Why You Must See Charlie Catlett at Socrata Connect

January 20, 2017 9:11 am PST | Data as a Service
array of things chicago
Photo: Computation Institute

Across Chicago, mounted on buildings and light posts, interactive, modular sensor boxes have been installed as part of the city’s Array of Things (AoT) project. The first of the nodes, which resemble a light fixture assembled from a stack of white, plastic, upside-down ashtrays, was installed in August 2016 — by the end of 2018, there will 500 in place across the city, each one collecting data using microphones, cameras, and sensors. The project is well-named: It is not a single datapoint being tracked, but several, from climate to air quality to traffic to noise levels. The list goes on and on. Together, the sensors form one giant fitness tracker for the city, monitoring Chicago’s conditions constantly.

At the heart of the groundbreaking project is Charlie Catlett, Senior Computer Scientist, U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data. In 2016, Catlett was named one of Government Technology’s Doers, Dreamers & Drivers for his work on AoT and his support of partnerships between research organizations and cities.

Through AoT, residents, scientists, and policymakers can access a bonanza of data on Chicago. “It’s about creating new streams of data that help us understand and address the most critical urban challenges,” says Catlett. Once you know where the air quality is worst, you can look for ways to improve it, for instance. Even knowing where water is pooling, or the coldest parts of the roads, can help the city make smart, informed decisions, that lead to better outcomes. The potential to leverage the data to make residents lives better is near-endless.

“[The sensors will] help us to better understand some of the challenges of city life — whether that’s urban flooding or air quality and asthma — and give us information that will help scientists to better understand what’s at the root of some of these challenges, help policymakers use that insight to start to address some of the challenges,” says Catlett.  

Brenna Beerman, the Chief Information Officer for the city of Chicago, believes it will help Chicago target the best infrastructure investments. “Better data means better outcomes,” Beerman says. All the data collected is available to the public, and published on Chicago’s open data site.

The project, which was awarded a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, was a nominee for the 2014 People’s Design Award. And while Chicago has been the first city to launch AoT, other cities hope to deploy sensors of their own: Catlett is working with 18 cities worldwide, including Seattle, Pittsburgh, and New York. While each city may prioritize collecting information on different data points, there’s no doubt that more data will be beneficial to any city. “I’ve yet to talk to anyone from any city who feels they have adequate information about the simple things,” Catlett said in an interview with ComputerWorld.

Hear more from Charlie Catlett during his presentation Light Poles as Hubs: Chicago’s “Array of Things” Advances Data Sensor Use and Computation at Socrata Connect.

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