by Steve Oakey on 15/03/2021
More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities – up from just 34% in the 1960s. By mid-century that figure could reach 66% (according to the United Nations). Cities are major contributors to climate change, and some are already feeling its impact through rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather events.
But cities are also great incubators for IoT based systems that make urban life more attractive, such as fast, convenient transportation systems, safe street lighting and energy-efficient buildings.
Over the past 5 years, in Chicago, they have been testing a city-wide network of sensors called the “Array of Things”. These sensors are essentially a sort of fitness tracker for the city, collecting data on air quality, climate, traffic and other metrics. The information is sent to an open data portal where user groups can consume it for a range of applications.
The Array of Things (AoT) was created as an experimental urban measurement project, comprising a network of interactive, modular devices, (nodes) that are installed around Chicago to collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity. These measurements are published as open data for research and public use. These nodes measure key factors that impact the habitual impact of living in Chicago such as climate, air quality and noise.
The project was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and by late 2019 roughly 130 nodes were operating throughout the city, typically at street intersections, 24-28 feet above the street. The original project plan was to grow to 150 nodes by mid-2020, involving both replacing older nodes (some of which were installed as early as 2016) and adding locations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic had put all installation activity on hold.
The technology platform used to build the nodes is called Waggle. AoT nodes are manufactured in Chicago. Waggle is being significantly expanded and enhanced through a new project, SAGE (Software-Defined Sensor Network) which began in late 2019. These new SAGE nodes have nearly 200 times more powerful processors and improved sensors and cameras. They expect to begin testing SAGE nodes in Chicago at some point this year. (modulo pandemic dependent).
AoT was conceived as an experimental project to explore the concept of an urban-scale instrument to enable the City, urban planners, residents, and researchers to monitor and examine Chicago’s environment, infrastructure and activity, including detecting trends and changes over time.
Ultimately, the objective is to measure the city in sufficient detail to provide data to help engineers, scientists, policymakers and residents work together to make Chicago (and, in turn, other cities) healthier, more liveable and more efficient.
The research and findings of this exercise will help to create a resilient platform that can support and analyse data, for instance sensing the number of vehicles by using computer vision software to analyse images.
AoT provides near-real-time, location-based data about the city’s environment, infrastructure and activity to researchers and the public. Over time, these measurements will allow for studies of longer term changes such as how noise levels are affected by changes in zoning, or how air quality changes following investments in clean energy. In late 2018 a new set of application programming interfasces (APIs) were released to support the development of applications, portals, and other tools to provide value from the data. For instance, several groups are developing smartphone applications that would provide navigation tips based on air quality, noise levels, or excessive heat. Others are developing services that would allow a resident to subscribe to air quality alerts. This initiative has the potential to allow researchers, policymakers, developers and residents to work together and take specific actions that will improve the quality of life immensely within Chicago.
The results so far from the work in Chicago are showing real time benefits to seriously improving transport, air quality, water quality, logistics, mental health and many more integral aspects of our lives. This looks set to grow and grow and large cities across the world will be reaping the benefits of these systems in the months and years to come.
It will be interesting to see how the brands we know, love and trust respond to this challenge and how they can harness this technology and communicate to the wider audience. Everything changes so quickly, this past year has held up some progress but as confidence increases, we should see the cities and towns we live in adapt and change for the greater good – with luck!