June 15, 2017

Data is now streaming on Chicago’s Open Data Portal, while free code on GitHub can help other cities relay data from sensors

The world’s smartest cities have been fighting to reduce flooded streets and basements by redesigning streetscapes and parkways. Those same cities have also embraced the use of data by collecting and sharing information with residents.

A pilot project by City Digital has brought together the two approaches. The City of Chicago’s Data Portal is now streaming data collected through Internet of Things sensors installed below city streets, which measure rainfall and stormwater collection as part of City Digital’s Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) pilot. SGIM evaluates the effectiveness of various types of green infrastructure—like landscaped elements, permeable pavements, and bioswales.

Chicago’s Chief Data Officer, Tom Schenk, first previewed the new stormwater data for a crowd gathered at Chi Hack Night, a weekly meetup of researchers and civic technologists, on April 4.  “What’s important to science is openness and transparency so we can all explore,” Schenk told the group. “We can explore the questions that are posed to us, together.”

As part of the SGIM pilot, sensors were installed in three locations across the city, including the Argyle “shared street,” Langley Avenue in Roseland, Cottage Grove in Chatham, and at the UI LABS headquarters on Goose Island. In addition to soil moisture, the data collected includes air temperature, rainfall, pressure, wind speed, and other weather-related information.

A Green Approach to Flood Prevention

Data generated from the pilot has implications not just for Chicago, which has committed $50 million to green infrastructure investment, but for the many cities across the United States making similar investments. Despite their financial commitment, cities don’t yet fully know how these tactics compare to more traditional means of stormwater management, like pipes, drains, and ditches.

Using sensors and cloud-based analytics, the SGIM pilot is determining how well these techniques collect and manage stormwater runoff.

The pilot is a collaborative initiative of City Digital—the smart infrastructure-focused arm of UI LABS—and its partners Microsoft, Opti, AECOM, Senformatics, and The City of Chicago. West Monroe Partners and Glasswater Technology contributed thought leadership to the project.

Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation for Chicago, and Dana Al-Qadi, an engineer with AECOM, discussed the pilot alongside Schenk at Chi Hack Night, providing background about the SGIM project’s origin, the solution deployed, and initial findings.

Hecktman spoke to the group about how stormwater has become such a big issue for urban areas. Storms have grown in strength over the years, as they’ve become more localized and produce more water in a shorter amount of time, and become less predictable, he explained. Meanwhile, the ability of the surrounding environment and infrastructure to handle stormwater runoff has diminished.

“The combination of the fact that you have less green space, you have a sewer system built 100 years ago—what does that lead to? Well, it leads to urban flooding,” Hecktman said.

The result is backed-up transportation systems and basement flooding, which comes at a high cost. Between 2011 and 2015, the Chicagoland area saw $773 million worth of stormwater damage, and 181,000 claims of property damage, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Any resident who has experienced home flooding knows the cost and the hassle. Now with access to the new stormwater data through the Data Portal, users can explore the data to better understand sustainable green infrastructure and the various factors that impact flooding.

Replicating Results

Rising temperatures and aging underground infrastructure mean cities around the world need to understand how effective they are at diverting flooding on streets. Like Chicago, cities across the United States have launched open data portals. But streaming data from underground sensors is not always easy, so the City of Chicago has launched a new tool to streamline the process for other cities.

The City of Chicago and Opti, a technology company that provides SaaS solutions to optimize infrastructure, worked together to develop a method to stream data from stormwater sensors to Chicago’s Data Portal. The code that streams the information is available online for free, so other cities can relay data from Opti’s sensors to their own open data portals.

“We have thought a lot about how to organize the data to balance people’s ability to analyze it, while making it efficient to keep up with the stream of data,” said Jon Levy, Chicago’s Data Portal program manager.

The code is available on GitHub and leverages Chicago’s Open Data ETL framework. It is entirely free and has an open source license, which means others can use and modify it if needed at no cost.

“Other cities won’t have to reinvent the wheel when they want to share data about urban flooding with residents and scientists,” Levy said.

Watch City Digital’s partners discuss the SGIM project at Chi Hack Night.