Lakeside chicago at night

Chicago readies the next-generation big data network

Chicago is working the big data pipeline from both ends: Not only will the city glean insights from the analysis of its open data, but it aims to create new ways to generate and collect data.

In July, Chicago will mount sensors on light poles throughout the city, the first stage of a big data collection system whose platform the city will open up to other jurisdictions.

Over the past two years the city has placed a growing emphasis on big data, starting with the appointment of a director of data analytics in 2012. Since then, data coordinators have been appointed in city agencies, part of an open data executive order from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Chicago Model updated to show data sets

Located in the Railway Exchange Building’s Atrium, the Chicago Model's integrated lighting visualizes the city's data sets through color and animation.

And to spread the town’s data mantra, the non-profit Chicago Architecture Foundation recently presented an exhibition entitled, Chicago: City of Big Data, designed to generate public awareness about links between the city’s data resources and its living spaces.

“This push towards transparency has created a real opportunity for those of us who want to understand cities,” said Charlie Catlett, senior computer scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, who said he believes the city has moved aggressively to make more data available.

Chicago is currently working to develop its next generation of big data tools. On the data gathering side, Catlett said, it is partnering with industry and the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) to create an embedded sensor network dubbed the “Array of Things.”

Catlett said nodes in the array network will have about 12 sensors collecting data on temperature, humidity, air quality, sound, light and carbon monoxide/carbon dioxide levels throughout the city. The sensors will also be able to detect mobile devices with Bluetooth active, so smartphones can serve as an indicator of pedestrian density.

The first of the sensors are slated for installation in early July, when 30 to 50 nodes will be deployed on light poles in downtown Chicago street corners. A funding proposal is in the works to support 500 additional installations.

Each node consists of a secure enclosure with a power source and Internet access. Developers will be able to subscribe to the data stream coming off the instruments. “If someone wanted to write an app that maps downtown to light or sound or temperature — or even the number of pedestrians with smartphones —  they could do that,” Catlett said.

The open sensor data will also travel through the city’s data portal, where it will be accessible to city departments who can use it to conduct studies correlating data trends they are monitoring with data derived from the sensor network.

“That is where it gets really powerful for the city,” Catlett said.

Open analytics platform

Chicago is also embarking on a project to develop a next-generation data analytics platform, which it intends to make available to other cities. While Chicago, New York and San Francisco possess the resources to develop big data analytics, others are wondering how to get started. “We are doing that [platform] as open source project with an eye toward easy replication in other cities,” Catlett said.

However, cities just turning to big data projects need more than technical resources.  Steve Mills, senior associate with Booz Allen Hamilton’s Strategic Innovation Group, said they also need an overarching strategy and an organizational structure to pursue big data programs.

Mills sees three primary models cities can use when taking on data analytics: centralized, diffused or deployed.

The centralized model keeps an analytics brain trust in a central group, while the diffused approach embeds expertise within each government business unit or department. The deployed model uses a centralized team, which dispatches individual members to departments who need help tackling problems.

Chicago, meanwhile, plans to help cities over the resource hurdle. Catlett said certain cities have some of the capabilities required to develop an analytics service, but lack the resources to assemble it all from scratch. For those cities, the open source data analytics platform would provide a key piece of infrastructure. Catlett said the platform may also be made available as a virtual machine via the Amazon Web Services cloud.

Other cities may not have sufficient resources to maintain an analytics system regardless of its source. For them, Catlett said commercial services like Socrata might be the best way to get started, Catlett said. Socrata, a cloud-based offering, provides an open data portal and tools for performing data analysis.

Cities will also be able to load their data into Chicago’s data analytics system. “That idea of sharing the platform with smaller cities is very much a part of the design,” Catlett said.


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