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Chicago’s innovative new streetlights will monitor the city’s every move

As one of America’s largest cities, Chicago has a unique personality wholly original to itself. To help achieve a better understanding of the Windy City’s character and temperament, Charlie Catlett — the Director of Urban Center for Computation and Data at Argonne National Laboratory — decided “why not outfit the city with an abundance of sensors to track its every move?”

By taking advantage of the city’s impending investment in new streetlights this past year, Catlett’s innovative vision recently came to life this week as Chicago began installing the revolutionary sensors. Dubbed the Array of Things, Catlett’s initiative should provide an unprecedented snapshot of Chicago.

Once up and running, the Array of Things hopes to offer community groups, Chicago’s local government, as well as a variety of entrepreneurs, access to the amassed data. The hope is that ongoing collaboration will allow those involved to help improve every aspect of Chicago as a whole. By soaking up climate information pertaining to fluctuating temperature, barometric pressure, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels, as well light, the Array of Things figures to have priceless data at its fingertips.

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Urban Center for Computation and Data

“I thought, what a tremendous opportunity that would be for the science community to better understand things like climate and air quality,” Catlett told Fast Co. Design.

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After learning the city of Chicago was in the preliminary stages of replacing its aging streetlights, Catlett immediately saw an opportunity to make a difference. After tasking students at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory for input on the kind of data to collect, he then turned to the Art Institute of Chicago to crowdsource the best possible design for the sensors. Once this was done, the National Science Foundation chipped into the fun by agreeing to fund part of the development and manufacturing of the sensors (called nodes).

With funding secured, the next task at hand was to begin designing the sensors in earnest. Aside from wanting to create something which avoided looking like a Skynet device, the designers also needed to build a tool that could withstand Chicago’s schizophrenic annual weather. Be it long bouts of frigidly icy weather or the (literal) dog days of Chicago’s humid summer, the sensors needed to be resilient; period. Furthermore, they needed to be pleasant to the eye.

“We don’t want something that’s ominous and military looking, nor do we want something that’s hidden,” Catlett said. “We want something that’s attractive looking, and where you look at it and say, I’m not sure if that’s a weather station or a piece of art.”

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Urban Center for Computation and Data

The Array of Things’ final design — a small box outfit with an “Array of Things” logo surrounded by a blue finish — seems to capture everything Catlett and those involved were searching for. Installation of the device simply requires attaching it to a traffic light or telephone pole while its beehive-looking sensor attachment hangs slightly away from the pole. However innovative the program is, the Array of Things has been met with a bit of controversy — specifically with its privacy policy.

Considering the rig is designed to measure traffic and pedestrian levels by way of cameras, people have expressed a dissatisfaction with their every move being captured on film or photo. Though the privacy policy states that images will only be used for a short time to be analyzed, the algorithms powering the device have been shown to keep some photographic data for later access.

While this is a function of the initiative, it’s been one largest parts of the Array of Things receiving criticism. The City of Chicago’s Chief Information Officer, Brenna Berman, feels the program has the ability to do much more good than bad and that it will be critical in making informed policy decisions.

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Urban Center for Computation and Data

“This takes being a data-driven government one step further,” says Berman. “It gives us more data to better inform the policy, to drive better and more efficient services through that data. I go from having 30,000 city employees using data to drive better city government to having 3 million partners dedicated to making Chicago a better place to live.”

With the initiative in its infancy, it remains to be seen just how effective the monitoring system figures to be. As of now, 42 sensors are being installed around Chicago with the team hoping to expand that number to between 60 and 80 before winter officially hits.