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).

Fermilab closes Tevatron; what’s the effect on nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The need for the Tevatron, a particle accelerator, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known commonly as Fermilab, has been drastically reduced after the construction of the Large Hadron Collidor in Europe. Therefore, the Tevatron is being shut down and Fermilab is looking to transition to new areas of physics research. My question is this: what effect this will have on the nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The article says that several local politicians want to keep research at Fermilab going:

Fermilab will still have star quality, and the estimated 2,300 scientists there will continue playing a critical role in particle physics. The lab could even re-emerge a few decades from now as the leader, officials say.

However, one daunting hurdle remains: obtaining what may be hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding that officials say is needed to guide the lab’s work into the next generation of research via two projects, known as Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment and Project X…

Over the decades, the cost of upgrades at Fermi could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, a frightening prospect in this troubled economy. But U.S. Reps. Randy Hultgren of Winfield and Judy Biggert of Hinsdale said the funding is crucial. On Wednesday, the two Republican congressmen held a round table on the underground particle-physics program at Fermi.

“I think basic science is the most important thing that will help us to compete in the global economy,” Biggert said. “We have to realize that basic science really drives industry and creates the jobs our children and grandchildren will enjoy.”

I assume most places would want to get federal money and remain competitive globally. The Chicago region, as a global city, needs research facilities like these.

But what about the local jobs and the greater impact on nearby suburbs? Several researchers, including Michael Ebner, have suggested that Fermilab played a crucial role in the development of the area. This 2006 overview of Naperville in Chicago sums up this perspective:

With the creation in 1946 of Argonne National Laboratory (near Lemont, about 15 miles southeast of Naperville) and the establishment, in 1967, of the National Accelerator Laboratory-now called Fermilab-in Batavia (about 15 miles northwest of town), Naperville was on its way to becoming “Chicago’s Technoburb,” as Lake Forest College history professor Michael Ebner later dubbed it. Bell Labs, Amoco, Nalco Chemical, NI-Gas, and Miles Laboratories were among the corporations that set up facilities in Naperville during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

In particular, Ebner argues that this facility plus Argonne National Laboratory meant that scientists and other staff moved to Naperville and then pushed for better schools. While Naperville was still relatively small in the 1950s and 1960s, this influx of educated residents gave the city a world-class educational system, helping to contribute to Naperville’s later growth. Here is one of the outcomes that could be tied to this from the Naperville District #203 website:

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (1999 TIMSS-R), District 203 eighth graders achieved the highest score in science and sixth highest in mathematics among the 38 participating nations and consortiums worldwide.

I am somewhat skeptical of this argument. One, I’ve never seen hard figures that show how many Fermilab or Argonne researchers actually settled in Naperville. If these researchers also lived in other communities, did their school districts experience the same changes? Two, I haven’t seen evidence that these people directly influenced school changes in the community. Third, I would argue that the 1964 announcement that Bell Laboratories was locating a facility just north of Naperville was much more consequential in understanding Naperville’s growth.

Additionally, Fermilab has often been included in promotional materials as part of the Illinois Technology Research Corridor, providing the research and development foundation to the many notable corporations that have located along I-88 between Oak Brook and Aurora. This article from summer 2011 briefly recognized the impact of the corridor:

While the top-five states were unchanged from 2010, rankings 6 to 10 saw a few surprise movers. Illinois gained 8 spots (14/6) from last year, bumping Pennsylvania down to 7th place. What happened?

As it turns out, Illinois’ improvement is the result of the amount of scientific grant money awarded to the state — $185 million to be exact — from the National Science Foundation to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

While many know the state for politics and sports, Illinois’ Technology and Research Corridor is a major scientific hub in northeastern Illinois, linking intellectual capital and corporate innovation.

Big name companies such as Motorola Solutions and Mobility, Boeing, and Telephone and Data Systems spacer among others are headquartered in Illinois in large part to benefit from the concentration of technical expertise.

I assume the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, DuPage County, and nearby suburbs would like Fermilab to continue to be scientifically relevant as this brings in federal money, jobs, businesses, and educated residents. Whether the transition Fermilab makes to new research areas also includes these benefits for nearby communities remains to be seen.