Computing Our Way to Smart Cities

Urban informatics, “Array of Things” to play key roles

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The recent Supercomputing Conference (SC17) included a very interesting plenary panel about Smart Cities. It’s now available online, and I highly recommend watching it.

We live in the “Century of the City” because of the massive global migration to urban areas. The “smart city” notion is one that recognizes the influence of technology to create more opportunity for citizens and to address the challenges of providing city services across a heterogeneous population. The federal government funded the Smart Cities Initiative in 2015 to improve the quality of life for residents using urban informatics and other technologies.

At SC17, Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer, Michael Mattmiller, spoke about Seattle being “Open by Preference,” making data publicly available to encourage the development of innovative solutions that improve our quality of life. He said that unlocking the promise of a smart, data-driven city requires a focus on data governance, consistent tools that facilitate cross-department collaboration, and educating the public on how to leverage the city's resources. It’s been said that “data is the new asphalt.”

(Note: The recording starts a little abruptly with Mattmiller speaking, and there’s a 42-second issue starting 84 seconds into the video. I attended the session live, and I can assure you that you’re not missing anything critical.)

The plenary was moderated by Charlie Catlett, Director, Urban Center for Computation and Data, at Argonne National Laboratory. In addition to Mattmiller, the speakers included Pete Beckman, Co-Director, Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering, at Argonne National Laboratory, and Debra Lam, Managing Director for Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation, at Georgia Tech University.

One specific project mentioned in the plenary session is the “Array of Things (AoT).” The AoT is an urban sensing project, a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes that are installed in Chicago, and other cities, to collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use.

AoT has been called the “fitness tracker” for a city, measuring factors that impact livability such as climate, air quality, and noise. The National Science Foundation contributed $3 million to the University of Chicago in support of the creation of the AoT in Chicago. The AoT serves as an infrastructure for researchers to rapidly deploy sensors, embedded systems, computing, and communications systems at scale in an urban environment. It’s made up of more than 500 nodes, which continuously measure the physical environment of urban areas at the city-block scale and potentially unlock promising new trajectories in research.

rocket pic James Reinders

Array of Things (AoT) is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Chicago Innovation Fund, and Argonne National Laboratory. Learn more at http://arrayofthings.github.io. Photos courtesy Urban Center for Computation and Data, The University of Chicago

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