Health

The Array Of Things Is A Fitness Tracker For Your City

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What's the air quality like in your city? Chances are good that lots of different people are asking that question at this very moment, from city officials and hospital managers to environmental activists and parents of kids with asthma. Each of those people might answer the question on their own with the tools they have available. But what if one resource answered the question for all of them? Even better, what if it answered the question for each block in the city? That's what the Array of Things (AoT) project hopes to do.

A joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, the Array of Things has been described as a "fitness tracker" for a city. It's made up of a network of small white fixtures, called nodes, that contain a number of sensors designed to measure temperature, air pressure, light, vibration, sound level, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and harmful gases such as carbon monoxide—all in real time. Then it makes that data publicly available, so everyone from people who make policy decisions to people who make the city their home can use it to address local problems. City maintenance could step in before an intersection flooded during a storm, bicycle-safety activists could figure out how many cyclists wear helmets, and asthma researchers could determine how rush hour affects air quality. The open nature of the data also makes it possible to build mobile apps that use the data for a whole host of purposes. Want to check the weather not just in your area, but on your block? No problem.

At this point, you may be getting uncomfortable. After all, installing public sensors creates a slippery slope toward putting security cameras on every street corner. The researchers have thought of this. Instead of recording video, the cameras capture a small number of low-resolution still images, extract the data they need, then destroy them. In fact, every image, recording, or temperature the sensors collect is pre-programmed to extract specific information—you couldn't hack or threaten your way into seeing, say, one person's location last week, because that data doesn't exist. While there's no guarantee what the future may hold, the Array of Things as it is today poses little risk to personal privacy.

The first city to adopt the AoT is Chicago, with 500 nodes planned for installation by the end of 2018 (as of the writing of this article, several dozen nodes have already been installed). If you had this kind of access to what's happening in your city, what questions would you ask? Dive deeper into the project in the video below.

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  1. Older cities tend to have compact grid patterns, as opposed to more modern "tree" patterns. 00:24

  2. A 2014 study found that cities with more intersections had lower rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. 00:51

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The bigger the city, the faster the walking. 00:00

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