How the Windy City is Also A Smart City


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How do you check out the food inspection ratings of restaurants? How can you check out recent vandalism scores of neighborhoods for someone-who-has-never-seen-the-snow-before who’s apartment-hunting? Government officials and industry execs in Illinois are working together to get this kind of information out there.

At a panel presentation last week about how to become a smart city, three technologists including two municipal executives discussed the different ways governments are pushing the idea of “smart cities” through independent ventures, and business partnerships.

The panel, organized by the Illinois chapter of the U.S. Green Building council, comprised Tom Schenk, the Chicago chief data officer, Hardik Bhatt, head of the state’s IT department, and Steven Fifita, executive director of City Digital, part of the UI Labs organization.

The moderator, Joseph Svachula, ComEd’s vice president of smart grids and technology, shared some current initiatives in cities around the United States, and then brought up the micro-grid being developed in Bronzeville and on the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Bronzeville, he noted, is a “community of the future”. Commonwealth ComEd, the largest electric utility in Illinois, received federal grants to build a smart, “micro” grid system that gives residents and business owners more options and control with their utilities.

Hardik Bhatt, Secretary Designate of the IT Department of the State of Illinois, discussed a smart strategy, under challenging constraints. He pointed out that the plan for the State is to transform the operational organizing of IT businesses and customer service by digitally connecting these into a “smart” national model.

Tom Schenk, from the City of Chicago, discussed examples of user-friendly, open data extracted from the daily work of city employees. Schenk is in charge of the city’s data portal, which Chicago Cityscape uses extensively. In addition to datasets listing building permits, violations, and building violation court hearings, the portal has information about Divvy locations and station usage, towed car locations, and street sweeping schedules. Some of this information is as much for city workers to take advantage of as it is for citizens.

The portal puts data onto more devices, and into the hands of more city workers. City officials can start to predict patterns — say, about where rat populations will grow, or when e.coli. levels at the beach are expected to rise— rather than wait for residents to send complaints.

Predictions could help city inspectors discover violations faster, or improvise deployment of police officers at city events. It doesn’t hurt that it also makes Chicago an example for other cities to follow.

Steven Fifita of Citi Digital, a subsidiary of UI Labs, explained how the company plans to close the gap between innovation and commercialization by solving the challenges with cities and governments as partners.

He emphasizes the fact that Citi Digital needs to unlock meaningful value in every stage of work. An example was “smart green pilot teams” monitoring with tech companies that included Microsoft and AECOM. Better solutions resulted in underground infrastructure mapping which improves traffic and digital imaging and processing which lead to efficent results.

The Windy City has been noted as one of the most aggressive cities in adopting a user-friendly, predictive data portal for improving safer, cleaner, and smarter infrastructural measures, and each of the panelists is playing their part to motivate the city and state to utilize more partnerships to address current challenges and adapt to future ones.


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