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cityscape

Public Works: Lampposts That Help You Choose How to Get Home

Chicago is mounting "sensor nodes" on downtown lampposts in effort to improve city streets and produce open data.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Chicago has a pretty good handle on public space. It’s got Millennium Park, Navy Pier, the Lakefront Path—the Second City is committed to designing places people want to visit, and, by kicking off a new project this month, it will add a new means of understanding how climate, ambiance, and passersby interact on local streets.

The Array of Things initiative, led by the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute and the municipal government, will see up to 50 “sensor nodes” installed on the handsome lampposts of downtown Chicago. These sensors will monitor various aspects of their environment, including weather, air quality, levels of light and sound, and pedestrian numbers (tracked by mobile device signal recognition).

The goal is to learn how public spaces are working, and improve them accordingly. Information collected through Array of Things could also help members of the public choose a walking route with the most light, least foot traffic, and least noise—and it will be made publicly available as part of Chicago’s commitment to open data (information available to the public at no cost).

Accessible info has become a cause célèbre of the 2010s. (See WikiLeaks.) Certainly, the public availability of Array of Things’ urban environmental data is slightly different from the leaking of government secrets by notorious open data activists, but the basic principle is the same: the availability of reliable information allows us to make educated decisions about public policy, governance, and even our personal lives.

Of course, data collection brings up troubling questions about surveillance and the invasion of privacy—now more than ever, as the spectre of National Security Agency and Communications Security Establishment Canada surveillance looms over our every email and phone call. Coverage of Array of Things has already tossed around the “Big Brother” label. But, as Chicago Commissioner of Information and Technology Brenna Berman told the Chicago Tribune, the City has specifically chosen to use Array of Things to measure impersonal data. And Chicago is developing a policy on the protection of privacy, security, and confidentiality that should be finalized by the end of July.

The City of Toronto has its own open data catalogue that could benefit from some real-time public space updates. If conducted with proper accountability and oversight, protected against misuse and invasion of privacy pitfalls, data collection would be a major asset to any city.

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