Array of Things (AoT) and the City of Chicago

By Joyce Deuley & Sara Brown

Array of Things (AoT) is an urban sensing project that is set to deploy a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes across Chicago that will collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure and activity for both research and public use. AoT has teamed up with the City of Chicago, the Chicago Department of Transportation, researchers, and both neighborhood and community groups to help determine the areas best suited for deployment. Array of Things is led by Charlie Catlett and a team of researchers from the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute; it is a joint initiative of the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. The AoT has received a lot of support from several organizations, including $3 million+ in funding from the National Science Foundation, and has received additional funding from the Chicago Innovation Fund and the Argonne National Laboratory. Needless to say, this is one massive undertaking to advance Chicago as a leading smart city in the U.S.

The AoT nodes and sensor boxes will be attached to streetlight traffic poles across the city, with the first 50 to be deployed in 2016 and 500 fully deployed by the end of 2017. Each sensor box will act like a “fitness tracker” for the city and will examine the impact of climate, air quality and noise on the livability of Chicago. The AoT sensors are meant to “see” pedestrians’ smartphones and can store humidity, light, noise, temperature and carbon monoxide data on the phones via an app. At the end of the week, users can see just what sort of impact their environment has had on them, as well as find less crowded walking/traffic routes, which ones are well lit and much more. This is an attempt to combine the sensors that have become so prevalent on our bodies (smartphones/fitness wearables) with environmental sensors as a better way to understand what affects us and provides a clearer perspective of how we “live” in general.

But, the benefits of the AoT project doesn’t just impact the citizens of Chicago, but more the city at large. In a video on the IoT News Network, Catlett, a Sr. Computer Scientist, explains the impact that the information the AoT sensor boxes collect will have on infrastructure maintenance, traffic congestion, better management of road salt during those frigid winters, and much more. If aggregated and visualized information is power, then Chicago and the AoT are doing all they can to get ahead of the game.

In Chicago last month at Solstice FWD, Brenna Berman, CIO for the City of Chicago, spoke about this initiative and others. Her perspective is that the keys to creating a smart city are:

1) Next generation infrastructure,
2) Developing the local skill set to make every community a smart community,
3) Effective government and
4) Civic Innovation.

In fact, AoT is just one of several "smart city" initiatives the Chicago has undertaken. Berman related the story of “Windy Grid,” a cross-departmental effort she and her team "hacked together" over a period of long hours and “not enough showers,” as she put it, designed to link existing connected systems within the municipality for better emergency response. Thankfully, they have not had a need to use it for that purpose, but they have leveraged it for parade management—reducing the total municipal cost of hosting parades by 30%. We’re not too surprised she and her team had to do this on their own, after hours. We’ve spoken to many of her peers about the political difficulties involved in connecting a city’s smart silos. (For more on smart city silos, read our smart cities issue of The Connected Conversation).

Berman and team are even using connected rat traps to schedule predictive restaurant inspections. (We know. Try not to think about it too much.)

During the networking portion of the event, Berman apparently took some heat from a Tribune article about AoT sparking a group of citizens to decry "big brother"-type monitoring. It must have been pretty ugly, since she came across a little defensive during the Q&A portion of her presentation. It saddened us to hear that citizen resistance was so strong to solutions with such promise.

Initiatives like the Array of Things project are crucial for the health and prosperity of our cities going forward. The increasing population, the veritable tsunami of people that will move to urbanized areas and health concerns as a result, as well as decreased resources all call for immediate consideration. We cannot wait until the tide is upon us: we need to find real solutions Now—otherwise, we’ll get swept away. The IoT has offered several smart city solutions that can help mitigate these challenges and pave the way for a more sustainable and scalable future, which include: structural health monitoring services; noise urban maps to monitor noise pollution levels; smartphone detection capabilities by local Wi-Fi and Bluetooth interfaces; electromagnetic field levels to monitor energy radiation levels from cell stations and Wi-Fi routers; as well as traffic congestion monitoring; waste management solutions; smart street and traffic lighting solutions; and smart roads with intelligent highways that can deliver messages and provide alternate routes in case of emergency weather or unexpected events—i.e., traffic accidents.

Of course, Chicago is not the only city looking to the IoT to help govern smarter. India, for example, has its smart cities project, with the intention to roll out 100 smart cities over the next few years; while Orange recently announced its plans to utilize LoRa’s low power wide area network platform for smart cities in France (read more here). More and more municipalities are recognizing the potential of connected city infrastructure and the value that can be unlocked through connected technologies. However, it isn’t just enough to connect “things” to the Internet; instead, we need to be intentional about creating a network of connected devices that are interoperable and display how these systems work together, as well as communicating the benefits of these efforts to citizens—combined, this should fortify us against the rising wave.