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'Array of Things' Expands to Cities with Research Partnerships

Seattle will likely be the first city in the U.S. outside of Chicago to participate in the project, which involves deploying a network of sensors around urban environments.

The Array of Things is expanding outside Chicago. But only to cities that have partnerships with a local university or research institution.

The project, which aims to deploy a fleet of multi-function sensors around the Windy City beginning this year, is also working with city and academic partners to expand to Seattle, as well as Bristol and Newcastle in the United Kingdom. And those are just the beginning — Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data and a driving force behind the project, said he’s working with a total of 18 locations around the world. He’s even partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which wants to test out the sensors’ ability to deliver air quality data as a possible means of improving existing sensors.

And the number of partners keeps on growing. But Catlett said he’s only really going to consider expanding the project to cities that have partnerships in place with a local university or research institute.

There are two reasons for that. The first is that even though the project is aimed at municipal uses, those research-focused institutions will bring the technical expertise to the table that will allow them to work with technology that’s really just getting on its feet.

“They’re in a better position to be able to take something that’s not a full-fledged product with a manual and an army of support people, and they can actually make the product better and collaborate with us on it,” Catlett said.

In the process, he said, those partners will be able to tweak the sensors and look for new ways to use them. Then they can all work together to improve the technology.

The second reason is that Catlett wants to push the idea of partnerships between cities, universities and research institutes. And setting up an Array of Things in any given city is going to take a lot of cooperation between those entities.

“You need to work with the city on contracts and permits," he said, "[and] you need to work with electricians on the specifics of safety and … installation."

He added that the first three city partnerships should give him a better idea of what is necessary to deploy sensors in any given city. He can then take those lessons to other cities interested in joining the project — a list that includes Portland, Ore.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Atlanta; Boston; Pittsburgh and New York. Each potential partner has different ideas on how to use the sensors. Chattanooga might use them to track pollen in the air, while Seattle is more concerned with rain.

That will mean adding a thing or two to the sensors. Faculty at the University of Washington want to tweak the 10 sensors they’ll get through the Array of Things project to add low-cost rain-sensing capabilities. Bill Howe, associate director of the university’s data-focused eScience Institute, said doing this will give the project team the ability to make an existing array of rain sensors in Seattle more effective. The network, called RainWatch, is designed to monitor precipitation and give the city some idea of where flooding might happen.

“It turns out those models can be helped a lot by having these hyperlocal measurements from sensors put in the right place,” Howe said.

Though the specific uses for the sensors might change, Howe gave two more projects the team wants to complete with its array. One is deploying a pair of sensors close to each other — perhaps a block apart — to measure differences in air quality. Specifically, Howe suggested that one node might go on a bus route and the other would provide baseline measurements to see how buses affect the air in the places they drive.

The other would be putting a node in a university parking garage. That’s because the technology was not designed for that use, and Howe said that seeing how the sensors perform in that environment could be useful in developing them.

“We’re kind of doing a suite of experiments with these nodes, including a feasibility experiment,” he said.

All of this will provide students an opportunity to get valuable experience working with cutting-edge technology. Those students, he said, might come up with ideas that nobody else has thought of yet.

Catlett said he expects a private partner to begin manufacturing a first batch of 75 sensors in mid-April. Most of those will go up around Chicago by summer, and then he plans on making another batch of 75 around June and July to go out to Seattle, Bristol and Newcastle.

“We’re getting ready to pull the trigger," he said, "so it’s an exciting and hair-raising time."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.