Imagine a fitness tracker for an entire city.
Last summer, data scientists and architects in Chicago installed as many as 50 modular and interactive boxes attached to light poles in the Loop area of the city in order to track environment conditions. Inside each box, about a dozen sensors continuously measure and record things like heat, humidity, air quality, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, light and noise levels. The Array of Things initiative was designed to better understand the natural and built environment of the city and its impact with respect to climate, air quality, noise, and other factors.
Creating a “fitness tracker” for Chicago enables research, development, prototyping, and demonstration of new capabilities that require embedding hardware and software technologies in the city’s infrastructure. All data is published with multiple updates per minute and made publicly available at no cost to residents, software developers, scientists, and policymakers so that all can work together to make cities healthier, more livable, and more efficient. To respect privacy, none of these sensors will collect or record any personal or identifying information, such as IP address.
“The whole project is, how can you get the city to be more helpful to people by telling us about itself?” – Charlie Catlett, director of the Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
The implications of providing real-time information about the city’s environment are game changing. For example, sensors will be able to detect mobile devices that have Bluetooth turned on, so the city will have information about the level of pedestrian density in a particular area. 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. Imagine walking down the street and learning from an app that there’s ice ahead or high pollen levels on a given day.
Ultimately, Array of Things means that the city will be able to investigate reams of these data and make predictions about its future that inform how the city allocates its resources and changes its policies. For example, infrared cameras measuring sidewalk and street temperature can guide salting responses during winter storms, allowing for targeted application of salt that saves money and prevents environmental damage.
As sensors get smaller and smarter, Chicago’s Array of Things initiative is a good example of what we’ll likely be seeing more of in the future: cities gathering ambient data and making it totally open source to reap the benefit of living in smarter, more responsive urban environments.