An alderman is calling for a hearing on a city deal to allow researchers to install data-collection sensors on Chicago light poles, saying Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration first should have gotten City Council approval before going ahead with the project.
Ald. Robert Fioretti, a frequent Emanuel critic, is raising questions about the sensors, which will measure not only air quality, sound volume and other environmental information but also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices.
Besides what he called “obvious invasion-of-privacy concerns,” Fioretti said if the cash-strapped city did want to let somebody set up this kind of equipment, officials could potentially have netted millions of dollars by reaching an agreement with a data collection agency. The 2nd Ward alderman said the City Council has jurisdiction over the use of the public way, so any proposal to allow light poles to be used should first have gotten aldermanic review.
“Clearly, the mayor exceeded his reach here,” Fioretti said. “We need to step back and do the proper due diligence on this deal.”
Fioretti said he and other aldermen first learned about the deal in a Sunday Tribune story.
Resolutions of this kind are non-binding. So even if the City Council, which normally acquiesces to Emanuel’s wishes, votes to have a hearing, the resolution would not forcibly overturn the agreement.
Privacy advocates have raised concerns about the “Big Brother” aspects of such data collection efforts. But computer scientist Charlie Catlett, who is working on the “Array of Things” project that will place the sensors on light poles starting downtown in mid-July, said planners have taken precautions to design their sensors to observe mobile devices and count contact with the signal rather than record the digital address of each device.
Brenna Berman, the city's commissioner of information and technology, said the Emanuel administration has decided not to collect money for the kind of “publicly available” data that the sensors will track. The city will put the information online for people to use if they wish, she said. And she said privacy concerns are unfounded because no identifying data will be collected.
Researchers from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory expect to first install sensors at eight Michigan Avenue intersections, then hope to have dozens more around the Loop by year's end and hundreds more across the city in years to come as the project expands into neighborhoods, Catlett said.
Berman said the project will allow Chicago to be on the cutting edge of urban analytical research. She said the city will pay between $215 and $425 in city electrician wages to install each box and then about $15 annually for electricity to power each box.