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Array of Things: Chicago’s New, High Tech Lamp Posts Will Track People and Pollution

Artist's rendering of a data-collecting sensor box in Chicago. (Douglas Pancoast and Satya Mark Basu/School of the Art Institute) chicago

Artist’s rendering of a data-collecting sensor box in Chicago. (Douglas Pancoast and Satya Mark Basu/School of the Art Institute)

You might not walk down the streets of Chicago with the same perspective again. Starting this summer, the city is installing a network of high tech lamp posts that will keep track of all kinds of information about the environment and people passing by through sensors. The data collected by Web-connected sensors will be used to help urban planners make the city safer and make traffic flow better. All of this while also tracking environmental factors like air quality.

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The “Array of Things” initiative starts with just one sensor this July and will eventually launch into thousands across the city. Researchers hope to soon place eight sensors at various Michigan Avenue intersections, followed by dozens more around the Loop by year’s end and hundreds more across the city in years to come as part of a continued effort by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to push Chicago as a tech innovation hub.

The sensors will keep track of the number of people who walk past by counting cell phones, which can tell city planners if there is a high-traffic area or a choke point that needs adjustment. In addition to foot traffic, the sensors can also tell the city if air pollution is rising, or where light or noise levels are higher than they should be, as well as collect data about wind, heat and precipitation as a means to better understand the urban environment and ultimately make Chicago a safer, more pleasant place to live.

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The boxes of electronics will be wrapped in perforated plastic shields that students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago designed to look more like sculpture than “Big Brother” black boxes. While sensors monitoring cell phones might make some city dwellers and visitors nervous, precautions have been taken to protect the cell phone data used to count pedestrians; researchers will drop the modem addresses that signals come from. The sensors won’t be able to identify people, record sounds or take pictures. Anonymous data will also be made transparent through the city’s public portal for anyone to view and use.

Over the last decade many cities have launched efforts to collect data about everything from air quality and temperature at street level to the traffic flow of pedestrians and vehicles, all in the name of making urban centers run more efficiently and safely. Much of the useful data has lead to improvements in technology and conveniences like smartphone applications that tell you whether your bus is on time or how backed up the expressway is likely to be when you head home.

For Chicagoans, the data could lead to improved services. For example, data collected about how sound volume varies around the city could help modify traffic patterns to reduce noise pollution where it peaks. Data could even be used to draw connections, for instance, between the incidence of cardiovascular disease and the human-made surroundings. Researchers say that the lamp posts will provide a big step forward in the way Chicago understands itself through observing the city’s people and surroundings.

Images and h/t The Chicago Tribune

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What do you think about the “Array of Things” initiative?