City Digital’s Latest Projects Head Underground

| Adam J. Hecktman


It has been a while since I have written about City Digital.  And that is not for lack of things going on.  On the contrary, the City Digital team has been collecting partners and lighting up projects that can only be done in the collaborative model that the consortium provides. Let me take a step back and give you the City Digital Background.

City Digital is one of the UI LABS consortia (or “labs” as they call them).  In addition to Microsoft, corporate players include Accenture, ComEd, Siemens, Tyco and HBK Engineering.  Together with leaders from the city and the region’s academia, City Digital looks at how the city itself can be used as a testbed for testing solutions in the spaces of water, transportation, energy, and physical infrastructure.  Having perspectives from industry, government, and academics provides a wealth of ideas on how to solve problems that are facing urban environments everywhere.  Not to mention the projects themselves providing a wealth of data to be crunched for the same goal.

The first two pilot projects are now under way.  Both involve what lies just beneath the surface of the city.  One pilot, called Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) tackles the issue of urban flooding.  When our sewer system was built (over 100 years ago), storms behaved differently than they do today.  Storms today are more intense, localized, and shorter in duration, reflecting the dynamics of climate change.  Combined with the expansion of roadways and asphalt (at the expense of green spaces), and you have local flooding, transportation obstructions, contamination of water due to runoff and drainage into the lake.  

The SGIM pilot is placing low-cost sensors into “green elements” that live alongside the built “grey infrastructure” in various locations around the city.  Green elements include things like permeable pavers and bioswales (landscaping and vegetation placed to promote drainage into the soil, and remove pollution from surface runoff water) placed in areas that traditionally flood.  The sensors can report back on the volume of water diverted from the sewer system and processed naturally.  Over time, it can also determine the quality of that water.  And since different places flood in different ways, the data will help us determine which green elements work best under various conditions.  

The first of the sensors are in place, and soon they will be pushing data out for analysis.   In fact, one of the green infrastructure installations is on Goose Island itself, home to UI LABS.  What looks like a cluster of rocks caged at the base of a mound of soil is actually a bioswale in action.  When it is in full swing, we will be able to use the data to build models to improve the engineering design principles of Green Infrastructure, and ultimately reduce flooding, riverbank overflows, and water contamination.  

The second pilot project is also involves what is below the surface: Underground Infrastructure Mapping.  “Exactly what infrastructure is underground?”, you may ask.  And that is exactly what this project strives to answer.   Think about what has to be under the pavement to make a city run.  There are sewer pipes and water lines, gas lines, power cables, telco cabling, not to mention the subway.  And then there is the infrastructure to support all of these things.  How long have they been underground?  Long enough that there is still telegraph conduit to be found.  

Chicago is hardly unique in this respect.  Cities all over the world have limited (and often times inaccurate or obsolete) data on underground assets, including assets not owned by the city itself (think utility and telco assets.  Picture yourself as someone from the water department going in to make a repair that requires ripping up a section of the street.  You block traffic (creating carbon from idling cars), you bring in construction equipment (more carbon), you remove the section of the street (more carbon), and…you run into utility infrastructure that was unmapped or mismapped.  So, you cover up the hole you just made (adding carbon to the environment), and starting again somewhere else.

The Underground Infrastructure Mapping pilot seeks to develop an engineering grade, common, secure data platform that can create, consume, consolidate, organize, and store 3D infrastructure data, effectively mapping the complex underground network.  The pilot focuses on developing a platform that will enable virtual mapping to help monitor those underground structures. In addition to overcoming inefficiencies and costs created by antiquated maps for underground projects, the pilot will also improve underground design coordination, reduce redundant digging operations and accidental interruptions of service, increase the accuracy of utility information and optimize the way this information is obtained.  A major win for any city.

These two pilots are just the tip of the spear.  Already, the parties that make up City Digital are talking about the next leading edge projects to test.  Any urban environment is ripe for capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by new ways of sourcing, combining, and analyzing data.  Chicago just happens to be the best petri dish out there.

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Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.