With the proliferation of accessible data in the digital age, there is a constant battle between being excited about what can be learned and, well, being afraid about what can be learned. I love that my Google based phone allows me to access my email, calendar and maps. Yet, I admit to being more than a little freaked out at the notification that it’s time to pick up my son from school. I’ve never scheduled that alarm, but Google knows I make that trek the same time every day via the GPS on my phone.
They are just trying to be helpful, right?
The collection of digital data has expanded from use in scientific research to all areas of life, including politics, sports and advertising. Retailers access the free flowing data on customers’ cell phones to determine what aisles customers spend more time on and what sales are working. Of course, we all know what the government cannot confirm or deny, that it has been using this information for…stuff.
This hunger for data is now being celebrated and promoted in Chicago – in a big way.
Starting in July, people walking along Michigan Avenue will begin to notice some new decorative sculptures on the lamp posts. These artistic flares are not just aesthetically pleasing. They will also be helping architects, scientists and city planners make Chicago better. The curved pieces of metal are covering up a sophisticated system of sensors that will be collecting data on the area’s air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat precipitation and wind. The project, dubbed the “Array of Things,” has researchers excited about collecting data that will make Chicago safer, cleaner and more efficient.
The sensors are part of an envisioned permanent data collection system for the city. After starting at various intersections along Michigan Avenue, the plan is to eventually install the sensors, which cost relatively little to install and maintain, all along the Loop by year’s end. Over the coming years, they hope to expand the sensors to neighborhoods throughout the city, making it a data collecting public utility.
They will also be tracking foot traffic by reading the signals from people’s mobile devices. According to the Chicago’s city commissioner on information and technology, no personal data will be collected. The lead computer scientist on the project, which is a collaboration between scientists, academics and the city, says that they are not collecting data that can identify people. “There are no cameras or recording devices,” Charlie Catlett told the Chicago Tribune. “Sensors will be collecting sound levels but not recording actual sound. The only imaging will be infrared, rather than video,” he said.
Of course, any data expert knows that even the slightest digital imprint can identify the person behind it if you know how to look.
Researchers insist that they are simply identifying the number of signals from the wireless devices, more along the lines of seeing where the signals are bouncing. However, even if they claim they aren’t interested on the data in the signals, it’s still being collected. The worry is if they will ever be tempted to look and see what identifying information is there – and what they will do with that if they do.
This is part of a plan to make Chicago ground zero for urban analytical research using digital tools. The Chicago Architecture Foundation currently has an exhibit which highlights the use of technology and digital data to improve the city design. The exhibit, not ironically entitled “Chicago: City of Big Data” explores the benefits of using sensors to collect environmental data, as well as analyzing messages on social media to gain perspective on life in the city.
People involved in the project are upfront about one thing: they really don’t know what the data will reveal. Until they look at what’s inside the permanently stored data, they don’t know what can be used or even how. The entire project is under the supervision of the city and none of the information can be released without their permission. City officials are currently drafting a data privacy and security policy to cover confidentiality and protection of the data.
In the end, how the information can be used and by who will be left up to public policy. The people of Chicago shouldn’t be too worried, though. They’re just trying to be helpful, right?