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Pete Beckman

Chicago seeking 'smart-city' tech solutions to improve city life

Source: Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune

Come late June, city electricians are expected to start strapping beehive-shaped sensor boxes to municipal light poles — environmental Fitbits for neighborhoods, essentially.

How's the air quality? Where does rainwater pool? Where do air temperatures spike?

The 14-inch-high cylinders filled with sensors and cameras — developed by computer scientists and designers at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — should shed light on stubborn urban problems — everything from asthma clusters and flood-prone intersections to so-called "heat islands," densely developed corners of the city that trap heat. Ultimately, the data should lead to affordable, energy-efficient solutions to those problems and others.

The project, dubbed the Array of Things, is the most aggressive element of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push to transform Chicago into "the most data-driven government in the world," as his top tech lieutenant recently put it. But the emerging quiver of public-private experiments aimed at honing a high-tech image for the city is fraught with risk. 

Chicago’s Array of Things May Give Big Data Boost to Urban Planning

Array of Things began as a failed workshop for high school students. Three years ago, Charlie Catlett, director of the Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data and senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and fellow researchers were helping students assemble simple air quality monitors with the intent to deploy them in downtown Chicago to teach about collecting data in a major city. (The Computation Institute is a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne.)

Chicago to track an 'Array of Things' to improve livability

Source: Meredith Francis, WBEZ

Nowadays, a lot of people sport fitness trackers - wearable devices that monitor a person’s steps, heart rate, exercise habits and more. Well, the city of Chicago is hoping to expand on the idea to track the city’s fitness. The project — called The Array of Things (AoT) — will install modular sensor boxes on city street light posts that measure things like climate, air quality and noise.

The project is a collaboration between the University of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


New sensor array changes the data collection game

Source: Justin H.S. Breaux, Argonne National Laboratory

As urban populations increase, so too does the complexity involved in maintaining basic services like clean water and emergency services.  But one of the biggest barriers to making cities “smarter”—for example, comprehensively monitoring sources of waterway pollutants in real time—is quick and easy access to data.

Future scenarios like these depend on technology not yet widely available.  Future “smart” cities would have to feature hundreds, maybe thousands, of strategically placed sensors. These devices would record everything from air pressure and temperature to microbial content, and the data would be relayed instantly to the laptops of people who can make decisions based on what they are seeing.