Chicago to collect big data via light pole sensors

Chicago is hoping to collect all sorts of information via a new system of sensors along main streets:

The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation, and wind. The sensors will also count people by observing cell phone traffic…

While data-hungry researchers are unabashedly enthusiastic about the project, some experts said that the system’s flexibility and planned partnerships with industry beg to be closely monitored. Questions include whether the sensors are gathering too much personal information about people who may be passing by without giving a second thought to the amount of data that their movements—and the signals from their smartphones—may be giving off.

The first sensor could be in place by mid-July. Researchers hope to start with sensors at eight Michigan Avenue intersections, followed by dozens more around the Loop by year’s end and hundreds more across the city in years to come as the project expands into neighborhoods, Catlett said…

While the benefits of collecting and analyzing giant sets of data from cities are somewhat speculative, there is a growing desire from academic and industrial researchers to have access to the data, said Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences at Harvard University.

The sort of data collected here could be quite fascinating, even with the privacy concerns. I wonder if a way around this is for the city to make clear now and down the road how exactly they will use the data to improve the city. To some degree, this may not be possible because this is a new source of data collection and it is not entirely known what might emerge. Yet, collecting big data can be an opaque process that worries some because they are rarely told how the data improves their lives. If this simply is another source of data that the city doesn’t use or uses behind the scenes, is it worth it?

A quick hypothetical. Let’s say the air sensors along Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago prime tourist spots, shows a heavy amount of car exhaust. In response to the data, the city announces a plan to limit congestion on Michigan Avenue or to have clean mass transit. This could be a clear demonstration that the big data helped improve the pedestrian experience.

But, I could also imagine that in a year or two the city hasn’t said much about this data and people are unclear what is collected and what happens to it. More transparency and clear action steps could go a long way here.

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