Chicago Gets a New Surveillance System Straight Out of a Video Game

A portion of the Chicago skyline.

A portion of the Chicago skyline. M. Spencer Green/AP File Photo

By the end of the year, Chicago will have as many as fifty sensors on light poles, tracking everything from humidity and air quality to noise level.

Chicago was the setting for Ubisoft's hit game, Watch DogsThe creators told The Wire they choose Chicago because it has more surveillance cameras than any other city in the country, tying perfectly into their theme of a hero using a hacked central operating system as a weapon. While Chicago has never had an operating system quite like the one in the video game world, reality is moving closer to Ubisoft's fiction with their most recent city development. By the end of the year, Chicago will have as many as fifty sensors on light poles, tracking everything from humidity and air quality to noise level. 

The project is called "Array of Things." It is meant to help create a system making city navigation as easy as possible. By sensing that cars are at a standstill, it can sense traffic patterns, and suggest where a bike lane might be best suited. By gathering air quality data, areas of air pollution and high pollen areas can be avoided. 

Charlie Catlett, director of the Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, told USA Today"The whole project is, how can you get the city to be more helpful to people by telling us about itself?" Catlett is leading the project, a partnership with the city of Chicago. 

Right now, Catlett is still working on developing the first prototype. After the perfect device is settled on, the sensors will be placed in boxes, covered with a decorative aluminum shield, and attached to light poles. The data will be made public, allowing developers to create applications based on the wind, heat, precipitation and other information recorded. 

One  of the most unique things the sensors will track are the number of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices in a 100-foot range. This will be tracked to estimate the number of passing pedestrians. While this brings up logical privacy concerns, Catlett clarified that the sensors cannot detect specific device information or IP addresses. 

While the project does seem a bit sci-fi, and certainly reminiscent of the futuristic video game, it does offer the ability for Chicago to become one of the most successfully digitally connected cities in the country, and to make great, public use of big data. 

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