Brenna Berman, CIO, Chicago Brenna Berman, commissioner and chief technology officer for the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology. Tori Soper Photography

Poet Carl Sandburg once called Chicago the “city of the big shoulders.” Lately, it has also gained a reputation as being the city of big data. Now, the data moniker is about to get bigger. Later this summer, as many as 30 sensors will be attached to light poles in the downtown area to collect environmental data that will be able to provide precise weather and air quality information, block-by-block.

The information, minute-by-minute measurements of temperature, humidity, light, sound, barometric pressure and air quality, will be shared with researchers and the general public in real time. The pilot project, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Argonne National Laboratory, is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UCCD) in collaboration with the city of Chicago.

The use of sensors to capture data that can help a city operate more effectively has become widespread and is gaining traction in the United States. Both pilots and production systems have been deployed to help some cities better manage traffic, energy use and water consumption. But Chicago is installing sensors as part of a broad research effort, starting with environmental data.

“We have done previous projects that are more specific in nature, and this time we wanted to branch out to collect more general environmental data, with the belief that it will help researchers gain a better analytical understanding about the city,” said Brenna Berman, commissioner and CIO for the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.

The sensors will also estimate pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks by counting the number of smartphones in the area. The sensors’ nodes will not collect or save the unique addresses of the phone, nor will the sensors include cameras or recording devices. “I think we have addressed the privacy issue properly," Berman said, "otherwise we wouldn’t be moving forward with the project."

The data collected by the sensors will not only provide extremely precise weather forecasts, but more importantly, can be used to measure how the city’s environment is affecting the way people live and how it’s impacting the infrastructure they depend on. The smartphone data could also give pedestrians knowledge about which streets have the most foot traffic late at night. “The data we will be collecting we’ve not had at a micro level before,” said Berman. “Right now, we don’t know what opportunities it’s going to open in terms of programs and services, but it’s an exciting opportunity.”

Researchers at UCCD have called the project the “Array of Things” and say it will boost the city’s reputation as a hotbed of urban innovation, as well as provide the kind of research on how modern cities function. UCCD is one of several research organizations that have emerged in recent years to tackle the problems of urban living that new digital technologies can impact and hopefully improve. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its SENSEable City Lab, and in New York there’s New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress.

All data collected by the sensors in downtown Chicago will be released in real time via the Chicago Data Portal, as well as through application programming interfaces and other platforms.

The city has been a leader in the open data space. And while this project is the first of its kind, the Department of Innovation and Technology has been conscientious about planning how it will work. “The skills we’re using are well tested, well developed, it’s just that the particular formulation is new,” said Berman.

Part of the planning includes working with the specific city agency, in this case, the Department of Transportation, which manages the traffic poles that will hold the sensors. Berman said it’s her department’s responsibility to see that technology policies match up with the open data and security policies, and to ensure that there’s a “value proposition” inherent in the pilot that will benefit city residents. “We also make sure the pilot is evaluated in a fair way, whether the pilot is successful or not.”

While it will be a few more months before the first streams of data start appearing on the data portal, the city is already working at engaging citizens about what the sensors will do and not do, and how the research can be beneficial down the road.

The emphasis on transparency is “par for the course” on how the city manages open data projects, according to Berman, who pointed out that her department has been meeting with open government and civic engagement community groups from the beginning. “There’s a lot of give and take with that community,” she said. “We expect to hear from them and get requests from them, and push back, and it will help us adjust the program and make it better.”

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.