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Cities Closely Watching Chicago’s Version of a Fitbit

The city is installing sensors that could reveal a lot about the best way for governments to use smart technology.

(Courtesy of Urban Center for Computation and Data)
At first glance, the smart city movement seems quite robust. The media is full of stories about cities with smart utilities, smart parking systems, smart streetlights and apps for all sorts of smart services, such as next bus arrival times or trash bins that “ask” to be emptied when sensors detect they’re full.  

But dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that many of these services are simply pilot projects testing a technology or apps that may make things a little more convenient for the public but don’t get at the root of a city’s problems.

That’s the criticism that’s being leveled at the smart city trend these days. Some are warning that cities are in danger of developing a fetish for apps and sensors and failing to address the real problems of modern city living. Many of today’s app solutions in cities are nothing more than a “Band-Aid slapped over a problem,” according to Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban policy at Tufts University.

But the city of Chicago wants to change that. An effort is underway that could answer a number of key questions about what makes a city smart, as well as provide a road map to developing solutions that get at the causes of a number of urban issues, such as health, the environment and traffic congestion. The University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the city announced in August the launch of an “urban sensing” project that will collect, analyze and share data on air quality, traffic flow and hyperlocal weather conditions, which can be used to support energy efficiency in neighborhoods. Call it a Fitbit for the city. The goal is to place 500 of the devices around the city by 2018. 

One problem the project might help address right off the bat is how best to place sensors. “There’s not any good science of where you put sensors in a city to answer specific questions,” says Charlie Catlett, head of the project, which is dubbed the “Array of Things,” and director of the Urban Center of Computation and Data at the University of Chicago.

There’s also not a lot known about the sensors’ reliability, cost and how best they should operate. “Other questions have to do with the number of sensors needed to get the right information and what types of sensors are best at measuring different type of data values,” Catlett says.

The first 80 sensors installed will be used to collect data that will help researchers figure out what is triggering high rates of asthma in certain neighborhoods. They’ll also be used to measure traffic flows on city streets in order to improve traffic safety, reduce congestion, and suggest safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. “Cities have data on traffic in and out of cities, but not through downtown areas,” Catlett says. 

The project is also an attempt to understand the nontechnological quandaries of becoming a smart city: What types of governance and policies should a city focus on? How important is privacy when cameras are part of a project? What is the best way to engage a community to get their buy-in? 

In the case of Chicago, engagement started early. What’s more, the project directors decided to make all the data open and available to the public. They also decided to set up a privacy review group to deal with questions or issues as they arise. Catlett notes that the cameras are not able to identify individuals, and the sensors don’t collect private information.

As an indication of just how significant Chicago’s project is to other municipalities, Catlett says that even before the first sensor was turned on, he had received inquiries from more than 60 cities, including several international jurisdictions, about the results. “There’s huge interest in this.”

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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