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Chicago's smart city: From open data to rat control

To become a smart city, Chicago has recognised the need to pool all data sources into one publicly available platform.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

"For us in Chicago, it all starts with data. For Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel, everything comes back to data," City of Chicago CIO Brenna Berman said.

Speaking at the Internet of Things (IoT) World Forum in Chicago on Wednesday, Berman said that open data forms the basis of all of the city's work in building up to becoming a smart city. Over 600 datasets in human- and machine-readable format are available now on the city's website, ranging from all crimes reported in the city from 2001 up until the prior week, water quality data, 311 call data, licensing data, and permit data.

From there, the city, researchers in the city, and others have begun using that data for developing projects to bring in more data. The city has a platform known as WindyGrid that brings 14 sources of data onto a map and pools data on emergency calls, 311 calls, tweets, and other data to see what is happening in the city.

"We can use this for situational awareness, for understanding what is happening; we can use it for research so we can understand what is happening," City of Chicago's chief data officer Tom Schenk said.

"It was originally meant for transparency [but] it has been interesting to see how other people use our data in other contexts."

There are over two dozen developers Schenk knows of who are working with the data, but he said that there could be more, because registration is not required to access the data.

The WindyGrid project has so far cost the city less than $100,000, while the open data project costs less than $50,000 per year to run.

"Our emphasis is on using open-source technologies that do not have the cost," Schenk said.

The city has also developed a program that takes in data from 31 different sources, such as where garbage bins are overflowing, weather patterns, and the location of vacant buildings to predict where rat nests will appear, allowing the city to send out two trucks to bait the rats around a week before it would be reported by residents.

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Rat map
Image: City of Chicago

"Our data scientist looked at this, and correlated across space and time, and what we generate today is [a] list that is updated every single day with addresses we think people are going to complain within the next seven days," Schenk said.

Berman said that the recently completed rat bait trial saw a 20 percent saving due to the efficiency achieved through the prediction of the location of rat nests.

"We're able to use that to direct city services in a more proactive way," she said.

The city uses GPS in the buses to not only provide information on the arrival times of the buses, but to also estimate traffic congestion throughout Chicago. The bike-sharing racks around the city provide data on where bikes are available at any time.

All of this data allowed the city to build up and begin moving toward becoming a smart city, according to Schenk.

"Open data can be a platform to power the Internet of Things, because it is data that is available, frequently refreshed, relevant and useful, and available through an API," he said.

The city has been partnering with researchers and businesses to now expand projects based on the open data, including an "Array of Things" by the University of Chicago Computation Institute.

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3D-printed sensors
Image: City of Chicago

3D-printed sensors will be deployed on traffic light poles around the downtown area of Chicago that will post data such as sound and vibration around the city to the open data website. There will be an initial four censors at the University of Chicago campus, and then between 40 and 50 when the pilot is extended to the downtown area.

"Some of that is still being decided, because they're refining the manufacturing process of the actual devices."

Image: Josh Taylor/ZDNet

There will be low-resolution cameras that determine the temperature of the footpath to see whether it needs to have snow removed, and there will also be climate and environmental data extracted on air quality and temperature.

"This is going to be an array of sensors not only for research use or academic use; this information will be available for anyone to use at any given moment all on an equal footing for whatever they want to use it for," Schenk said.

The city is also moving to having free Wi-Fi throughout the public areas, focusing initially on public libraries and the beaches. There are also LED street lights than can be controlled remotely, and solar-powered trash compactors that alert the city when they are full.

Predictive policing

One of the potentially more controversial uses of the data in the city is by the Chicago Police Department to predict potential future offenders.

Jonathan Lewin, commander with the Chicago Police Department, said that a grant from the National Institute of Justice will develop a "predictive policing" model.

"This model uses data you'd find in the portal, plus data from a number of other sources including gang data and other information to create a model that can identify future parties to violence, as we call them," he said.

"These are individual, specific criminal subjects that the model tells us are more likely than the general population to become parties to violent crime. To me, this is one of the most exciting things in policing right now."

This goes beyond crime heat maps, he said, and looks at specific individuals who can be targeted by the police for "intervention strategies".

"These are all criminals who have been arrested at least once before who are part of a criminal network," he said.

"The goal is to not only avoid future victimisation, but future offending. The intervention services could be anything from job training to referrals, to other social service agencies.

"Obviously, we check to see if there are any outstanding criminal warrants, but it helps us prioritise intervention for those people where we think it will provide the most meaningful results."

Josh Taylor travelled to Chicago as a guest of Cisco.

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