Chicago seeking ‘smart-city’ tech solutions to improve city life

May 1, 2016 | News

Come late June, city electricians are expected to start strapping beehive-shaped sensor boxes to municipal light poles — environmental Fitbits for neighborhoods, essentially.

How’s the air quality? Where does rainwater pool? Where do air temperatures spike?

The 14-inch-high cylinders filled with sensors and cameras — developed by computer scientists and designers at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — should shed light on stubborn urban problems — everything from asthma clusters and flood-prone intersections to so-called “heat islands,” densely developed corners of the city that trap heat. Ultimately, the data should lead to affordable, energy-efficient solutions to those problems and others.

The project, dubbed the Array of Things, is the most aggressive element of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to transform Chicago into “the most data-driven government in the world,” as his top tech lieutenant recently put it. But the emerging quiver of public-private experiments aimed at honing a high-tech image for the city is fraught with risk.


In September, President Barack Obama’s administration committed $160 million for data-driven efforts across the country to reduce traffic congestion, fight crime, foster economic growth, manage the effects of climate change and improve city services. Chicago’s Array of Things project was among the recipients, with a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

To a large extent, the U.S. is playing catch-up to Europe and Asia, earlier adopters of the smart-city trend, which was fostered by IBM and other tech multinationals during the recession, when corporate business was tailing off.

“By its nature, it’s a conservative market,” said Eric Woods, research director for Navigant Research, which tracks the clean-tech sector. “Cities are not flooded with money, so cities either have to find additional funding or new models that allow them to invest in these technologies, like energy savings or public-private partnerships.”

Navigant estimates the smart-city market will be worth $12.1 billion this year, rising to $27.5 billion annually by 2023. What it will be worth to cities and their residents remains an open question.


In addition to the Array of Things project, which will roll out 500 monitoring devices between this summer and the end of 2017, and City Digital, which plans more research into infrastructure-related issues, the city of Chicago has used data analytics to streamline its restaurant inspection and rat-baiting programs.

“You can use predictive analytics anywhere that cities have a shortage of resources, which is everywhere,” said Berman, who is commissioner of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, which employs two data engineers and gets pro bono help from corporations such as Allstate.

Much of the smart-city work underway in cash-strapped Chicago wouldn’t have been feasible without outside help. The Array of Things project relies on its $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and about $2 million in internal research funding from Argonne, with the city providing sites for the monitors and electricians to mount the devices.

The City Digital projects at UI Labs, meanwhile, are supported by corporate membership fees as well as project assistance from corporate and academic partners, with the city providing test sites and some technical assistance. The future of smart-city work depends on such collaborations holding up and growing, which is not a guaranteed outcome.


In an effort to protect privacy, the cameras are designed to capture shapes but not distinguishing details. Data will be gleaned from the images within the individual monitoring device, then the images will be destroyed, said Argonne senior computer scientist and project leader Charlie Catlett. Any additional sensors or cameras added to the monitoring boxes in the future will have to be reviewed by a National Science Foundation-funded independent panel, he said.

But a prominent privacy advocate remains concerned.

“Smart cities is a very double-edged concept,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and adviser to Chicago’s project. “The idea is to capture more data and utilize more data about what’s going on in a city. By definition, unless you exclude people, that is the same as conducting more surveillance.”

It is critical that the city devise a strong privacy policy and clear governance structure, he said. “Who says ‘no’ to the cops if they want to do something against the privacy principle?”

The city will unveil a privacy policy, a governance structure and a data management policy in mid- to late May, Berman said, adding that there will be public hearings before they are finalized.

But the city already is working to get the word out, with its first beachhead at Lane Tech High School, where nearly 150 computer science students are building their own sensing devices — part of a six-week curriculum devised by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago and Argonne. The plan is to share the program with other schools.

In a lab filled with laser cutters, 3-D carvers and power tools, groups of students hunch over small wooden or acrylic boxes filled with sensors and wires, figuring out how to track the temperature and humidity outside the pool’s door, the gases present in the lunchroom or the traffic in the staircases.

For Kameron Jackson, a sophomore from the Kenwood neighborhood who aspires to be an engineer, the project has been an eye-opener.

“It was more difficult than I imagined because there’s a lot of errors you encounter along the way that you really don’t prepare for,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to be quick on your feet to assess the situation and figure out a solution.”

Those lessons likely will apply to Chicago as well as it pursues its smart-city strategies. O’Neil, of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, suggests the city and its partners keep their eyes on one overarching goal.

“I find immense value in what they are doing (but) I continue to drive them, and drive all of us and anyone in the smart-cities movement, to work harder at finding out how we can make lives better,” he said. “I continue to have consternation at how all this fits together.”

Chicago seeking ‘smart-city’ tech solutions to improve city life