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By Sean Thornton • June 8, 2015

What on Earth is a waggle dance? 

In nature, it’s the name of a communicative dance that honey bees perform for each other, in which one bee shakes out messages to others about the direction and distance to food sources.  These dancing bees —“nature’s wireless sensors”—are also the inspiration for a new sensor technology that is helping change real-time data collection in urban areas.     

Waggle Chip

A Waggle chip, pictured here, is a rectangular green sensor that’s currently being designed by the Chicago area’s Argonne National Laboratory.  These small sensors, part of the Waggle Platform, have the ability to measure anything from noise levels to climate to air pollution.  The platform is part of a new data collection system currently in development by Argonne — Array of Things — that is helping usher in a new era of research and planning for cities.

As the need for cities to achieve sustainable growth becomes stronger, such innovations become all the more important.  The Array of Things is a key example of how the computing capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) are at the crux of the movement for “smart cities” – sustainable, tech-driven places that effectively enhance city services, reduce costs and resource consumption, and actively engage with and provide for their residents’ well-being.

Measurements and metrics are essential to becoming a smart city, and IoT sensors provide the key to do this in real-time.  In cities such as Singapore, smart initiatives are well underway to capitalize on IoT technology.  The city is currently building a sensor network to collect and analyze data at bus stops, traffic junctions, and other areas to produce relevant insights and determine timely decisions to support enhanced services for residents.    

Such work is taking hold in the United States as well.   In Chicago, the development of IoT goes beyond Argonne’s Waggle Platform.  The city has a range of plans and initiatives that aim to both strengthen Chicago’s role as a leader in IoT technology, and become a smarter city that’s better equipped to serve its residents.  Its growth as a “city of data” provides a glimpse into the transformational understandings we will have of our cities in the future. 

Becoming a City of Data  

Perhaps one of the most complete visions of what a “city of data” looks like can be found at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  Its newest exhibit, titled “Chicago: City of Big Data,” explores how digital information is reshaping how planners, architects, engineers and residents view urban issues and approach urban design.

At the exhibit’s center, a massive to-scale model of Chicago’s downtown is illuminated with data projections on the city’s grid that range from building footprints to potholes.  Yet just around the corner, the public can get a glimpse of the actual IoT technology that is making it all happen: a live prototype of a sensor with Argonne’s Waggle Platform technology included.

AoT Image

On display is a decorative sensor box that will soon be affixed onto traffic lights throughout downtown Chicago.  This is the Array of Things project—a National-Science Foundation-funded initiative being done by Argonne Labs, the University of Chicago and the City, which includes the Waggle Platform as a part of its sensor technology.  This year, the Array of Things will install a network of these sensors around downtown Chicago to collect real-time data on the city’s infrastructure, environment, and activity.      

Charlie Catlett, the project’s leader and a senior computer scientist at Argonne, sees the Array of Things not only as a way for IoT to revolutionize data collection for city research and design, but as a public utility.

“It’s 10 p.m., it’s dark, and you don’t know the city very well,” says Catlett. “You’ll be able to pull up an app on your phone that shows you where there’s the most foot traffic. That’s the route I want to take.”

Information collected by the Array of Things will be published on the City of Chicago’s data portal, managed by the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.  Furthermore, as an open-source project, all software, hardware, and specifications will be published on the Array of Things’ GitHub page.   

“By making this data public, we can imagine people writing all sorts of applications taking advantage of the data, including, hopefully, ones we never would have thought of,” Catlett says.

By being open, the initiative also aims to operate as a “national instrument” that makes Chicago a place where innovation happens – giving residents, researchers, and policymakers an opportunity to work together to better understand how cities work and gain insights on how to make them better.

Collaborative Action for an Urban Region  

Catlett’s Array of Things also highlights Chicago’s collaborative, cross-sector approach to IoT growth.  The project is federally funded, managed by a university research center, and made open to the public by local government.  Yet Chicago envisions its IoT use expanding beyond the Array of Things, and hopes to be a leader in the space for years to come.   The city has recently formed a cross-sector group of leaders to make this happen. 

The Illinois Technology Association’s Midwest IoT Council brings together leaders from technology, industry, the civic sector, and academia, including Catlett.  Chaired by Chicago CIO Brenna Berman and software provider InfoBright CEO Don DeLoach, the project emphasizes its public-private model through its leadership as well.

 “The adoption of IoT technologies is a key component in Chicago’s effort to become the most digitally connected city in the world."

 “The adoption of IoT technologies is a key component in Chicago’s effort to become the most digitally connected city in the world,” says Berman, who helped bring the council together. “Working with the industry to collaborate and drive adoption will mean smarter services, a smarter city and our governmental desire to see the Internet of Things play a prominent role in shaping the region.”

In addition to Berman and DeLoach, the Council’s leadership includes academic partners from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois and New York University, and corporate partners from AT&T, Motorola, and Accenture, among others, as well as Cisco Systems, which recently hosted their Internet of Things World Forum event in the city.   The Council’s initial tasks include cataloging and better understanding the region’s IoT assets, and identifying new capital sources for innovative technologies.

Among these assets is Chicago’s UI Labs, a research and commercialization collaborative which was incorporated with the assistance of a federal grant.  UI Labs brings universities and industries together to form design partnerships that can deliver innovation solutions to technological and urban challenges. 

Its design is meant to incorporate multiple initiatives and groups to address such challenges on more specific levels.

Bringing it All Together      

It’s important to note that these threads—from the Array of Things to the ITA Midwest IoT Council and UI Labs—are not operating in isolation.  Rather, they represent another key component of “Smart City” development: through technology, residents and institutions will also be more engaged with each other and with the urban environment. 

Without collaboration, initiatives such as the Array of Things would not be able to happen.  Yet with it? A host of technologies like the Waggle Platform—and their promise of a smarter, more sustainable, and more well-understood urban environment—may be coming to a city near you.