Chicago gets serious about tracking air quality and traffic data

High-tech sensors track air quality in Chicago
High-tech sensors track air quality in Chicago

There may be a solution to asthma perched high above a handful of Chicago intersections.

Last week, the city began installing sophisticated computers on traffic poles to track air quality, weather and road data at a block-by-block level.

The project's leaders liken the project to giving an entire city its own Fitbit (FIT), which should help it better track and address everything from public health risks to congestion on roads.

"Better data means better outcomes," said Brenna Berman, Chicago's chief information officer.

The city is installing 100 of the computers -- called nodes -- this year. The project's leaders plan to have 500 nodes in place by the end of 2018. The devices cost between $1,200 and $1,600 each, and the research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

array of things

The nodes gather a range of environmental data including air and surface temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover, haze, vibrations, and sound and light intensity. The computers will also track pedestrian and vehicle traffic plus nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.

Related: Google's artificial intelligence can actually help the environment

The initial rollout includes the neighborhood of Pilsen, which has a highway running through it. Some of the nodes will be placed adjacent to the interstate to gauge how proximity to highways impacts air quality. Some nodes will also be placed near city factories.

Bus routes could potentially be changed to keep children farther from areas with poor air quality. Trees could be planted near trouble spots. Then leaders could check back in a few years to see if planting trees positively impacted air quality and local health. The findings could be used to inform decisions elsewhere in the city and potentially around the world.

"Kids could focus on getting their school work done, rather than making sure they have their asthma medication," said Charlie Catlett, the project's lead investigator and director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data.

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Aside from helping the city with its own analyses, a new breed of civic-minded techies can apply their own curiosity to the wealth of new data.

Chicago is open sourcing the data, giving anyone the potential to do a creative analysis. Catlett imagined people looking at an overlay of construction permits and noise in a neighborhood. Or someone might compare air quality with the number of 911 calls in a neighborhood.

Chicago's project, called the Array of Things, exemplifies the new trend of cities gathering data and sharing it to operate more efficiently. Concerned citizens can increasingly analyze data for the common good. Earlier year a Stanford student, Joshua Browder, made headlines when he built a website to help thousands of drivers get out of unwarranted parking tickets.

Leading tech companies have long harnessed the promise of crunching data. In July, Google (GOOG) reduced the power bill at its data centers by using sensors' data to pinpoint inefficiencies in how the huge buildings operate. Now governments are catching on to the potential as well.

"Before you might have a gut feeling that this seems unjust, for the first time you can actually prove it," said Ben Wellington, the editor of IQuantNY and a professor at the Pratt Institute in New York.

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