Chicago is taking an artistic and an open data approach to the downtown sensors
it will install this summer.
The City of Chicago and the Urban Center for Computation and Data, a joint effort of the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory, will install 50 collections of sensors on light poles in the well-known Loop area. The sensors will monitor such parameters as air quality, heat, precipitation, wind, light intensity, and sound. Sensors also will count wireless devices through Bluetooth and WiFi.
The Urban Center is taking the lead, but both it and the city want to be very open about the sensors and their purposes. Meetings will be held to inform the public about the sensors, and the data will be available quickly to the public on a city website and another site dedicated to the information. Both Chicago and the Urban Center hope many developers will come up with ways to use and display the data.
The sensors won't be reserved for use by one company or organization. They could be used by different companies and organizations that would like to measure the data. The city envisions installing perhaps 400 sensors in various areas in the next few years. They could be swapped out with other sensors as demand warrants. The idea is to provide a continuous and permanent record of numerous parameters of the city's health.
In some cities, sensors are kept under wraps -- either hidden from view as much as possible or installed in their "raw" industrial state. But Chicago is taking pains to beautify its sensors. It has commissioned students at the city's School of the Art Institute to design an enclosure that not only protects the devices but also turns them into colorful artwork of sorts.
(Source: J. Crocker)
The curved metal enclosures might not be as impressive as, say, the 66-foot-long, 33-foot-high Cloud Gate reflective arch in Millennium Park or the 50-foot-tall Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, but they highlight that Chicago wants residents to know the sensors exist and not fear them.
The Urban Center has called the network the Array of Things, a more consumer-sounding name than the better-known and more techie Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things has been trumpeted by many companies developing hardware and software for the billions (if not trillions) of sensors expected to blanket the planet in the years to come. So it's not surprising that the bulk of the funding for the Array of Things is coming from well-known corporations. The Urban Center has raised more than $1 million in engineering assistance from Cisco Systems, Intel, Motorola Solutions, Qualcomm, and other private firms.
The city is shelling out relatively little for the network. Brenna Berman, Chicago's commissioner of information and technology, told the Chicago Tribune that each box will cost the city $215 to $425 for installation and will use about $15 of electricity per year.
Though the funding is available, at least for the time being, some politicians and privacy advocates are concerned about how the network will be used. They're not apprehensive about sensors measuring temperature and air quality, but they're concerned about the measurement of wireless devices. The Urban Center says no personal data will be collected, and no cameras will be included in the sensor package, but that hasn't allayed the fears of some people.
For example, Alderman Bob Fioretti told WTTW-TV (video below) that there should be more discussion about the system, including the exact type of information collected by the sensors, how the city will benefit, and privacy considerations and safeguards. However, Harold Krent, the dean of IIT-Chicago-Kent College of Law, says the system as described is much more "benign" than surveillance and traffic cameras that can track individuals.
The current system seems rather safe from a privacy perspective. But what about in the future? What if a corporation offers the city tens of millions of dollars to install sensors that could identify individuals? One major challenge for cities implementing sensor networks is developing an effective oversight framework to ensure that the system isn't misused.
Based on the continuing furor over governments around the world employing sensors and other technology to obtain personal data, cities testing even the most harmless networks need to be aware of potential problems.