Array of Things, allergy and asthma alert diagram
Array of Things, allergy and asthma alert diagram

SAIC artists and designers are forging community technology with the Array of Things project

by Jessica Barrett Sattell (MA 2015)

Three transparent boxes holding electronic sensors to read temperature, humidity, and air quality each spent a week in the urban research field of the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago's South Side—one buried in a garden, another carried on walks around city streets, and the last situated within a local house. Built and monitored under the careful watch of seven Chicago public high school students who call the area home, the devices pulled environmental data as raw material to intimately examine the unseen elements of how cities grow and change.

Returning to their classroom laboratory at the University of Chicago, the group, apprehensive and excited, waited to see if their assigned devices had collected successfully. Douglas Pancoast, Director of SAIC's Earl and Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration and Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects, popped out each box's SD card and projected files containing lines upon lines of text on a large monitor.

"We have data!" one student cheered as Pancoast scrolled through days of readings from the devices.

After discussing open source methods for transforming the raw sensor readings into visually engaging presentations of information, the group launched into the larger issue behind this experiment: how technology could—or should—serve their neighborhood.

"What if Chicago—'Urbs in Horto'—could activate its credo and think of itself as that 'City in a Garden,' to build a relationship between natural and manmade systems to make a place where we want to live?" Pancoast asks.

Rendering of Array of Things sensor node on a light post in downtown Chicago
Rendering of Array of Things sensor node on a light post in downtown Chicago

The City of Big Shoulders is becoming the city of big data—the term for the velocity and variety of collected digital information—as a group of interdisciplinary makers are harnessing it as a design material for understanding how cities work, and how they could flourish within the realities of growing urban density and environmental change. Pancoast, along with SAIC graduate student Satya Basu (MArch 2015) and faculty Robert Drinkwater and Bo Rodda (MFA 2010), worked with the students and shared their research with participatory methods to transform big data into powerful information for citizens to advocate for the needs of their communities.

With Array of Things, their project in conjunction with the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, they are designing and deploying a network of camera-less sensor nodes, to be mounted on city light posts, that will collect environmental data—such as humidity, temperature, carbon monoxide, light, sound, and motion—and feed directly to Chicago's government-run, publicly-accessible Data Portal website. By keeping all of the data completely open, anyone is able to get an instant snapshot of the city's landscape, or use that information to develop independent apps and software or for research on long-term trends. Their project, which is incorporated into the City of Chicago Technology Plan, is a major step in developing experimental data infrastructures that could inform ways for cities of all kinds to create initiatives to improve quality of life.

As an "urban telescope" with its lens aimed at Chicago, Array of Things looks to break down the barriers and opacity usually associated with the idea of big data to address what an open information system could do for a community. "This is a way to start discovering how the question of big data can start becoming a vehicle, and exploring the very idea of a 'platform,'" Basu says. "The hardware here is a platform, and the code is a platform, so we started examining how to make design a platform. It's about developing one that's accessible and functional, one that will evolve and change."

In fall 2013 Pancoast taught Nodes, Networks, and Interactivity, a graduate-level systems architecture class, and decided that one prompt would be for students to explore and design an urban lighting and information-collecting device—a notion that he had been discussing for some time with Charlie Catlett, a computer scientist and Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data. From there, Basu (who was the class project leader), along with Pancoast and Catlett, proposed the project to the University of Chicago as a campus-specific environmental sensor, and that grew into the current device to reimagine an infrastructure for the greater city. Array of Things is employing a phased rollout to accommodate discussion with the entire team, a multi-institutional group including designers, data and computer scientists, climatologists, and sociologists.

This summer the SAIC team made two prototypes of the sensor node to go to the Chicago Department of Transportation for testing. They consist of ruggedized boxes wrapped with light-emitting, perforated plastic shields and employ affordable, widely available consumer-level computational devices, such as Arduino microcontrollers and Raspberry Pi microcomputers. If that design proves successful, they will make six more to install in conjunction with the Cisco Internet of Things World Forum, held in Chicago in mid-October.

SAIC students and faculty readily collaborate across disciplines—an institutional practice that research partners beyond the school community recognize. In addition, a growing interest in employing big data as a medium for socially conscious art and design is encouraging outside collaborations to grow. "It seems that the people at SAIC who are interested in data aren't just coming at it from the angles of technology, graphic design, or interface design. They're coming at it conceptually," Pancoast says. "They're asking what data actually is, and how it works. It's more about interacting with the subject matter, more about making insight than making flashy things."

The SAIC team is inherently designing the participatory elements of the project that are embedded in both the physicality of the devices and the dialogues that they will engender. The nodes' approachable, highly sculptural forms, more akin in both appearance and function to delicate pieces of public art than to big brother surveillance, will be placed close to eye level.

"By involving the community in the process of the project early on, we're helping to engender a sense of ownership to these devices," Basu notes. "It's not 'the mayor's sensor network' or 'the city's devices," but 'neighborhood nodes' that could be doing any number of things to improve the quality of life in a community. These are powerful tools."

Illustration by Aubrey Fisch (BFA 2015)
Illustration by Aubrey Fisch (BFA 2015)

Array of Things takes the "open" of "open source" in directions beyond just the characteristic of the information that the devices will pull. With the sensor nodes as hubs of a readily accessible community technology, citizens will have a reliable way to interact with the project and utilize the environmental data as a tool for advocacy–part community organizing, part art and design for social impact. And, by partnering with institutions such as the University of Chicago and the Chicago Architecture Foundation to run public workshops that share the particulars and possibilities of the project, the feedback from the participants of those events on their ideas and concerns becomes an integral part of its ongoing development.

When mainstream conversations consider big data, there is often a reaction that there is a need to consider all of that data at once—impossible, and overwhelming, because it is just too big. "That's like spending a day at the beach and trying to understand all of the water—it's just there," Pancoast says. "You don't have to know all about something to participate in some of it."

The project's embodiment of an ongoing interaction between art and science to better understand the nature of cities provokes a collaboration between designers and scientists, creating new approaches to art as social practice. "In the culture of science, working from consensus is important, that everyone ought to agree before making a leap into the unknown. That usually doesn't happen in art and design," Pancoast explains. "I appreciate circulating through that way of looking at the world, particularly when working with the provision and access to art and design knowledge as a kind of social engagement, when it becomes about people; what is 'consensus,' how 'public' and 'private' work."

With big data only getting bigger, that sensibility—to encourage open participation with an open platform, and to openly discuss the possibilities of public information—will position Array of Things as a pivotal step for harnessing data as a design material for social and environmental change.