The curled metal fixtures set to go up on a handful of Michigan Avenue light poles later this summer may look like delicate pieces of sculpture, but researchers say they’ll provide a big step forward in the way Chicago understands itself by observing the city’s people and surroundings.
The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation, and wind. The sensors will also count people by observing cell phone traffic.
Some experts caution that efforts like the one launching here to collect data from people and their surroundings pose concerns of a Big Brother intrusion into personal privacy.
In particular, sensors collecting cell phone data make privacy proponents nervous. But computer scientist Charlie Catlett said the planners have taken precautions to design their sensors to observe mobile devices and count contact with the signal rather than record the digital address of every device.
Researchers have dubbed their effort the “Array of Things” project. Gathering and publishing such a broad swatch of data will give scientists the tools to make Chicago a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live, said Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, part of a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
The novelty of a permanent data collection infrastructure may also give Chicago a competitive advantage in attracting technological research, researchers contend.
“The city is interested in making Chicago a place where innovation happens,” said Catlett.
Many cities around the globe have tried in recent years to collect enormous piles of “big data” in order to better understand their people and surroundings, but scientists say Chicago’s project to create a permanent data collection infrastructure is unusual.
While data-hungry researchers are unabashedly enthusiastic about the project, some experts said that the system’s flexibility and planned partnerships with industry beg to be closely monitored. Questions include whether the sensors are gathering too much personal information about people who may be passing by without giving a second thought to the amount of data that their movements—and the signals from their smartphones—may be giving off.
The first sensor could be in place by mid-July. Researchers hope to start with sensors at eight Michigan Avenue intersections, followed by dozens more around the Loop by year’s end and hundreds more across the city in years to come as the project expands into neighborhoods, Catlett said.
“Our intention is to understand cities better,” Catlett said. “Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility.”
Over the last decade many cities have launched efforts to collect data about everything from air quality and temperature at street level to the traffic flow of pedestrians and vehicles, all in the name of making urban centers run more efficiently and safely.
Much of the useful data has been “exhaust” from an increasingly digital and technological world, scientists say. Improvements in such technologies have led to novel conveniences like smartphone applications that tell you whether your bus is on time or how backed up the expressway is likely to be when you head home.
But Chicago researchers are hoping to put in place a system that will make this city a leader in research about how modern cities function, Catlett said.
While the benefits of collecting and analyzing giant sets of data from cities are somewhat speculative, there is a growing desire from academic and industrial researchers to have access to the data, said Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences at Harvard University.
“You really don’t know until you look,” King said.
While he said he was unfamiliar with the project in Chicago, King likened such projects to the early efforts of looking into deep space with the Hubble Space Telescope, opening new and unknown frontiers of information, “only the telescope is pointed downward” at life on the streets of the city.
While the project is led by Catlett’s team and the city, other institutions are involved, he said. The boxes that will hold the sensors are being made by designers at the School of the Art Institute, and Catlett said he has secured more than $1 million in in-kind contributions of engineering help from corporations including Cisco Systems, Intel, Zebra Technologies, Qualcomm, Motorola Solutions and Schneider Electric.
Planners envision a permanent system of data collection boxes that can be used by a range of researchers from the public, private and academic sectors who want to test ideas but wouldn’t have the resources to build the testing infrastructure. The system also will be flexible with the boxes being secure, and connected to power and the Internet, but otherwise adaptable to “the latest and greatest technology” in sensors, Catlett said.
While there are plenty of advocates singing the praises of the city’s push toward gathering and publishing data, some experts say there are risks of invading the privacy of people who don’t know their every movement in public is being observed by a computer and analyzed by someone.