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City Gets Ambitious Data-Collection Project Up And Scanning

By Gwendolyn Purdom in News on Aug 29, 2016 4:35PM

Two years after it was announced, Chicago's ambitious "Array of Things" network of tracking sensors is finally going up around the city. Last week, the first two of a planned 500 data-collecting "nodes" were affixed to traffic light poles at Damen and Archer avenues in Bridgeport and at Damen Avenue and Cermak Road in Pilsen, according to a post on the University of Chicago's project site. Each sensor is designed to monitor air quality, ambient sound, vehicle and food traffic, climate conditions and more. The effort—a collaboration between the university, Argonne National Laboratory, the School of the Art Institute and the City of Chicago—is expected to stretch through 2018.

The node system, which officials have compared to a sort of fitness tracker for the city itself, will be the first of its kind, though other cities like Atlanta and Seattle have similar projects in the works. Collected data could help city government and groups analyze the impact of climate change, plan transportation routes, prevent natural disasters like flooding and improve traffic safety, backers say. But the Big Brother aspect has some privacy advocates concerned. When the city's Department of Innovation and Technology released a draft of the network's privacy policies in late June, some questioned how project managers will handle issues like requests from law enforcement. The published policies clarified that most images gathered from node cameras would be destroyed once they are processed; and a previous plan to track smart phones in the area surrounding each node was dropped earlier in the planning process.

Locations of Phase One nodes, image via the Array of Things website

Data collected by the "Array of Things" will be available to the public starting in mid-October via the city's data portal as well as other channels, such as the data platform, the UChicago write-up said.

“It’s truly doing science in the city and out in the communities. We’ll be able to engage with community groups to help them make the data their own and figure out to use it to address the questions they have,” Chicago's Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman said in a statement. “You’re going to see community groups use this data to understand their communities and neighborhoods better as we all try to build a better life here in Chicago.”

Throughout September and October, project managers will install 50 beehive-like nodes along Lake Michigan, and in The Loop, Logan Square and Pilsen for the network's first phase. The remaining 450 are set to go up around the city by the end of 2018. Locations were picked for Phase One based on research and interactions organizers had with community groups. Residents in Pilsen, for example, have been shown to suffer from asthma at higher rates, so those nodes will monitor air quality.

With its $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and additional funding from the Chicago Innovation Exchange and Argonne National Laboratory, the project could potentially set off a chain reaction in cities around the world looking for ways to better address urban issues.

As Berman told USA Today:

“For residents, the ability to have real-time information when you bike to school or to work and to choose the lowest pollution route, once all the nodes are up, is something we envision for the future. ... What it means for the city is if we know there are pockets of poor air, we can work with environmentalists and community groups to improve air quality in those areas of the city that need that focus.”