Commentary: Invest in smart technology for a smarter city

Source: Chicago Tribune on August 28, 2017 | Chelsea Collier

At Lane Tech High School over the past year, more than 150 students accessed real-time data from some 500 sensors in order to learn about problem solving, design, measurement, data analysis, the scientific process and teamwork. Thanks to the “Array of Things” — a partnership of private-sector leaders, the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory — there is great hope that this program will continue at Lane Tech and even expand throughout Chicago.

Let’s consider what would happen if that expansion were sped up. What if tomorrow Chicago’s approximately 500,000 students all had access to such a program? What if there were a million or more sensors involved in collecting data that could be used to address a wide array of civic challenges? How could children on the West Side conduct experiments with sensors from schools on the lakefront through a connected network? Where would data be stored, secured and shared so that residents anywhere in the city could participate in creating solutions? What kinds of dashboards could be created to share the findings?

This is a small sample of the questions that came up during a recent discussion about smart cities at Chicago tech hub 1871. Chicago’s chief data officer Tom Schenk, University of Chicago’s Charlie Catlett, Code for America’s Chris Whitaker and Verizon’s Sean Harrington participated on a panel that covered several policy issues. Chicago aldermen, Cook County commissioners and legislators in Springfield will have to confront a number of issues in order for Chicago to continue its leadership on the quest to become one of the world’s smart cities.

If Chicago does become truly a "smart city," we might expect a range of improvements. Street lights could dim based on pedestrian traffic or illuminate during an emergency. Residents could access real-time weather forecasts block-by-block that would help them prepare for urban flooding. Emergency responders could be alerted to a potential hostile situation well before any citizen would have to place a 911 call.

The idea of smart cities is gaining some buzz, but for Catlett, who works on Array of Things at Lane Tech, it’s about more than just cool gadgets and futuristic technology. It’s about “empowering students to see smart city technology not as something some company does, (but) as an opportunity to make a difference.”

To broaden Chicago’s networks of sensors (and therefore the potential benefits for students, residents and visitors), industry and government will need to collaborate in new ways.

First, the policy framework must exist for investment to take place. To connect the gadgets of the future that make up the so-called Internet of Things, fast and nimble communication networks need to be installed. Chicago will need to address its notoriously tricky zoning process.

Second, there must be a financial commitment to this digital infrastructure. The penalty for not investing in this infrastructure is the lost opportunity to streamline government services and engage more Chicagoans.

Third, community participation is critical. Chi Hack Night, a weekly community event at which people share and learn about civic technology, was instrumental in the Chicago Park District’s creation of a predictive system analysis model that determines which beaches may need to close because of likely E. coli contamination. But it goes both ways. Beyond what the community can teach policymakers, government can help residents understand issues surrounding data privacy and security.

In Chicago, the right conversations are already happening. Our panel discussion reinforced that connectivity is the lifeblood of any smart community. Chicago is primed to demonstrate the social and economic benefits of smart city technology for the future of the region.

Prioritizing technology and digital infrastructure increases opportunities for Chicago’s current — and potential — businesses, residents and visitors. In fact, consulting giant Accenture predicts smart city infrastructure investments could bring as many as 90,000 jobs and $14 billion in economic growth to Chicago.

That sure sounds like a smart investment.

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Chelsea Collier is the founder of Digi.City, a platform designed to discuss the policy behind deploying and supporting smart city technology.