An Array of Things (AoT) node (Courtesy of UChicago)
An Array of Things (AoT) node (Courtesy of UChicago)

University of Chicago’s ambitious big data Array of Things (AoT) project is set to roll out 500 data-sensing nodes across the city by the end of 2017, with the aim of using data to solve urban infrastructure problems.

The large scale roll out will be supported by a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Chicago announced Monday. This grant will fund the installation and development of the 500 nodes, which will be placed throughout the city based on community and researcher input. This funding makes the project the first infrastructure in which researchers can rapidly deploy sensors, embedded systems, computing and communications systems at scale in an urban environment, the NSF said.

“Array of Things will provide a level of detail not available in any city today,” said Charlie Catlett, AoT primary investigator and director of the Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data in a release. “This data will enable scientists, policy makers and citizens to work together to diagnose urban challenges and design solutions.”

The nodes, which were designed by professors at SAIC, will be installed in waves starting next year. 50 will be installed in early 2016, with 200 expected to be installed by the end of 2016, and 500 by the end of 2017. Already, 11 nodes have been placed on UChicago’s campus to test the hardware and data sensing capabilities of the devices. Future node placement will be decided with input from the City of Chicago, community members, and researchers.


The devices, which will be mounted on streetlights, contain instruments that have the ability to measure local environmental factors including temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature. Any data it collects will be available to the public for free through the City of Chicago Data Portal and other platforms.

The nodes will not collect personal data, though future iterations of the project could allow passers-by to check for information that could pertain to their personal health, such as pollen levels. The system for AoT, called Waggle, was developed by Argonne researchers, and allows for selective data collection that can bypass collection of personal information. Here’s how UChicago describes that ability:

For example, this capability allows images such as those of standing water or bike traffic at a street intersection to be quickly analyzed within the node, with only the numerical results such as water depth or number of bikes being transmitted and publicly released.

In addition, an oversight committee that will include researchers, officials, cyber security experts, and an external review team will regularly review the project.

Collecting this data can allow for researchers to measure sound levels near busy intersections and public transportation, the air quality around factories, detection of standing water after heavy rains, and hyper-local weather forecasting. Future algorithms could measure foliage in green spaces and wind noise. Researchers could use these factors to study the relationships between urban issues, such as disease or traffic conditions, and environmental factors.

The overall goal for the project is to make Chicago an urban leader in smart data– researchers hope it will allow for opportunities to research solutions to health, infrastructure, and urban planning problems. The funding was also announced as part of a White House’s Smart Cities event, which is highlighting the push for connected communities.

A rendering of a future AoT node. (Courtesy of Computation Institute)
A rendering of a future AoT node. (Courtesy of Computation Institute)

“Urban sensing—collecting and using data from sensors in public urban spaces—is essential to the next generation of data science and to improving city service delivery,” said Brenna Berman, CIO for the City of Chicago in the release. “These policies and infrastructure will enable researchers to collect data at little cost to the City, will help attract technology companies and STEM talent, and could increase R&D money spent in Chicago.”

Note: the story has been updated with details from the NSF.