The City of Chicago and its Array of Things Project

Moving from the quantified self to the quantified city: what can a city-wide fitness tracker do for Chicago?

Fitbit. Jawbone. Garmin. Apple Watch. Fitness trackers are everywhere, tracking a range of data from your daily steps to your sleeping patterns. But fitness trackers aren’t only a tool for the quantified self – they can also be used for the quantified city. And that’s exactly what the City of Chicago is setting out to prove.

The City of Chicago is currently rolling out its Array of Things (AoT) project, an urban sensor network being implemented in a partnership between the city, University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. By 2018, the goal is to place 500 nodes placed on traffic poles throughout Chicago, with each node comprising of 28 sensors, 2 cameras and a camera, collecting real-time data on its surroundings. These sophisticated light and infrared sensors, combined with the cameras and microphone, can capture a variety of measurements, including pedestrian and vehicle traffic, temperatures / hyper local weather activity, ambient sound intensity, air quality (e.g., carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone levels) and barometric pressure. As a fitness tracker for the city, the goal for AoT is “to measure the city in sufficient detail to provide data to help engineers, scientists, policymakers, and residents work together to make Chicago and other cities healthier, more livable and more efficient.”Chicago, with its embattled history of government corruption and pension fund crises, is hoping that this innovative use of technology is a way to address its resource limitations long-term. Mayor Emanuel, upon taking office in 2011, made open data a top priority for Chicago. AoT is one of these efforts to encourage access to government data and boost the creation of tools to help Chicago’s residents.

Value Creation
The value creation potential is immense. First and foremost, Chicago is focused on improving the quality of life for its residents, which it can do in a variety of ways. Some examples:

  • The nodes allow the city to track vehicle and pedestrian collisions to understand which intersections or traffic flows lead to pedestrian deaths and make urban planning changes accordingly.
  • Chicago has one of the worst incidences of asthma mortality in the country; the nodes can help monitor air pollutant levels across the city and take appropriate measures where necessary.
  • Time-stamped pickup and drop-off data on 230mm total trips from both taxies and rideshare apps provide a wealth of information on how residents move through the city, which the city can use to improve efficiency of city operations.
  • The nodes can be used for different purposes depending on the area: the Chicago West and South sides commonly have flooding issues during rainstorms, and the nodes can be used to detect standing water, thus helping city employees identify bottlenecks in the city’s sewer system.

While most cities of its size have open data portals, very few currently make productive use of this data; most of the data sits buried in silos within government departments. AoT aims to change that. By creating an abundance of useful information and increasing the transparency of the data, Chicago hopes to encourage private companies find creative ways to use the data and academic institutions to do research on the data.

In short, AoT is the first step in readying Chicago for the future of connected cities. The wealth of information generated can be used to formulate future urban policy and architecture for a smarter, more livable city.

Value Capture
While directly monetizing the data seems challenging (and is, in fact, explicitly not allowed under the stipulations of the National Science Foundation funding that the AoT project has received), the City of Chicago stands to capture significant value from this data project. The open data will hopefully allow local companies to increase top-line growth by optimizing for local conditions and enriching their understanding of customer/retail behavior (e.g., which areas of the city get the most foot traffic at what times on which days), thus fueling local business and job growth in the city. Improved quality of life may also attract new talent to the city. On the cost side, the city can reduce its costs with more sophisticated urban planning and municipal services management (e.g., less traffic accidents = less emergency personnel costs). Further, there’s the immeasurable value of increased civil engagement from Chicago’s citizens (all citizens can submit proposals for where a node should be placed – whether it’s in their neighborhood or elsewhere).

Privacy is by far the biggest challenge with such a pervasive governmental data project. Residents don’t want to feel like they are being watched, even though the cameras simply measure activity and object count (i.e., how many pedestrians walked through this intersection) and doesn’t save the actual raw images (i.e., no images of specific pedestrians are saved). In fact, the city has already received negative press regarding the project, in which journalists wrote misinformed articles that alarmed the residents regarding potential surveillance concerns. In direct contrast to Chicago’s transparent roll-out of AoT – in which it tried to inform the residents of what data was exactly being collected and the fact that all data would be public – is the City of London’s approach to CCTVs: London has hundreds of thousands of private and government CCTVs placed all around the city, and its residents have become accustomed to the idea of being captured on camera in their daily public movements. Despite AoT nodes being very different from CCTVs, privacy issues reign supreme, and Chicago faces the challenge of socializing its citizens to the idea of being monitored in some form.

Other challenges include the sustainability of funding and the politics around selecting the placement of nodes. Regarding funding, the project is currently be funded by a $3.1mm grant from the NSF, but there are serious questions around the sustainability of this non-profit funding if the city wants to expand the project, as the city budget certainly would struggle to take on yet another line item. Furthermore, the selection of placement of nodes in a highly socioeconomically stratified and segregated city will be a hot-button issue for the city; how will it measure ROI of its nodes? What happens if certain neighborhoods are willing to pay for node placement in their neighborhood?

Beyond Chicago
Other cities are planning on rolling out similar AoT projects in their own cities, including Chattanooga, Atlanta, Boston and Austin. These cities  will have to contemplate their own city-specific challenges (e.g., some geographies may be more open to government “surveillance” than others) as well as general challenges with a broad data initiative such as this one. Getting the residents’ support is absolutely crucial for the success of such a project; socializing the power of the data to residents, local businesses and government agencies will be vital to extracting the full potential of having such a wealth of open data. As we continue to move toward smart, connected cities, what cities can do to harness this data will only become an increasingly important question.





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Student comments on The City of Chicago and its Array of Things Project

  1. Hi Yezi. Thanks for the great post. Do you think cities invest in these new technologies without trying to make use of existing data and infrastructure? For e.g. Google maps/ Uber already will have a pretty good database of traffic pattern in Chicago and the city can find way to partner with these firms to get access to this data. This might be a faster and cheaper process than installing the nodes [although I do agree that the nodes also captures data that might not be readily available.

  2. Thanks for the post Yezi – really interesting application. I wonder if you read/heard about the possibility of connecting Chicago’s new infrastructure with the devices of its citizens (smartphones, fitbits, etc.) to further enhance the depth and quality of data? Security as you pointed out would be a huge concern but maybe they could incentivize some to it with free Wifi throughout the city or something else? Seems like there would be a lot of potential connecting the individual devices with this system.

  3. Very interesting post! Thanks Yezi. One question I’m interested is that if this costly data collection task can be done in a crowd sourcing way? Like you mentioned that taxi and rideshare apps can provide data regarding how citizens travel, probably insurance companies can provide more information regarding car accident in Chicago to help improve city planning, for instance? It’s very clear how value should be created and captured in this AoT project, yet crowd sourcing in data collection might be helpful to improve ROI? Of course there will be other challenges associated, to name a few, collaboration between public and private sectors, privacy, and data compatibility. But it will be interesting to know if Chicago or any other city thought about this approach as an alternative.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to write such a well-organized and well-researched post. I have a soft spot for both public sector and big data, so I loved the concept of this project. I think it’s success will be determined by how well the city can leverage this data to its advantage, particularly cost savings (if the city chooses to fund its expansion). It’s too early to tell, but other cities have had a few stumbles in this area because digital product design & data analytics aren’t in their current set of capabilities. I wonder if some of the crowdsourcing ideas mentioned in other comments could be extended to the creation of products/solutions that help the city capture value from this data.

  5. Great post! A few other people have mentioned it, but i think the crowdsourcing part of this could be very powerful. I wonder if there could be a way to allow people to opt in with their devices in order to receive some sort of benefit in exchange for allowing your devices to generate data for the platform? I think it would bring about some serious safety concerns that would have to be ironed out about data security, but could be extremely powerful as well.

  6. Great post Yezi! As a future resident of Chicago, I am super excited to see the work being done to make the city cleaner and healthier.

    I had a question regarding the Nodes. As I read your post, it seems that the value of each node varies from the bigger picture topics such as air quality and temperature versus much smaller picture topics such as accidents at a specific intersection. How does Chicago plan to balance the spread of its 500 nodes. I know you have mentioned above that this is controversial as Chicago will need to think about locations throughout the city. However did you read anything about whether there is value in placing a number of nodes close to one another to get a true sense of the traffic flow? Or is there value in placing them far apart? Is there anything they are doing to improve the technology to ensure that most issues the node notes will be more universal in truth throughout the city rather than simply sticking to one intersection? Thanks for the post!

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