Using Chicago as a new big data laboratory

University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park once said that the city was a laboratory. A new venture seeks to use Chicago as just that:

On the heels of the University of Chicago’s $1 million Innovation Challenge for urban policy solutions, today’s announcement that UI Labs (“universities and industries”) will open CityWorks, a private R&D partnership that will be based on Goose Island, sets up the city to be a center for urban studies, technology and innovations. Founding partners Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd and Siemens will operate a bit like angel investors, according to Jason Harris, a spokesman for UI Labs. This project will seek to “level up Chicago as a center for the built environment.” The city’s mix of university and industry partners, government leadership and legacy of architecture and design innovation place it in a perfect position for this kind of incubator, according to Harris.

CityWorks wants to seed 6-8 ideas this year, focused on energy, physical infrastructure, transportation and water and sanitation, Harris says (funding amounts aren’t being released). “Our vision is that we have projects that can use the city as a testbed and try out ideas not being tested in other cities,” he says.

CityWorks will award grants to university and private researchers, with a focus on digital planning and the Internet of Things. Chicago is vying to be an important center for this potentially lucrative field. With the recent introduction of the Array of Things, a cutting-edge system of sensors that researchers and computer scientists are hoping will prove the value of real-time, open-source city data, and the recent opening of Uptake, a Brad Keywell-backed startup looking to bring custom data analytics solutions to businesses, the city is well-positioned to become a leader in the field.

I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this. It sounds like the goal the goal is to use big data collected at the city scale to find solutions to urban business issues. I do wonder if this is primarily about making profits or more about addressing urban social problems.

Some might be surprised to see such a project going forward in Chicago. After all, isn’t it a Rust Belt city struggling with big financial problems and violence? At the same time, this project highlights Chicago as a center of innovation (which requires a particular social context), a place where businesses want to locate, and home to a good amount of human capital (in both research interests and educated workers).

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