Forming links to solve big problems: Katia Obraczka embraces CITRIS’s interdisciplinary mission

A web of interconnecting blue lines with scattered bright points appearing on ablack and green mottled background.

The CITRIS principal investigator and professor of computer science and engineering addresses complex issues of public safety — from wildfire prevention to reliable patient monitoring — with systems and networking expertise.

“Everything about CITRIS and its mission resonates with me,” said Katia Obraczka, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a principal investigator (PI) at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS). 

“The idea of information technology in the interest of society is critical. As engineers, our mission is to solve problems. By solving big and challenging problems, we can make the world a better place to live for all.”

Obraczka’s penchant for problem-solving has seen her traversing hemispheres. She received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical and computer engineering from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and then earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Southern California. She stayed with USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) for five and a half years as a research scientist and held a research faculty position at USC’s Department of Computer Science before joining the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz in 2001. 

She currently leads the Internetworking Research Group (i-NRG), holds a faculty fellow position at Rachel Carson College, UC Santa Cruz’s environmental-themed undergraduate residential college, and is affiliated with the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation

Obraczka became part of the CITRIS research community in 2010, when she was named a co-investigator on her first CITRIS Seed Award. Her connection to the institute has grown stronger in recent years, as she received further Seed Funding support in 2018 and 2021, and then joined the latest CITRIS Foundry cohort. She also serves on the CITRIS at UC Santa Cruz faculty advisory board.

Obraczka studies networking, specifically computer networks, wireless networks and the Internet of Things (IoT). This includes connected systems of computers, devices, sensors and software used in a wide assortment of applications. A “smart home” is one common example: Various appliances in a person’s home communicate with each other, forming a network that can automate regular tasks and provide occupants with precise, convenient control over lighting, heating, security systems and more from a centralized device. Obraczka uses her expertise in IoT to address diverse goals in areas ranging from disaster prediction to patient care. 

“The idea of information technology in the interest of society is critical. By solving big and challenging problems, we can make the world a better place to live for all.”

Katia Obraczka

One of Obraczka’s recent projects stemmed from her witnessing the increasingly frequent, intense and destructive wildfires in California. These tragic events prompted her to think about ways she could help to prevent wildfires and mitigate their effects. 

In 2018, Obraczka and researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Merced received a CITRIS Seed Award to create an IoT-based system for monitoring wildfires made up of a network of miniaturized ground weather stations to continuously and autonomously monitor environmental conditions. The system is designed to alert first responders, fire managers and local communities when it detects conditions that could lead to wildfires. 

In 2021, Obraczka and two colleagues from other departments at UC Santa Cruz proposed to build on that work by developing a decision-support tool for wildfire risk assessment, dubbed EUREKA, that uses information from the ground IoT sensor network augmented with drones, aka uncrewed aerial vehicles or UAVs. The project received a CITRIS at UC Santa Cruz campus seed award

EUREKA isn’t meant to replace existing detection systems that use remote sensing data. Rather, it will provide a more granular view of potential environmental indicators of wildfires using inexpensive, energy-efficient and replaceable sensors. A key feature of EUREKA is its scalability, to ensure it can cover the vast sensitive areas that need to be monitored in California. 

The EUREKA system has three major elements. The first is its resilient, drone-assisted IoT network, which adapts to the conditions in the environment, the energy and connectivity levels of its devices, and the capabilities of the available drone fleet. The wildfire risk assessment software then assimilates and processes data from the network. Finally, the user-friendly web-based decision-support tool informs stakeholders and the public about wildfire risks in real time. 

The EUREKA wildfire assessment tool uses ground sensor stations to monitor environmental conditions. When the sensors detect a hot spot, drones can be deployed to take additional data. The stations and drones send the information to networked cluster head devices, which process the data and transmit it to the internet. Animation by Dan Chapman.

EUREKA’s IoT network consists of a set of low-power ground sensor nodes, palm-sized devices that detect environmental changes, such as increased temperature and lower humidity, and send that information to cluster head devices. If the stationary nodes detect a hot spot, the networked drones can be dispatched on demand to make additional observations. The ground stations then transmit the environmental data to the internet through their own communication network.

Because Obraczka’s prowess lies in computer networking, and not in pyrogeography, she sought input from fire and environmental scientists to ensure that EUREKA would benefit their work. 

“Dr. Obraczka is open to exploring new ideas, even when she’s not an expert,” said Andrea David, a doctoral student working on the project. “She’s good at putting the dots together.”

David noted that EUREKA isn’t intended only for fire experts but for the general public as well, so that people living in areas with elevated fire danger can better manage their risk based on up-to-date information.

Employing networked sensors for health and safety is also the goal of another of Obraczka’s active research ventures: the Pressure Injury Monitoring and Prevention project, or PIMAP, a persistent, autonomous, patient-centered monitoring software system. 

The PIMAP system is a small, dictionary-sized box with wires running to a sensor embedded in a gauze pad.

People with low mobility are disproportionately affected by pressure injuries, aka bed sores, wounds that develop in localized areas of tissue that can take years to heal. PIMAP integrates sensors with a monitoring software framework that collects, stores and analyzes real-time data. 

Given the system’s ability to monitor individual patients by collecting data from a variety of sensors seamlessly, persistently and independently, it can detect dangerous conditions early and alert caretakers through its real-time visual feedback. PIMAP has the potential to significantly improve telehealth treatment and patient well-being, reduce health care costs, and make care more accessible for underserved communities. 

Obraczka and her collaborators, UC Davis Health research nurses Sarina Fazio and Holly Kirkland-Kyhn, are currently assessing different venues for PIMAP, including hospitals, nursing facilities and home care, with support from a 2021 CITRIS Seed Award. Obraczka is also working with the CITRIS Foundry innovation incubator to bring PIMAP to market. 

“Katia Obraczka has a lot of big ideas, and she’s not afraid to partner with people to make those ideas come to fruition,” said Kirkland-Kyhn, director of wound care at UC Davis Health. “A lot of times, people are afraid to change to make progress; Obraczka doesn’t have that fear.”

Embracing change to shape the future is one of the core principles on which CITRIS was founded — as is cultivating interdisciplinary collaboration to address critical challenges. Obraczka said CITRIS’s focus on partnerships across different fields of study has greatly benefited her and her projects, and their effects on the world.

“We need to solve real problems,” Obraczka said. “If we’re working with researchers in other areas that can bring us real, important problems, it makes our work much more meaningful.”