by Susan Crawford
June 20, 2014 Chicago Tribune - This summer, data scientists and architects in Chicago are working on a new form of civic infrastructure: highly visible, aesthetically pleasing, one-foot-square boxes mounted on light poles that track environmental conditions around them. If this is the new surveillance state, it's nothing like what you expected.
Those small boxes represent a big idea: Inside each one, about a dozen sensors measure heat, humidity, air quality, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, light and noise levels, and those data will be made publicly available so that they can be used by application developers and researchers as well as the city. The implications of this project are game-changing.
Right now, cities collect information in the form of permit applications, inspection results and other service-related inputs. Analysis of these data can help cities know how the city is doing and assist it in targeting its efforts. But information about the well-being of a city — the quality of lives lived on its streets — is harder to come by. The Array of Things, as Chicago's Urban Center for Computation and Data calls this project, will start providing real-time information about the city's environment.
For example, sensors will be able to detect mobile devices that have Bluetooth turned on, so the city will have information about the level of pedestrian density in a particular area. The city, as well as any researcher, will know about fine-grained pollution levels in different neighborhoods for the first time. And as new forms of sensors are developed, they can be swapped in: The boxes, designed by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, act as neutral platforms rather than integrated, static systems. About 50 will be installed this year in the Loop.
Imagine walking down the street and learning from an app that there's ice ahead. In springtime, someday, an app may help you avoid high levels of pollen or find the most popular walking route.
We already have sensors in city neighborhoods, of course; they're called surveillance cameras. Concerns about the collection of personally identifiable information by public authorities have been heightened by this year's National Security Agency revelations.
These are different. Charlie Catlett, the director of the Urban Center and a senior computer scientist at Argonne National Labs and the University of Chicago, said that the Array of Things is designed with privacy-protective policies baked in. The sensors won't include cameras, for one thing. Before adding any new sensor, the project will seek community input and expert advice. And all the information gathered will be immediately public, allowing watchdogs to raise alarms about potential intrusive collection or activity. Catlett and his colleagues are determined to move slowly and work carefully with the public.
Chicago, the quintessential American city, is quickly becoming the nation's leading city for data analytics. It has involved data scientists such as Catlett in its processes, pushed to open all of its data (including complete crime statistics) to the public, and begun prioritizing its inspections of stores and other businesses based on correlations between particular conditions — say, past violations or 311 complaints coming from the same location — and the likelihood of problems.
Now it's moving to understand its weather, pollution and noise in a transparent, public-friendly way. This means that the city will be able to investigate reams of these data, combine it with other information, and make predictions about its future that inform how the city allocates its resources and changes its policies. It's crowded? Change the traffic light patterns. Pollution is a problem in particular neighborhoods? Find out why and fix it.
Gathering these data won't solve all of Chicago's challenges, such as a shooting rate that remains among the nation's highest. But making a better city also means improving the quality of daily life at street level. Investing time and money in data makes sense, and it's changing how local government works.
Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, is a columnist for Bloomberg View.