and national levels of government. They developed a broad menu of specific policy recommendations, which included: monitoring the agricultural ammonia emissions, which is an important contributor to particulate pollution in the Jingjinji region; providing more convenient charging stations for electric vehicles; and phasing out coal plants.

They presented their recommendations in a report and presentation, delivered in both English and Mandarin, at the World Bank.

“I was lucky to be part of this kind of international consulting project, because I found what I want to do for the rest of my life as a career,” Zhang said.

Brazil lab: Leveraging big data to enhance resiliency

Price students attended a presentation by the Rio de Janeiro Integrated Center of Command and Control as part of the 2017 Brazil lab. More photos available on Flickr »

Under the guidance of Professor Antonio Bento and host institution Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), 12 Price students ventured to Brazil to explore how Rio de Janeiro’s Center of Operations (COR) can use big data to improve resilience to climate change, natural disasters, mobility and public safety challenges.


In their project, students focused on utilizing big data to improve resiliency.

The students went on numerous site visits, including to the highly impoverished settlements known as favelas, which were heavily affected by recent rains and landslides. They saw how COR responded by enhancing Rio’s smart technology infrastructure, so that sirens now sound to alert people to evacuate favelas before dangerous storms.

The team also heard presentations from some of COR’s public partners — the Integrated Center of Command and Control, Rio Aguas, the Military Fire Department and the Civil Defense.

“It’s a unique experience,” Bento said. “The students were very engaged, because the day-to-day reality is very different there.”


Students explore several Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods during the lab.

Based on their research and site visits, the students prepared a report and presentation for COR analyzing the city’s resilience, hazard vulnerability and smart city capabilities. They also made recommendations, including encouraging COR to partner with universities and data science startups, and to launch a social media campaign to enhance their effectiveness.

“Taking what we’ve learned in L.A. and having to reorient those ideas in another country, in another city’s context, was very eye-opening,” said MPL student Alexander Yee. “Some of the cultural norms were different. The infrastructure of the government was different. And the things that we had learned in the classroom just didn’t fit 100 percent, so we had to think about how to maintain the integrity of those ideas while allowing them to be flexible enough to be applied to this new circumstance and context.”

In addition to the intense academic experience, the students also had the chance to take in the local scenery, Yee noted, from rock climbing at Pão de Açúcar to hang gliding over the beach.

Italy lab: Diminishing disasters through social media

Price students at Bocconi University in Milan (Photo courtesy of Maria de la Luz Garcia) More photos available on Flickr »

Seven Price students headed to Milan and Rome to provide professional consulting services for the Department of Civil Protection, which leads the disaster management system in Italy. At their client’s request, the students explored how social media can enhance the response to emergencies and disasters, ranging from floods and droughts, to earthquakes and volcanoes.

Students listen to a presentation by the Department of Civil Protection (Photo courtesy of Maria de la Luz Garcia)

Professor Heikkila led the lab, and Professors Veronica Vechi and Raffaella Saporito from Bocconi University provided lectures to orient the students to the political and social nuances of the Italian context.

“In some ways, the students’ relative youth worked to their advantage, because they think quite naturally in terms of how one interacts through these social media channels,” Heikkila said. “And they were quick in learning about the institutional context in terms of emergency management.”

The students analyzed the potential benefits and risks of social media, the Department of Protection’s current practices, and case studies from China and the U.S. They summarized their findings in a report and presentation that offered practical recommendations, such as creating a consistent brand, providing continuous content, and investing in social media management software and infrastructure.

“What I got out of it was not just an understanding of Italy and the Department of Civil Protection, but also how social media across the world is really changing the way government works,” said Maria de la Luz Garcia, who recently graduated with her MPA degree and is directing the 2020 census efforts for the City of Los Angeles. “The experience that I got as a consultant on behalf of USC for the Department of Civil Protection is completely relevant to what I’m going to be doing with the City of Los Angeles. And so this lab really helped me conceptualize and think about how I’m going to be doing that.”

She also enjoyed immersing in Italian culture, both as a student researching emergency management and as a tourist, including being able to see the Duomo di Milano cathedral and Giro d’Italia cycling event in person.

“Whether it’s in Italy or China or Brazil, the international lab is just such a good learning experience,” said de la Luz Garcia. “You walk away with such a richness afterward that it’s an experience that you do carry for a lifetime. I’m going to have those memories for the rest of my life, and I’m going to be able to apply them.”

Price on the Rhine: Changing face of the EU

Student outside of the Reichstag government building in Germany. More photos available on Flickr »

Through the USC Price on the Rhine program, 12 undergraduate and graduate students spent a month living alongside German students at Speyer University, studying comparative public administration and policy with a focus on the United States, Germany and the European Union (EU).


Students toured EU institutions as part of the 2017 USC on the Rhine program.

“Brexit was constantly talked about,” said Resh. “It was a mix of policy questions, cultural questions, what it means to be European. We also talked about the integration crisis, the refugee crisis. American students saw a lot of commonalities with the rise of right-wing populism and also immigration as a center of policy debate in the United States. And so they offered a lot of good perspectives that they could bring from home to the classroom.”

The students took excursions to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France; EU institutions in Brussels, Belgium; the historic city of Heidelberg, Germany; and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

“This year, we also added an excursion to Berlin,” Resh said. “Students visited the Bundestag, which is the German Parliament, the Chancellery and the U.S. Embassy in Berlin… it was great for the students to get a better perspective of a full range of institutions that are involved in governance within the European Union.”

Back at Speyer University, students attended seminars taught by both Resh and German professors about comparative public administration, European economic integration, comparative constitutional law, EU multi-level governance and German federalism. Each master’s student produced two seminar papers, and each undergraduate wrote one.

“Academically, it was great, and I loved the cultural aspect of it, too,” said MPA student Neha Sata, noting the breadth of experiences as part of the trip, from ballroom dancing classes to a wine festival to a language exchange program with German students. “I had the opportunity to visit seven different countries and 15 cities — I would have never done that otherwise.”