Like other cities, Chicago has begun exploring the promise of Internet of Things.
In the Windy City, one center of IoT activity is the Array of Things (AoT) project, which will provide real-time, location-based data about the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity to researchers and the public.
A collaboration between researchers from the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute, AoT is a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. The project is executed in partnership with the City of Chicago and enjoys the participation of a growing number of technology vendors, including Cisco, Microsoft, Schneider Electric, Intel, Motorola Solutions, and Zebra Technologies.
“Some of our early goals for the project are driven by specific community or researcher requests,” Charlie Catlett, lead investigator for the Array of Things project and director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, told Data Informed in an email. “For example, we would like to track standing water at intersections on the West Side of Chicago, which experiences major flooding during severe weather. Having a high-quality, high-resolution dataset for when and under what conditions intersections flood will help the city make infrastructure changes to reduce such flooding in the future.”
Another use of the AoT node data involves a grant with a group from University of Chicago Medicine. That group has been studying cardiovascular health in different Chicago neighborhoods, collecting medical and survey data from thousands of Chicago residents. Catlett said the idea is to merge this data with environmental data collected by AoT nodes from the neighborhoods. “We believe that this will offer valuable data to test hypotheses about the relationship between pollution/air quality and health,” he said.
Chicago is no stranger to tests of new wireless infrastructure technology. The city was the site of the Bell System’s cellular network, which was built in 1977 and tested in 1978.
The AoT project began more than four years ago, when Catlett teamed with Rajesh Sankaran and Pete Beckman from the Computation Institute/Argonne; Douglas Pancoast and Satya Mark Basu from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago helped design the node enclosures.
AoT nodes, based on hardware and software designs from the Waggle research project at Argonne National Laboratory, contain various environmental sensors. The initial design has sensors for temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and ambient sound intensity. Designed to be modular, AoT nodes can be upgraded as sensor technology or research needs change. For example, sensors could be developed to monitor urban factors such as flooding, precipitation, wind, and pollutants.
The nodes themselves range in price, depending on their scientific capabilities, from $500 to $2,000.
To date, the AoT project has deployed test equipment near the University of Chicago, but broader installation of the first 50 sensors is expected to take place during the first quarter of this year, and the sensors are expected to begin generating data by summer.
The Array of Things team hopes to mount hundreds of nodes throughout Chicago neighborhoods – some 200 nodes by the end of 2016, and 500 nodes by the end of 2017. The team also plans to work with other cities pursuing IoT projects.
“Besides the first phase of the Chicago deployment, we will also begin sharing nodes with research partners in at least a dozen cities around the world,” Catlett said.
These collaborators will test customized versions of the nodes that address measures of particular local relevance, such as air quality in Mexico City or precipitation in Portland. The results of these experiments will help test new types of sensors for future Chicago deployments and also create the foundation of multi-city efforts to collect data so that multiple cities can compare and collaborate on data-driven improvements and applications.
In addition, the project will hold frequent “hackathons” for students, experienced programmers, and curious residents.
“We believe this network will help build communities and encourage civic participation by making very resolute data on city environments available and accessible to all,” Douglas Pancoast, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects at SAIC, said in a University of Chicago article last year.
Municipalities exploring the promise of IoT face all the technical and infrastructure hurdles of other IoT early adopters, but with an added layer of politics. And politics is a massive force in Chicago.
Currently, Chicago’s mayor is embattled, and Illinois is confronting an unprecedented budget crisis. Given these factors, wide-scale implementation of AoT will be neither easy nor straightforward. And how the project ultimately integrates with Chicago’s IT infrastructure, including the Beta City Initiative – an ambitious and wide-ranging plan within Chicago’s official Tech Plan – is another open question.
Still, at least in the early days, Chicago’s AoT has hit the right notes. The project has put an emphasis on making raw sensor data openly available to citizens, developers, and researchers, and has stated its commitment to regular reviews of privacy and security by an external oversight committee.
The AoT developers have insisted from the start that no personal data will ever be collected by any sensor installed in AoT nodes, and the oversight committee will be consulted whenever there is a request for a new kind of data to be collected. The project retreated from an earlier idea to count Bluetooth-enabled and Wi-Fi-enabled devices – as a proxy for pedestrian traffic – after the public expressed concerns about data privacy. In addition, in response to privacy concerns related to the infrared cameras included in each node, the project states:
“All images will be processed into numerical data within the node, after which image data will be immediately deleted. No images or video will be stored within or transmitted from the nodes.”
“I’m not aware of other city sensor projects that have done as much as us along the lines of oversight and openness,” Catlett said. “We hope that the procedures and policies we are developing through Array of Things will set the standard for similar projects as these types of urban sensing efforts become more common.”
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