CHICAGO — The Windy City has begun installing what sounds and looks a whole lot like a Fitbit that can measure the vitals of a bustling metropolis.
Chicago, which partnered on the project with researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory and several corporations, last week installed the first two of 500 modular sensor boxes. The devices will eventually allow the city and public to instantly get block-by-block data on air quality, noise levels, as well as vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
The project — dubbed the Array of Things and described by Chicago officials as a “fitness tracker for the city” — is a first-of-its-kind effort in the nation. Plans are in the works to replicate the project in the coming years in more than a dozen other cities, including Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Seattle. The Chicago project was funded with the help of a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant.
“Five years out, if we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies,” Chicago’s chief information officer Brenna Berman told USA TODAY. “It will be viewed as a utility — the same way view our street lights and the way we view our buses. They are there for us and they help us get through the city more easily. … They are just part of our everyday life.”
The 10-pound, beehive looking boxes — affixed on light poles — are fitted with sensors that will allow the city to measure air and surface temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and ambient sound intensity. Two cameras in each sensor box will collect data on vehicle and foot traffic, standing water, sky color and cloud cover.
The data will be nearly instantly distributed through the city’s website. Data from the first sensor boxes installed are expected to be made available to the public starting in mid-October. A total of 50 sensor boxes, or nodes, will be installed around Chicago by the end of the year, and 450 more will come online by 2018.
Officials in the nation’s third largest city are optimistic that the project will have in-the-moment utility for residents trying to make decisions about whether to drive or walk an asthmatic child to school or help pedestrians avoid taking desolate routes. For the city, officials believe the sensors will provide a treasure trove of data that will help them make better decisions about infrastructure and health issues in the future.
“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,” Berman said. “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.”
Berman added that the city has immediate plans to use the data to help guide decisions about bus service. The city also wants to use the vehicular and pedestrian traffic data to help guide policy and infrastructure decisions as it tries to reduce traffic fatalities in Chicago. (The city is one of many around the globe that are part of an ambitious collaborative aiming to cut traffic fatalities to zero.)
Since the project was announced in 2014, Berman said the city has also been approached by community groups who are eager to use the data. The first sensor boxes were installed in the Pilsen neighborhood, whose residents suffer a higher occurrence of asthma than other parts of the city. Berman said operators of a health clinic in the neighborhood are eager to see the data collected by the sensor boxes.
“There are a ton of hit-and-miss experiments being done in cities around the world, but they are not being measured,” said Charlie Catlett, the lead investigator of the Array of Things project. “We’re not able to take a success in Chicago and say this is why it succeeds, and this is how you can adapt that to Denver or Los Angeles or New Orleans. I want to see this project help city designers and planners navigate better.”
When the project was announced more than two years ago, officials faced some skepticism from residents concerned that the collection of data could invade individual privacy.
The group, however, has scrapped original plans to use a Bluetooth modem, which would have helped it collect foot traffic data by detecting the number of smartphones moving through an area. They’ve also assured residents that photos taken by the cameras would automatically be deleted within “tens of minutes” — the amount of time it takes to download relevant information into the system.
“We are not handling anything that’s that sensitive, but we are sensitive to the impressions,” Catlett said. “We wanted to make sure that we’re doing a project that people in Chicago can be excited about and not worried about.”