Chicago’s Array of Things promises to create the kind of real-time data that will allow policy-makers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs make our cities more liveable. By installing a network of sensors and nodes that act as the city’s “Fitbit” and then making it available via an open-source platform, the project will allow citizens to access data about their urban environment. The network could potentially create the kind of feedback that would allow a light pole to warn pedestrians of icy sidewalks ahead or result in apps that would inform late-night strollers of the most populated route to take.

array of things

Courtesy of Array of Things.

Developed by the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data, the City of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory, and funded by the National Science Foundation, the Array of Things has been in the making since 2014. In late August, the team launched the first phase of the project, installing a package of 100 nodes on traffic poles across the city, with plans to install a total of 500 nodes by the end of 2018. The nodes will track temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature on each block. The team plans to further develop them to monitor factors like flooding and standing water, precipitation, wind, and pollutants.

The devices are mounted on the sides of buildings and on light poles. The first batch of sensors has been installed in the industrial Pilsen area of Chicago, with some nodes placed along the interstate to measure air quality in the area adjacent to the highway, and other nodes placed near city factories.

Charlie Catlett, Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago, explains that scientists can use the data gathered to understand the causes of public health challenges like asthma, for instance, while policy-makers can use the data to address infrastructural and policy challenges.

array of things

Courtesy of Array of Things.

The Array of Things will have a portal at the University of Chicago and will be hosted by the City of Chicago’s open data portal. According to Catlett, the team has already been approached by companies, universities and foundations that want to use the data to design educational and health interventions, including an app that informs asthma patients of areas to steer clear of when walking. array of things

The network will not only allow the City to monitor existing conditions, but will also allow it to check back in and assess the impact of interventions on the medium-term.

According to Brenna Berman, Chicago’s Chief Information Officer, having open source data about the city will allow different community groups to address their own challenges or questions. “It is important for urban planning and businesses, but also gives us data that will help us improve traffic safety,” she explains. “Civic technologists can use it to build new products and businesses.”

According to the project’s website, the Array of Things has been designed to minimize the collection of data about people in the interest of privacy protection.

By tracking public health risks, including air quality, as well as issues like congestion, traffic patterns and urban flooding, the Array of Things will break down information about things like weather and air quality to the block rather than the city-wide level – potentially affecting the price of real estate as well on the long run.