Chicago is defining how US cities employ big data

Profile picture for user russelcook By Russel Cooke September 22, 2014
Chicago is building a big data infrastructure designed to improve citizens life. What does this mean?

Business Insider might think it has found the 18 most innovative cities in the world but Chicago is by far the largest American city to announce plans aimed at exploiting the benefits of big data.

Although in pilot phase today on Michigan Avenue, the city plans to install hundreds of sensors around the city to record detailed information about weather, light, sound and smartphone usage in a project dubbed the 'Array of Things.'

"Urban sensing" has been a top priority for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as he's outlined in the city's technology plan.

Chicago will make all of this data available to the public, allowing anyone to download and use the data however they wish. The city hopes this will result in a wave of innovative applications of the data beyond the initial scope of the project. Alongside, Chicago is assembling the sensors from readily available, low cost components in the expectation that others will follow suit.

How will the data be used by the city? Initial ideas include a better understanding of humidity that will help predict when to salt the streets in winter, with a broader objective of making Chicago a cleaner, more efficient and salter place to live.

Some day, traffic could be managed by “smart traffic lights” that automatically adjust themselves to minimize congestion at different times of the day. Some tests indicate that intelligent management of traffic signals could cut time spent waiting at lights by up to 40%.

Parking meters could one day automatically alert drivers when their time is running out, as they already do in San Francisco. These same “smart parking meters” could relay data about empty parking spaces to a service that transmits information to drivers’ in-car navigation equipment, allowing them to quickly and easily find parking even at peak hours. You can imagine this being taken one step further by allowing local residents preferential parking availability  or special pricing.

Sensors can also assist cities in the seemingly endless task of staying ahead of maintenance issues. Whereas cities must currently rely on routine inspections and reporting by the public, these sensors could one day be used to automatically detect and report issues as they happen. Sensors could also be used to detect events preliminary to repair issues, allowing cities to be more strategic and make repairs even before they’re needed, minimizing downtime. Imagine a world where traffic lights could also observe and report damage to the city’s infrastructure.

This is not the first time Chicago has led in using technology to benefit citizens. The city is constructing a high-tech superconducting cable beneath its streets. In the event of a potential blackout, the cable will be used to reroute the city’s energy, preventing interruptions in service. As a counter-terrorism measure, the cable can also be used in the event of a physical attack on the city’s power grid.

The potential of big data has some people spooked, and it’s easy to see why. Chicago wants to alleviate concerns over privacy by pointing up the benefits. Big data promises to allow cities the opportunity to manage what has been unimaginable. Should they be welcomed or should citizens insist on restraint? Let us know in comments.

Some believe that limitations in the types of data collected in such systems may lead to biased results that in turn don't fully reflect the diversity of city needs. How that plays out has yet to be determined.

In the meantime, check out the Bloomberg video below:

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