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Chicago to track an 'Array of Things' to improve livability

Nowadays, a lot of people sport fitness trackers - wearable devices that monitor a person’s steps, heart rate, exercise habits and more. Well, the city of Chicago is hoping to expand on the idea to track the city’s fitness.

The project — called The Array of Things (AoT) — will install modular sensor boxes on city street light posts that measure things like climate, air quality and noise.

The project is a collaboration between the University of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The sensors will collect data on other things that present urban challenges, like foot and vehicle traffic, noise vibrations and weather. With plans to install 500 by 2017, they’ll actually be able to measure weather block-by-block.

Pete Beckman is co-director of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Engineering.

Beckman said that for now, AoT is an experiment, but when put into practice, the nodes could collect data to make the city more livable.

“If we understood the data better, could we predict, for example, what life might be like in a city with respect to air quality (by examining) zones in the city that have more electric vehicles,” Beckman said.

Beckman explained that the data could allow the city to quickly respond to urban challenges like traffic jams or flooding.

“We also might imagine understanding what are the ways that people really get from point A to point B when they’re walking around the city, and what can be done to improve those areas,” Beckman said.

In recent years, the city of Chicago has put a lot of emphasis on collecting data - like how many snow plows are out - that can be delivered to the public. Beckman noted that AoT is part of that trend.

Brenna Berman, Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago, said the data could lead to policy changes, too.

“I think even more exciting is actually some of the ideas we haven’t even come up with yet,” Berman explained. “One of the things that we’ve learned from our open data program so far is that the more data we make available to our residents and community groups and researchers, the more amazing ideas they come up with to make the city a better place to live.”

The National Science Foundation awarded the project $3.1 million as part of the White House’s Smart Cities initiative, which was announced Monday.

The first sensors are set to be installed in early 2016.

Meredith Francis is a WBEZ news intern. Follow her @MMLFrancis.

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