High-Tech Lamp Posts To Collect Massive Amounts Of Data Downtown

By aaroncynic in News on Jun 25, 2014 7:30PM

Researchers hope to gain deeper insight into how Chicago lives and breathes via an ambitious sounding system of sensors placed on lamp posts throughout the city. The “Array of Things,” a project coordinated by the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology and the Urban Center for Computation and Data as part of “Initiative 3” in the City’s technology plan. The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from Argonne National Laboratories.

According to the Chicago Tribune the so-called “Array of Things” initially will consist of a small amount of sensors placed at eight intersections along Michigan Avenue, with another 30 potential deployment locations in the loop. According to UrbanCCD, the sensor boxes will collect real time data on the City’s environment, including temperature, humidity, light, sound and air quality. Additionally:

“Other sensors will use infrared beams to measure the temperature of surrounding roads and sidewalks, motion detectors for physical interactions with the box, and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth transmitters to estimate pedestrian traffic by counting the number of smartphones in the area.”

In total, if the project receives federal funding after the initial pilot, the array could comprise anywhere between 500 to 800 such sensors in just 2 to 3 years.

The hope seems to be to collect as much data on a more microcosmic level to make things like navigation on a block-by-block level easier. “What if a light pole told you to watch out for an icy patch of sidewalk ahead,” asks UrbanCCD’s website. The collected data will be made public on Chicago’s open data website. Charlie Catlett, UrbanCCD’s director, told the Trib "our intention is to understand cities better. Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility.”

While scientists, researchers and other data nerds can rejoice over such an all encompassing project, privacy advocates however, have raised concerns, particularly over the sensors collecting data from cell phones. Fred Cate, a professor at Indiana University’s law school and expert on privacy matters said:

“Almost any data that starts with an individual is going to be identifiable. You actually collect the traffic. You may not care about the fact that it's personally identifiable. It's still going to be personally identifiable.”

Catlett however, says that the team working on the sensors has taken precautions to not record the digital address of devices. In an email to Chicagoist, Catlett wrote:

“There is no data being collected or transmitted from any devices, with the exception of a bluetooth modem hardware address which we will immediately discard. That address cannot be used to determine the identity of the device or of the owner of the device, but we will discard it to avoid a hypothetical scenario in which such data could be combined with other data sources to identify the device.”

He also told the Tribune that the sensors contain no cameras or recording devices. As to whether or not the City or another entity could add such equipment later, Catlett told Chicagoist anything new would have to be approved by the City, “with input from technical and privacy/ethics review teams.” He also said that he couldn’t envision a way in which the City or other entity could legally request or demand that information be made available.

The Illinois American Civil Liberties Union also seemed underwhelmed by the network of sensors. In a statement to Chicagoist, Director of Communications and Public Policy Ed Yohnka said:

“As we understand these sensors, they do not collect any personally identifiable information, which is where the concerns over privacy and civil liberties would become involved. If we learn that the sensors do collect that information, it would change our analysis.”

Still, the Array of Things has raised a few eyebrows. After reading about it in the Tribune, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) called for a hearing and said Mayor Rahm Emanuel should have sought approval from City Council before moving forward with the pilot project. Fioretti told the Tribune “Clearly, the mayor exceeded his reach here. We need to step back and do the proper due diligence on this deal.”

Catlett said if federal funding were to be secured, his understanding moving beyond a pilot would involve the City Council. He also said a series of community workshops regarding the array could start in the fall this year. If the Array moves past the pilot stage, new locations “will be determined by a variety of factors including the views of the city, including aldermen, of people in the communities, and scientific needs for coverage and density of sensors,” said Catlett.