Charlie Catlett

New Initiative with Sensors Designed to Improve Urban Environment Has Won Significant Support

Ever imagine a time where you could simply pull up information on your phone to determine which route to take to reach your job without encountering areas with high pollen counts or noise levels? Soon, there will be an app for that.

This form of real-time data usage will be made possible through Array of Things, a new urban sensing project developed by scientists from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Computation Institute (CI), in partnership with the City of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Data collected using interactive sensor nodes will serve as a type of fitness tracker for the city, providing valuable information for residents, scientists, and policymakers to create a safer, cleaner, and more efficient urban environment. 

"This data will be available for public use for research studies, application development, and to help improve the overall air quality and community engagement,” says Argonne Senior Computer Scientist and CI Senior Fellow Charlie Catlett, PhD, who leads Array of Things.

In April, the first two prototype nodes—each about the size of a cereal box—were installed at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and at Regenstein Library as part of a pilot phase at the University of Chicago. Over the summer, a total of 12 nodes were placed around campus to ensure they work in different types of weather and to verify that the data is reliable. 

“We’ll be able to see differences in temperature, humidity, and various other weather characteristics, which will provide a good demonstration of what the sensors can do,” says Catlett, who directs the CI's Urban Center for Computation and Data. “They can also measure sound intensity so that will tell us a lot about noise pollution on campus.”

Additionally, the nodes will measure other components of the environment such as barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature.

Catlett points out that no personal or private data will be collected by the nodes, and all the information will be available to the public for free through the City of Chicago Data Portal and other open data platforms.

Early next year, 50 nodes will be installed around the city mounted on streetlight traffic signal poles. That 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. 

This project comes at a time when Chicago’s air quality has taken a tumble. A new study underway at the University of Chicago reveals that residents living on the South Side of Chicago are more likely to develop asthma and cardiovascular problems due to pollutants from exhaust fumes, emissions from manufacturing facilities, and power generation, which are heightened in urban areas where poorer people and various racial and ethnic groups often reside. 

The study will determine whether this public health crisis is driven by higher exposure to air pollutants. It is particularly relevant now: in 2014 Chicago’s air quality received an “F” from the American Lung Association.

Through Array of Things, researchers will have an opportunity to assess air pollution exposure and how it relates to both health and socioeconomic factors.

“Results from this study will provide key information about the urban factors that contribute to the irregular distribution of air pollution,” says Catlett, “which will ultimately lead to insight into the kinds of policies and urban designs that would improve public health in the affected communities.”

Already Array of Things has generated support and funding. In September, the National Science Foundation awarded the project a $3.1 million grant to support the development and installation of 500 of the sensor nodes. Earlier this year, the project garnered $150,000 from the Chicago Innovation Exchange, which was matched by Argonne. Array of Things was also included in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Tech Plan in 2013, as a “next-generation infrastructure” with the City of Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology.

While the US Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations already collect environmental data, Array of Things will go a step further by covering areas of the city where sensors currently do not exist. Array of Things also will provide open data that will lead to new tools for residents to understand and improve their community. 

“There are already good environmental studies in Chicago, but Array of Things is going to look at more high resolution points and will provide a level of detail not available in any city today,” adds Catlett. 

— Tanya R. Cochran

Read more about Catlett's work here