National Science Foundation awards $3.1 million to Array of Things project

Grant to fund production and installation of 500 nodes in Chicago

Rob Mitchum
Communication ManagerSearle Chemistry Laboratory

The University of Chicago announced Sept. 14 that the National Science Foundation has awarded a $3.1 million grant to support the development of Array of Things, an urban sensing instrument that will serve as a fitness tracker for the city. Starting next year, 500 Array of Things nodes will measure data on Chicago’s environment, infrastructure and activity to scientifically investigate solutions to urban challenges ranging from air quality to urban flooding. The ultimate goal of this innovative community technology platform is to help make cities cleaner, healthier and more livable.

The grant will support a multidisciplinary team of designers, engineers and scientists at the Computation Institute (a joint initiative of UChicago and Argonne National Laboratory), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Specifically, the NSF grant will fund the development and installation of 500 sensor nodes: ornamental enclosures containing instruments for measuring various components of the urban environment such as temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature. No personal or private data will be collected, and all information measures will be publicly available for free through the city of Chicago Data Portal and other open data platforms.

“Array of Things will provide a level of detail not available in any city today,” said Charlie Catlett, Array of Things primary investigator and director of the Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data. “This data will enable scientists, policymakers and citizens to work together to diagnose urban challenges and design solutions.”

In partnership with the city of Chicago, the nodes will be mounted on streetlight traffic signal poles around the city by 2017. Fifty nodes will be installed in early 2016, and the number is expected grow to 200 by the end of 2016 and 500 by the end of 2017. The location of these nodes will be determined in collaboration with the city of Chicago and input from researchers and community members.

Once completed, the network of nodes will make Chicago a leader in “smart city” innovation. The programmable, modular nodes are designed to host a variety of sensors and devices, providing an urban-scale testing ground for smart city technologies such as new communications or information systems. The nodes are also built to withstand the common causes of electronics failure in harsh conditions, such as Chicago’s weather extremes. 

Working with the city of Chicago’s Department of Transportation and Department of Innovation and Technology, Array of Things will boost local research, development, prototyping and the demonstration of new technologies and services.

“Urban sensing—collecting and using data from sensors in public urban spaces—is essential to the next generation of data science and to improving city service delivery,” said Brenna Berman, chief information officer for the city of Chicago. “These policies and infrastructure will enable researchers to collect data at little cost to the city, will help attract technology companies and STEM talent, and could increase R&D money spent in Chicago.”  

Nodes will support advanced capabilities such as measuring sound levels on busy streets and around public transportation, or assessing air quality in neighborhoods near industrial facilities. Moving forward, additional capabilities will also be developed using the platform, such as methods for interpreting weather and image data to detect standing water and urban flooding. Community workshops will be held on a regular basis to solicit input from local residents on the questions they want to answer in their neighborhoods with Array of Things data.

Data collected can be used by developers, researchers and citizens to improve communities. For example, many diseases occur at higher rates in urban areas, and Array of Things will allow public health researchers to study the relationship between these illnesses and environmental conditions. Climate researchers will have dramatically higher resolution data than currently provided by existing weather stations to study urban microclimates, with benefits for hyper-local weather forecasting and energy efficiency. Social scientists will be able to study the dynamics of urban activity in public spaces and the effects of the environment on economics and livability.

“The Array of Things project expands the rich history of urban research at the University of Chicago. Community members and university researchers alike will benefit from the new sources of data,” said Eric D. Isaacs, provost of the University of Chicago. “What we learn from the analysis of the data will give us new understanding of problems in the social and physical sciences and have a broad impact on urban policy and practice.”

“The Array of Things is a perfect example of the impact that the University of Chicago and Argonne partnership is designed to have,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “By combining the lab’s engineering and computing experience with the University’s world-class economics and public policy expertise, we can make cities healthier, more livable and more efficient.”

Equally important to the Array of Things project are privacy and security, and it is designed to not collect any personal or private information. The nodes utilize an Argonne-developed technology platform called Waggle, created by Argonne’s Peter Beckman, Rajesh Sankaran and Catlett, which allows for powerful and secure remote processing of measurements before transmission of data to a central server. For example, this capability allows images such as those of standing water or bike traffic at a street intersection to be quickly analyzed within the node, with only the numerical results such as water depth or number of bikes being transmitted and publicly released. New computer algorithms might allow future nodes to securely report wind noise, measures of green spaces such as foliage density, and birdsong.

An oversight committee, comprised of academic researchers, city officials and cybersecurity experts, will regularly review the project and additional technologies that may be developed and added to it in the future. The committee will be assisted by an independent security and privacy review team and an external scientific advisory committee.

A unique collaboration with Douglas Pancoast and Satya Mark Basu of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago developed the inventive design of the node enclosures. In the spirit of a community technology, the team designed the nodes to be eye-catching, attractive structures that fit the urban landscape of Chicago. Future versions of the nodes may contain LED lighting and other interactive elements to directly communicate data, such as the current pollen levels in the area, to passersby.

Eleven nodes are currently undergoing testing on the University of Chicago campus. Additional funding for the project was provided by the University of Chicago Innovation Fund, Argonne, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  

In addition to Catlett, Beckman and Pancoast, co-investigators on the project include Kathleen Cagney of the University of Chicago, Michael Papka of Argonne and Northern Illinois University, and Daniel Work of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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