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How Chicago Got Smart About Sensors

By Rob Mitchum // September 30, 2015

This month’s announcement of a $3.1 million National Science Foundation for Array of Things inspired a wave of enthusiastic coverage about the urban sensing project. The plan to install 500 sensor nodes, collecting data on Chicago’s environment, infrastructure, and activity, was touted as an important step towards creating a “smart city,” boosting data-driven public policy and community engagement. Susan Crawford, writing for Medium’s Backchannel technology publication, cited the modular AoT node design, growing collaborations with other cities, and proactive privacy and security measures as qualities that push the sensor network ahead of other efforts to gather urban data.

Just imagine the possibilities. Sensors monitoring air quality, sound and vibration (to detect heavy vehicle traffic), and temperature can be used to suggest the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, to take a hard look for standing water or flooding, or to study the relationship between diseases and the urban environment.

For example, some parts of the west side of Chicago have a much higher incidence of asthma than other parts of the city. If the city had more facts about air quality on the west side, block-by-block, it could work on deploying green spaces where they are most needed. And with data from other cities available for comparison, Chicago (“The Great American City” — or so it tells New York City) can measure itself against the rest.

In an editorial piece for the Center for Data Innovation, writer Joshua New touted the unique opportunity for Chicago and AoT to demonstrate the power of the “Internet of Things” on an urban scale.

The Array of Things would be able to provide city planners, health officials, businesses, and the general public timely data about temperature, light, sound, carbon monoxide levels and more, wherever the project installed the sensors. This data, when combined with other sources such as theChicago government’s existing open data, has incredible potential: entrepreneurs could build apps that combine crime statistics with real-time light levels and traffic patterns to map a user’s safest walk home; real estate websites like Zillow could factor in data on noise levels in specific neighborhoods into their pricing estimates to better inform their users; and public officials could save money by targeting salting and plowing snow only in areas that need it. Eventually, city planners could use this data to address more serious problems facing Chicago residents, such as how low-income neighborhoods might be more exposed to hazardous air pollution.

In Chicago Magazine, City of Chicago Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman described one potential use case for AoT sensor data that could help the city address one topic of recent concern.

Heavy trucks and buses—as City Hall found out when it floated additional fees on SUVs—account for most of the damage done to roadways, at least in terms of the damage caused by traffic. But right now the city doesn’t have a detailed portrait of where and when heavy-truck traffic occurs.

“There’s a sensor that’s calibrated to pick up vibration—you can feel them, when one of those big trucks comes barreling by. This sensor is designed to track the vibrations that are produced by the weight of the vehicle that drives by. We already know that the heavier trucks cause heavier wear and tear on our roads,” Berman says. “And heavy truck traffic—we don’t understand those patterns, how they might change when construction patterns across the city change. By understanding that better, one, we might adjust our road repair schedule to take into account increased wear and tear in a certain area of the city, or we might alter the flow of that truck traffic to even out the wear and tear on the city. Maybe route trucks a different direction to get to that end point.”

The coverage even spilled over to television, where AoT lead investigator Charlie Catlett appeared on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight news magazine. In a discussion with Sean Keenahan and IIT-Chicago-Kent School of Law professor Lori Andrews, Catlett highlighted the benefits of the project for Chicago in terms of understanding asthma, urban flooding, and traffic congestion. You can watch the segment here.

For more information on Array of Things, visit their website or read our recent announcement of the NSF funding.

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