The Smart City Takes Shape in Chicago

By Joan Engebretson October 27, 2014

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was under the impression that the ‘Smart City’ was either a concept for the future or something that was beginning to take root outside North America. That’s when I learned that if you set out from the corner of East Wacker Drive and North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, there are an astonishing number of real-world examples of a Smart City within a three-block walk.

I had occasion to take this walk at the Internet of Things World Forum hosted by Cisco and where Cisco representatives escorted a couple dozen journalists on a short walking tour where we saw:

  • A smart intersection, where sensors keep tabs on vehicles and pedestrians, adjusting traffic signals as appropriate to minimize waiting times
  • A smart police vehicle connected wirelessly to the public safety data network, enabling the police to exchange information in real-time with the network
  • Smart streetlights with sensors and LEDs that automatically dim or brighten depending on whether people or vehicles are present
  • A smart bus shelter that displays anticipated arrival times based on information gathered from city buses, which are wirelessly connected and have on-board GPS
  • A smart solar-powered trash compactor that signals the sanitation department when it is full, enabling garbage truck routes to be scheduled accordingly
  • A smart bike rack that uses 3G wireless to report every 15 minutes on the availability of bikes for rental
  • A smart advertising and information kiosk capable of transferring information such as bus schedules or discount vouchers to consumers’ smartphones – the kiosk we saw also has a built-in camera, potentially enabling a concierge service that, among other things, could provide a translation service for foreign visitors

Several City of Chicago officials also made presentations at the IoT World Forum – and there were two main take-aways there. First, many smart devices and smart apps are useless without sophisticated analytics to cull through the vast amounts of information that is being gathered. Second, the City of Chicago and other municipalities pursuing Smart City initiatives are making a point of making much of the data collected available to the general public.

An example of the sort of analytics underlying the Smart City is a trial underway in Chicago with Purdue University.  The trial will use arrest data and measures of “connectedness” within “criminal cohorts” to predict individuals who are likely to be parties to violence, explained Commander Jonathan Lewin of public safety information technology for the City of Chicago. The goal would be early intervention in the form of job training, social services referrals and the like.

As for take-away number two, city officials said the City of Chicago to date has made 600 separate data sets available to the public. An example of how the public is using this data is a website called “SweepAroundUs” created by a volunteer civic development group that enables citizens to enter a street address to find out when street sweepers will be hitting their block.

As cities like Chicago share datasets with the public, it will be critical to ensure that the data doesn’t contain personally identifiable information such as social security numbers. According to officials from Chicago and other cities who participated in the IoT event, the big buzzword there is “indicators” – and it’s currently a hot topic within the Smart City community.  

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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