Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.


In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.

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Why do more girls than boys go on to higher education?

Metal signpost indicating directions of three world famous universities - Harvard / Cambridge / Oxford

by Stacey Dingwall

In February of this year, ministerial guidance was issued to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on doing more to widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. This was accompanied by the issuing of new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges which, for the first time, specified that they should be doing more to widen access among white men from economically disadvantaged groups.

The new guidance came after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the country’s higher education sector in an article for the Sunday Times in January. While David Cameron’s main criticism was of the lack of students from ethnic minority backgrounds being admitted to elite universities like Oxford, he also noted that “white British men from poor backgrounds are five times less likely to go into higher education than others”.

What does the evidence say?

The Prime Minister’s statement about the gender gap is backed up by two key sources. In their 2015 End of Cycle report, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that, while entry rates for both male and female students increased, female entry rates increased three times faster than those of males. At 35.4%, the admission rate for 18 year-old female students was 9.2 percentage points higher than male students, making them 35% (proportionally) more likely to attend university. This equates to 36,000 fewer young men than women entering higher education each year and is the widest gap yet recorded by UCAS – in 2007, woman were 27% more likely to attend university. Furthermore, the report notes that female students from the most disadvantaged areas were 51% more likely than their male peers to enter higher education in 2015. Also highlighted is that while female students across all ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than males, the gap is significantly smaller than that between white students: the next greatest gap is between male and female black students, at a ratio of 1.4. This gap has also narrowed since 2006.

In July of last year, the Sutton Trust’s Independent Commission on Fees published its final report. The Commission was set up in 2011 with the aim of analysing the effect of increased tuition fees on students. While the report found that the number of students applying to university had not been significantly impacted by the increase, it did find that certain groups had been adversely affected. These groups included male students from disadvantaged areas: the report suggested that they are 48% less likely to enter higher education than female students in the same circumstances. The Commission also found that this gap is widening rather than narrowing, indicating that there are areas of the country in which males are facing particular cultural challenges, which could result in “the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.

Why does this gender gap exist?

The Commission’s findings were widely reported in the press at the time. The key question: why has this happened? Analysis of last year’s GCSE results in England found that the gender gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in decades, and male pupils’ A-level results are also only slightly below the female average. So why are so many male students choosing to end their educational careers at this stage?

According to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the potential of these students is “somehow being let down by the school system”. Cook’s argument suggests that schools are not doing enough to adequately prepare and inspire their male students to continue their education after school. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, however, has taken an opposing stance on this, and suggests that the narrowing of the attainment gap between male and female pupils can in fact be attributed to schools more closely monitoring the performance of boys. He also believes that changing the focus of assessment from coursework to more exams has in fact resulted in the system now being in favour of male pupils.

The impact of the introduction of tuition fees must also be acknowledged. Speaking to the Guardian in March of this year, male pupils at a school in Ipswich where double the national average of pupils are in receipt of pupil premium funding expressed their unwillingness to enter into years of substantial debt for a course where there is no guarantee of a job at the end. This sentiment perhaps explains why the number of students taking up paid apprenticeships increased by 63.5% between 2010 and 2011. A different group of students from south London also raised the issue of social class. A lot of these boys would be the first in their families to attend university. Their admissions of not wanting to stand out academically for fear of what others may think, or seeming like an “outsider’ reveal the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged area can have on aspiration.

Others suggest that the problem lies in the structure of the post-compulsory education system. Courses in which female students have traditionally dominated, such as fashion and beauty, are increasingly being changed from college courses to three-year undergraduate courses, while qualifications for bricklaying and plumbing continue to be studied at further education and apprenticeship level. Recent years have also seen a focus on campaigns to try and encourage more female students to study more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) -related courses, for example, without equivalent targeting of male pupils.

What is being done to reduce the gap?

Following the guidance issued to the OFFA, universities minister Jo Johnson announced that the government had also asked universities to move towards a name-blind admissions system by 2017, and would introduce legislation to scrutinise the process in order to reveal where offer rates for the poorest students were particularly low. Johnson explained that the guidance asks universities, in return for the access agreements that allow them to charge fees up to the maximum of £9,000, to focus more strategically on groups, such as white British boys, with the lowest participation rates by “spending smarter” and focusing their outreach activities where they are most needed.

The answer, it would seem, is for all stakeholders to “do more”. However, despite the government setting a target to double the amount of poorer pupils admitted to university, a specific campaign aimed at narrowing the divide has yet to be announced. It could be argued that placing the onus on universities to increase the number of admissions of white male students is the wrong answer – some, like Tony Sewell, former teacher and CEO of education charity Generating Genius, argue that this is a problem that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage, as the gap shows signs of developing from primary level.

Overall, it would appear that addressing issues around social class in the system is key to stopping the divide from increasing any further. While Oxford University rebutted the Prime Minister’s assertion that it did not do enough to attract pupils from all walks of life, the figures speak for themselves: the most advantaged students are still 6.8 times more likely to go to the most elite universities than disadvantaged students. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission regularly reports on a growing social divide in the country, including a system which continues to grant access to the elite universities according to family background rather than aptitude and ability. As the Commission’s latest state of the nation report notes, there is little chance of the government meeting its target until outreach activity becomes more focused on the areas where access is particularly low.