Chicago’s People Counting, Climate Change Tracking Street Lamps

PolitiChicks.comDisguised as unobtrusive renderings of art, the city of Chicago is planning to line the Magnificent Mile with sensor-equipped street lamps.

“The first sensor could be in place by mid-July. Researchers hope to start with sensors at eight 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 the project expands into neighborhoods,” that according to Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center of Computation and Data.

Metal-sheathed veneers conceal data collection sensors that measure everything from foot traffic to air quality. Sensors collect data from passing smartphones. The compiled data is then extrapolated into usable algorithms to help city planners “understand their cities better.”

“Gathering and publishing such a broad swatch of data will give scientists the tools to make Chicago a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live,” said Catlett.

The Urban Center for Computation and Data has partnered with the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory to develop the permanent data infrastructure.

Devised as an urban planning contrivance, the inclusion of the Argonne National Laboratory leads privacy advocates to conclude the project “Array of Things” has a more textured purpose.

Argonne National Laboratory, renowned for its involvement in the Manhattan project and the Apollo missions, now streamlines its work towards national security and climate change aims. Argonne National Laboratory has developed sensors that “can detect chemical, biological, nuclear and explosive materials.” The sensors can model paths of toxic agents into subways and city streets mitigating mass disruptions of public services in the event of terroristic flukes climate change disturbances.

While scientists are unabashedly titillated about the project’s potential, privacy advocates are leery. They feel that the intent of data usage is less than forthcoming. Thus far there is little to no project oversight.

Despite public assurances of anonymity, there is a growing concern over the insatiable desire to obtain data for government, corporate and academic interests unbeknownst to its private subjects.

According to the Chicago Tribune, startup money for the first phase has come from Argonne, but a National Science Foundation grant application is pending. The director for the Urban Center for Computation and Data expects corporations that want to use the system to “pay their way” down the road.

Gary King, Harvard sociologist and data expert, suggested that there may be legal ramifications. “It’s a public policy question,” he said. “You have to be careful. Good things can produce bad things.”

So far, Chicago’s street sensor enterprise has not drawn much attention outside the technological world.

Leslie Deinhammer

Illinois PolitiChick Leslie Anne Deinhammer, writer, chaplain and proud wife of a Marine Corps veteran, writes on topics of politics, human rights and faith. Follow her at @lesliedhammer on Twitter.

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