Engineering and Entrepreneurship: The Internet of Things – Keynote Talk

On September 30th, CRCS joined forces with the Institute for Applied Computational Science (IACS), the Harvard Business School (HBS), and Boston’s Hubweek event to host the second symposium in their annual collaborative series on engineering and entrepreneurship. This symposium explored the “Internet of Things” (IOT), a rapidly emerging field in which everyday objects possess network connectivity that allows them to send and receive data. Widespread IOT, which has moved from the realm of science fiction to science future, provides unforeseen opportunities for technological innovation and social organization, as well as serious ethical risks associated with privacy and security. At CRCS’ symposium, more than 200 participants from government, academia, and industry gathered in the Northwest Building to share their diverse perspectives on our digital future. The event featured a keynote talk by Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) Commissioner and CIO Brenna Berman, lightning talks by experts in the field, and a case study discussion. Here, I will provide brief summaries of the keynote and the lightning talks.

Brenna Berman discussed the emerging role of IOT in urban environments. Cities produce 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases, use 70% of its energy, and are responsible for 80% of our global GDP. They are rapidly expanding, and in so doing, they must contend with outdated infrastructure and environmental challenges. Berman envisions a comprehensive digital infrastructure in the city of Chicago. She wants to close the digital divide by using technology to modernize infrastructure, engage the community, and solve some of Chicago’s most persistent problems. Berman has launched an “open grid” initiative, which harnesses Chicago’s existing data portal to turn open data into a utility. In the open grid, residents use location-based city data to access crime statistics, school information, and other useful neighborhood data. The open grid makes government services more efficient. There are more than 15,000 restaurants in the city of Chicago, and only 34 health inspectors to service them. In the past, these inspectors have followed a geographical model to move through their inspections. The open grid harnesses 311 data, resident complaints, and numerous other variables to create a weighted model of restaurants most likely to have a serious infraction. This model allows inspectors to conduct inspection triage, getting to restaurants with serious infractions a full 7.4 days faster than they otherwise would. This open source data project has improved predictive analytics across health and human services, and is now being replicated in other cities across the United States.

Berman is moving Chicago toward a comprehensive digital urban infrastructure through the implementation of a full-scale sensor network. Sensors in the past have yielded single-purpose data. But single actions don’t provide adequate insight into urban problems with compounding variables. Berman is engaged in several projects that use sensor data to tackle such problems in Chicago, effectively using the city as a living lab to test out IOT solutions in an urban context. Chicago’s water system was built in 1890. Its wooden water pipes, combined with serious changes in rainfall patterns, mean that the system is frequently overwhelmed and subject to flooding. Placing sensors at various locations in the water is now helping city officials understand where exactly the water system is becoming overwhelmed when it rains. Once the point of weakness is identified, green infrastructure solutions (like bioswales and permeable groundcover in parks) divert rain water from the system into other parts of the city. Data from sensors placed at these locations is sent back to the lab for evaluation.

Another of Chicago’s infrastructural problems is an incomplete inventory of its underground assets. Globally, there is an accident every 60 seconds caused by collision with underground infrastructure. Berman’s team is pioneering underground mapping solutions that are digital, secure, and collaborative. One such solution is stereoscopy, a process by which a sensor takes a picture of obstructive underground infrastructure, breaks it up into digital particles, and then uses technology to reconstruct it into a 3-dimensional object. This allows cities to create scalable databases of their subterranean infrastructure, thereby improving safety and minimizing construction costs. The city of Rome is now adopting this model to inventory its underground – a cutting-edge IOT solution that will allow us to live in greater harmony with infrastructure built in classical antiquity!

Several panelists expressed that one of the problems with traditional methods for gathering data is that their yields are too course-grained, too myopic to answer multi-variable scientific questions. Chicago has a long-term goal of eliminating vehicular and pedestrian accidents, but so far has had no means of gathering data on narrowly avoided accidents, or near misses. The solution? An urban sensor network project, called the “array of things,” in which fine-grained data is gathered via 500 multi-sensor nodes in clusters throughout the city. These nodes will contain environmental sensors, air quality sensors, light sensors, and sound sensors. They will be placed on traffic poles at intersections throughout the city, and will collect granular data at an unprecedented level of detail. This data will be processed and then sent to a lab, where it will allow city officials to address a myriad of civic problems including vehicular and pedestrian collisions, standing water on the road, and issues pertaining to air quality. This data will be available to the public, inspiring community engagement and intergenerational collaboration. A high school STEM curriculum has been built around the “array of things” project, in which students have the opportunity to build their own sensor nodes, gather data about their community, and then use data analysis skills to compare their data to that generated by the city’s sensors.

Berman stressed the collaborative nature of her pioneering IOT projects. She spoke about burgeoning partnerships with residents, startups, government, academia and national labs, community service organizations, and philanthropies. She outlined several lessons she has learned from her work on the cutting-edge of IOT. Namely, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Successful IOT practice involves focusing on the value provided by your technology, not on the technology itself. It involves engaging stakeholders early and often, thinking seriously about privacy and ethics, and being willing to vary your approach according to the changing needs of the community you serve. These pillars of IOT practice ran like a common thread through the symposium.


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