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Smart Cities: Understanding the Untapped Value of Sensor Data

Technology leaders in three cities imagine how they would harness Chicago’s innovative sensor pilot in their communities.

This fall, Chicago will install a network of 40 sensors to discover how new data sets can inform decisions that make the city a better place to live. The Array of Things initiative will begin with devices being installed on light poles at the University of Chicago, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Argonne National laboratory, and will be expanded in the coming years to a system of 1,000 sensors that cover the city’s central business district.
Every 15 seconds, the sensors will collect and report data on temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide, vibration, light and sound. At this early stage, officials are imagining how this data might improve city walkability and how the network can connect with pedestrians’ phones via Bluetooth to create an even richer data set.

Smart cities and the Internet of Things are both technological concepts in the earliest stages of life. How these technologies develop out of this concept stage -- and pilot projects like the one being launched in Chicago -- will largely be determined by the vision and resourcefulness of technologists and city leaders who understand the untapped value of sensor data.


A smart sensor network like the one Chicago is piloting could help Davis, Calif., improve in the areas of traffic flow, safety, parking and pollution, said Chief Innovation Officer Rob White. In fact, Davis is so interested in what Chicago is doing, he said, that city officials may study the network next year as part of their annual study mission.

“From a Sacramento regional standpoint, this seems to me a no-brainer to really help move our cities forward pretty fast, in an exciting way,” White said. “This would give us that information at a much finer-grain detail, but also allow us to make better decisions.”

Davis has one of the highest percentages of bicycle commuters in the nation, with cyclists accounting for 22 percent of all workers in the city. And a smart sensor network, White said, could be used to improve bicycle and traffic flow.

All city leaders make safety a priority, but in cities like Davis, where there are large student populations, safety tends to be an even bigger concern, White added. And in Chicago, a smart sensor network could be used to direct pedestrians only to well-lit or crowded areas -- something that would be beneficial for the city to provide, White said.

A sensor network equipped with lidar detectors could be used to scan for open parking spaces too, White said. “We have a huge parking problem in and around our downtown,” he said. “And it would be fantastic to have these things scan spots on the street and direct people to parking on demand in areas where there might be free spaces. From a technology standpoint, that would solve a large policy problem we’re dealing with, and I think a lot of downtowns of our size deal with is this constant rotational parking demand.”

Being privy to fine-grain sensor data gives city officials more power to make better decisions that improve cities, White said.


In Pasadena, Calif., officials have been toying with the idea of sensor networks in months past, talking with vendors like IBM and Verizon to identify specifically how sensor-driven data can help their city.

“We don’t have an official smart city program, but we are definitely collecting a lot of data on our streets, and it’s being collected to help model traffic,” said CIO Phillip Leclair. “But it hasn’t yet been consumed into something that connects with another kind of data source that helps us have more insight into what’s going on on our streets.”

Cities are only going to get more crowded, Leclair added, so systems like the one being piloted in Chicago could “absolutely” provide value that many cities could take advantage of.

“Beyond traffic, I think there’s a whole bunch of operational insights and issues around metropolitan areas like Pasadena and bigger cities,” he said. “We have to somehow get more people, more cars, more everything through our existing infrastructure, so collecting more and more data about who’s here and what they’re doing and where they’re going is going to help us plan for our next-generation cities.”

Economic development is an area where collecting data from pedestrians via sensor networks could be of huge benefit, Leclair said, explaining that networks could be used to follow a person down the street by tracking their anonymous, but unique, Bluetooth address. Data on where people are going and how long they stay there could help cities make their commercial districts and services more efficient. 

“Whether city-sponsored or whether retailers are tracking you in a mall, those privacy issues will eventually be tackled," he noted, "but from an economic development perspective, we’ll have a whole bunch of data about concentrations of people by time and where people are coming or going. And this, he said, is another metric that retailers or property managers can use to help support higher rent, or may be an incentive for someone to set up shops in particular locations.

The same data about pedestrian patterns could also be used for public safety, LeClair said. Over time, trends of pedestrian density will be established for different areas during different times of the day. If the network detects that there are suddenly 200 people moving through a given area at a time when there would normally only be a handful of people, that could signal that there is an emergency, Leclair said, adding that the same kind of data could be used to handle planned surges of pedestrians during large events.

“We are, just like everyone else, hungry for data," he said, "and trying to really understand what we could and what we could learn from it in order to provide better services, to have a better operation, to have situational awareness, block by block, of what’s going on."

Streamlining vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic could collectively reduce emission rates, but if pollution sensors were paired with cameras, it might also be possible to catch individual polluting vehicles, said.


Seattle wants to be an innovative city, not just by virtue of the technology companies that are based there, but also via the city government’s operations, said Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller. The opportunities presented by the project in Chicago, he said, present everyone with just the beginning of what may be possible. 

“You can also put sensors into sewage lines and power lines so you have better situational awareness of when there are problems with resources," he said. "There’s adding more sensors to roads and transportation networks so you can monitor congestion, for example when we have things like the Super Bowl parade in Seattle, vehicles have a hard time navigating, especially public safety vehicles. Sensors can provide a much better path through to get lifesaving support where it needs to go.”

The city is now in the earliest stages of examining the potential of projects like driverless buses, enhancing public safety through the use of sensors, and collecting more data while enhancing privacy, he said. “Based on the conversations I’m having with my fellow department heads, there’s a lot of interest in innovative Internet-of-Things types of applications."

And as the city examines broadband Internet options, Mattmiller said sensor networks offer potential for new possibilities. “When we have sensors, whether it’s improving transportation, helping public safety, those sensors all have to connect to a network,” he said. “So how are we, as a city, thinking about constructing networks where as many departments as possible can leverage a common resource efficiently? So if we’re going to have all these sensors, do we build out a fiber network that can also be leveraged to deliver Internet or carry other types of municipal traffic?”

Seattle also is launching a new privacy policy that is intended to keep the public better informed about the city’s projects with regard to data collection -- about exactly what data is being collected, why the data is being collected, and how it will be used, Mattmiller said. Getting public support for technology projects is important, he noted. And in recent years, failure of city government to engage the public on that front has cost the city both in reputation and project progress. 

The Chicago Array of Things initiative is very exciting, said Mattmiller, who is now looking forward to meeting with his fellow department heads to examine what kind of opportunities his city can harness and what the path to get there might look like.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.