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1st Of 500 Sensors Now Tracking City Pollution, Traffic In Pilsen

By Sam Cholke | August 29, 2016 4:47pm
 Pilsen is getting the first sensors in a project that will install 500 around the city to monitor traffic, pollution and more.
Pilsen is getting the first sensors in a project that will install 500 around the city to monitor traffic, pollution and more.
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Provided/University of Chicago

HYDE PARK — The first two of more than 500 sensors being installed across Chicago by scientists are now up in Pilsen measuring air quality.

Charlie Catlett, the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago, said Monday the Array of Things project is rolling out the installation of the first 60 of a series of sensors that will eventually go up around the city measuring air quality, traffic and a bevy of other data.

“By this time next year from the sensors in the Loop, we could get a very good picture of the number of vehicles coming in and out of the Loop at certain times,” Catlett said.

Sam Cholke details the data that will soon be available from the sensors.

Array of Things Introductory Video
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Computation Institute

He said there are very immediate applications for data like that, such as scheduling road construction when traffic is known to be at its lightest.

When the project is completed, researchers will have data the color of the sky during every minute of every day in 500 different locations in the city.

Catlett said the Loop, Lake Shore Drive and Pilsen will be the first to get the sensors, normally mounted from lampposts.

He said Pilsen, a community concerned about pollution because it is nestled among factories next to the Stevenson Expressway, is first the neighborhood because it fit with the project’s goal to match community needs for data with researchers’ interests.

“Just the two we’ve put up in Pilsen should give us some ideas about air quality and how it changes over time,” Catlett said.

He said another 12 sensors, which cost approximately $1,200 each, are planned for Pilsen and data, which will all be released to the public, will start to be posted online in October.

The idea has sparked interest, with 50 cities asking researchers to be next and business owners in the Loop already hoping to get data on pedestrian traffic in the busiest shopping districts, according to Catlett.

But there have also been privacy concerns over installing 500 sensors with built-in high-definition cameras.

Catlett said the project is trying to address those concerns by making sure none of the video captured is stored for more than three minutes and none of it will be available to researchers, city officials or the public.

“They don’t get transferred and they don’t get stored,” Catlett said.

He said algorithms will analyze the video for the information researchers are interested in like what color the sky is that day, how many people are walking down a particular street or whether there is standing water in the street. But only the results of that analysis will be transferred and it won’t be possible to go back and pick out individual people or cars from the video, according to Catlett.

He said that analysis will be enough for city officials to tell whether there are problems that 311 isn’t catching without invading anyone’s privacy.

“311 is biased,” Catlett said.

According to Catlett’s description of the 15 data points being gathered, the network of sensors could help identify areas of the city where there are consistent problems with flooding or even the screeching tires of a narrowly avoided accident that would register as a spike on the sensors’ decibel meters, but that people were hesitant to report it to the city.

He said this year will be the first true test of the sensor’s abilities to monitor — and withstand — Chicago’s often extreme weather.

If successful, researchers will install an additional 50 sensors in 2017 and 200 more in late-2017 and 2018.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation through 2018.

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