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.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

A tale of five cities: night time transport infrastructure in global cities

By Rebecca Jackson

As London’s launch of its new night tube services is delayed, we compare night-time transport infrastructure in 5 cities and consider the importance of the night tube to allow London to maintain its status as one of the world’s great cities.

London is viewed, like most modern-day cities, as a 24-hour hub of activity, and supporters of the night tube have argued that we need 24- hour infrastructure to support it. The importance of the night tube on London’s night time economy has been heavily emphasised by supporters of the roll out. According to TfL, the night tube will create almost 2,000 new jobs and contribute £360m to the economy:

“Demand for a 24-hour Tube service is clear – late night Tube use has increased at double the rate of day-time trips and Night Bus usage has risen by 173 per cent since 2000. There are already over half a million users of the Tube after 22:00 on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Under the plans for the night tube, services will run 24 hours over Friday and Saturday on five main tube lines: Jubilee, Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern and Central lines. Plans for further expansion are already in place.

But how does London compare with other world cities?

Many major world cities operate late running underground services, particularly at weekends. However when London eventually launches its night tube, it will become one of only seven cities to have ‘around the clock’ underground transportation, either in full or on particular days of the week. The other six are: Copenhagen, Berlin, Stockholm, Sydney, Chicago and New York.

That leaves many other major world cities with transport networks which do not reflect their ’24-hour’ reputations. Cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Paris have more limited night-time transport services but still effectively serve the inhabitants of some of the worlds biggest cities.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a highly developed and sophisticated public transport network which has made it the envy of city planners across the world. However it does not operate a 24 hour transport system, nor are there plans to introduce one.

Hong Kong’s public transport system is supported by 24- hour ferry services, buses, trams and moving public walkways to allow easy travel through the city although few of these run beyond midnight. Underground trains feature below ground 3G, colour coded stations to ease navigation of passengers and an integrated payment system in the form of an “Octopus” card. The equivalent of London’s “Oyster” card, it was the first of its kind in the world and can be used on all public transport in Hong Kong. Tickets cost an average of $14 HKD (£1.18).

New York

Hosting one of the largest underground train systems in the world, New York has been committed to offering 24 hour underground transportation since its first trains ran in 1904. It’s total track length spans the distance from Chicago to New York.

Recently they introduced a system which can email commuters details of a delayed journey to work, to justify lateness to employers; they also have an email alert system to inform passengers of delays on selected routes. An average equivalent Zone 1-6 fare in New York would cost $2.75 (£1.76) The London average is £5.10.


The second busiest subway system in Europe after Moscow, the Paris subway carries an average of 4.2 million passengers a day. Standard operating times are between 05:30am- 01:15am, except Friday, Saturday and nights before national holidays, when services run until 02:15.

There is contemplation in the French capital of whether to introduce a 24 hour service there – the success or failure of London’s scheme will undoubtedly impact on their decision. Paris metro fares are significantly lower than those in London, with tickets in the region of €1.80 (£1.28).


Not the first city you might think of when looking at transportation in global cities, but in terms of transport infrastructure Copenhagen has one of the best in the world. Their driverless underground system has operated 24/7 since 2002. In addition an S-train system runs from 05:00am- 00:30am daily.

Awarded the “Best Metro” and “Best Driver-less Metro” awards at the 2010 MetroRail congress in London, the Copenhagen system is considered one of the safest, cleanest and most efficient underground lines in the world. An average ticket on this service would cost around 31 Danish Krone (£3.08).

Blueprint for the future

When London’s night tube finally launches, under the branding ‘free the night’, TfL will be keen to stress the unique qualities it will bring to London’s transport system. By making the city accessible for longer, the night tube will place London among a select group of world cities with 24-hour transport infrastructure.

And the success of the programme could prove key to encouraging some of the world’s other largest cities to follow suit, potentially allowing London to provide a blueprint for services which could be emulated across the globe.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read our article How data and smart city infrastructure can support transport planning for more on intelligent mobility and how London is leading the way in the use of data in transport planning.