Whenever a new security camera or red light camera pops up in the city, people quote George Orwell’s 1984 and start joking about “Big Brother” watching over us. The exhibit, Chicago: City of Big Data, and the walking tour, both hosted by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, showed me that Big Brother is not only watching, he’s listening.

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From tracking tweets about food poisoning to keeping tabs on how its citizens move around, Chicago is using data in many different ways. Most of them seem productive, highlighting health problems and alerting proper city officials about residents’ concerns. The process for investigating foodborne illness transmission can be expedited. Rodent-infested areas can be targeted. Potholes can be discovered and patched up. For major metropolitan areas, where residences can stretch across 234 square miles, this helps keep the approximately 2.7 million residents happy.

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Data has always been important to urban areas, even smaller towns and villages. The architectural tour commented on how Daniel Burnham used to send letters back and forth with request after request for information, all to help in his urban planning design process. He wanted to create an effective and efficient city, which meant actually listen to what the city was trying to tell him that it needed.

Isn’t that the point of city officials? Isn’t Rahm Emanuel supposed to be in the mayor’s office listening to what his city wants and helping make those wants possible? Data helps the overwhelming amount of voices in this city get heard by the right people who can have a solution.

It’s only when the city starts labeling areas, by determining the demographics, where I feel the utopia starts to fall away. Sitegeist is a mobile application, available for download in the Google Play Store and the App Store, using publicly available information to show the user demographics for their current location. It seems as if the application was meant to help users get to know the neighborhoods more, including recommendations for local hangouts and restaurants, but the app includes more data than that. The app goes deep enough into public information as to show political contributions residents in the area have made. This reminded me of Eli Pariser’s TEDTalk on “filter bubbles” and how his Facebook feed slowly changed to include only liberal article posts rather than conservative. Sitegeist allows the filter bubble boundaries to include your neighborhood. Advertisements and the types of stores that open up can be screened to fit with the demographic profile. As convenient as that may seem, it also limits what you see and keeps you at a one-dimensional view.

There are a lot more Big Data projects happening in Chicago. Array of Things, an Urban Center for Computation and Data project, reminds me of the high frequency sonar detector from The Dark Knight. In the film, Lucius Fox reluctantly allows Batman to use a sonar device, which uses mobile phones to create a real-time map of Gotham City. It has been a couple of years since I saw the movie, but I remember the phones were used as a means to hear and see everything that is going on simply from accessing the audio capabilities (speakers, etc). The Array of Things uses sensor boxes to collect data, in real-time, about the surrounding area. One category of data collected is pedestrian traffic flow, where the sensor boxes recognize the presence of mobile devices from their signal emissions.

Check out these other Big Data sites:

Open City Apps

Urban Center for Computation and Data

WBEZ: Chicago Public Data

City of Chicago: Data Portal

Which programs do you find interesting? Which would you use?

Which programs could you do without?

Is there any you see as an invasion of privacy? As a filter bubble generator?

Are you surprised that Chicago is this involved with data?


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