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Possible design for a sensor in the Array of Things project. Source: Urban Center for Computation and Data.

Charlie Catlett has a vision of the future of Chicago where citizens can talk directly with the city itself.

Imagine walking down the street and getting a text letting you know there’s ice ahead. Or even getting help walking around at night.

“It’s 10 p.m., it’s dark, you don’t know the city very well,” said Catlett, the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data. “You’d be able to pull up an app on your phone that shows you where there’s the most foot traffic. That’s the route I want to take.”

This summer UCCD is taking a step to make those interactions possible through its “Array of Things” project. The project will place sensors around the Loop – around 50 this year with a total of closer to 400 over the next few years – that will detect light, sound, air quality and other measures, all made available for citizens to use for free.

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Map of locations for the first Array of Things sensors. Source: Urban Center for Computation and Data.

“By making this data public, we can imagine people writing all sorts of applications taking advantage of the data, including, hopefully, ones we never would have thought of,” Catlett said.

Catlett said the project was driven by a simple question: How could you change the way people interact with the built environment if the built environment were smart?

“Could you imagine crowd-sourced infrastructure?” he said. “We’re putting these devices out into the community and it’s important to us to do that in a way that engages people to participate.”

The sensors will be placed on light poles around the Loop to start. The technology is similar to the small Raspberry Pi computers, wrapped in a weather-proof case. Around that is a shell designed by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to make the sensors more visual inviting.

“We realized early on if we were going to put a new object into the city at infrastructural scale, it would have to be understood as positive,” said Doug Pancoast, School of the Art Institute of Chicago associate professor and UCCD member.

That’s also why starting in July UCCD will hold community workshops to talk about the sensors and what citizens would like to see – or not see – from the project.

To Catlett, the platform UCCD is building now isn’t about the sensors themselves, but the trust developed between them and the public.

“The sensors we put in now will all be replaced within three years,” he said. “That accountability is the foundation. The sensors are just the things we happen to have in there at any given time.”

The conversations are made more important because all the information collected will be automatically posted online for anyone to see and use. That makes the project a great resource for civic hackers but increases the need for privacy protections.

“The fact we’re saying the data immediately goes public means that nothing we collect can have any privacy breaches to it,” Catlett said. “It means that privacy in this instrument isn’t something that’s designed in in the end, but something that’s part of its nature and part of its architecture.”

To head that off, Catlett and Pancoast said that while the devices can detect light and sound, they will never have cameras or microphones. While they can detect the presence of BlueTooth devices (like mobile phones), they won’t do anything more than count the number of responses.

In addition to the community conversations, Catlett also said the project will get approval from an independent set of experts before adding any new technology to the sensors.

“It won’t just be scientists, but people from the community,” he said. “So maybe they don’t understand the computer science or the material science that goes into it, but maybe they can get a sense of it and understand if this is preserving privacy.”

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Example of a possible use for air quality data. Source: Urban center for Computation and Data.

As municipal sensors like the Array of Things spread – there are already smart lights and trashcans in other cities – Pancoast sees designers using it to inform how cities are actually built.

“I can anticipate that data about urban interaction will be considered another form of input, another form of material that really has to be understood and shaped and applied to the design processes,” he said. “We have to know a lot about steel and glass, and we have to know a lot about data and human interaction to make the environments and objects we think will be useful.”

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