Chicago gets a friendly Big Brother with the Array of Things

small__211566219Architects and data scientists in Chicago are looking to light up the city this summer with a new form of civic infrastructure – aesthetically pleasing, highly visible boxes mounted onto street lights that are designed to monitor environmental conditions in the city.

Before conspiracy theorists’ alarm bells start ringing, note that this is not your typical anti-social surveillance effort, reports the Chicago Tribune. Each box contains about a dozen sensors that will measure air quality, temperature, humidity, noise, light, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels, and all of this data will be made publicly available so it can be used by researchers and application developers.

This has the potential to be a game-changing project. The Array of Things, as it’s been called by Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data, is the first effort by a major U.S. city to keep such close tabs on its environment. Currently most cities collect data on service-related inputs such as inspections and permit applications, but accurate information about a city’s well-being is harder to come by. Now, this data will be made available in real-time. For example, residents can have first-hand information about pollution levels in each neighborhood.

The  data collection boxes, about 50 of which will be installed throughout the city, also contain sensors that measure pedestrian density. The boxes  are designed to be fitted with additional sensors as new technology is developed.

There are myriad potential applications  sensor data.  For example, an app could can warn drivers of ice on the road as they approach a certain area or alert hay fever sufferers or high pollen levels. Tourists could find well-beaten walking routes annotated with tour-guide commentary.

Charlie Catlett, Director of the Urban Center and a senior computer scientist at Argonne National Labs and the University of Chicago, says privacy protection is one of the priorities of the Array of Things. The boxes won’t have cameras and all data will immediately be made public so that watchdogs can raise the alarm if they spot any intrusive data collection going on. “Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility,” he said.

Chicago is already well on its way to becoming a leader in Big Data analytics, having run several previous projects that include crime prediction. The goal is to  make predictions that allow the city to better allocate resources. Too much traffic? Simply adjust traffic light timing. Is air pollution becoming a problem? The city hopes to spot potential pollutant  sources earlier.

Big Data isn’t the answer to all of Chicago’s problems. Sensors are unlikely to reduce gun crime, for example, but they can enable law enforcement officials to spot crime patterns earlier before a neighborhood enters a downward spiral.

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