By Armando Acosta

The possibilities of how Big Data can improve life seem endless. Our understanding of the human body, climate change, and even the origin of the universe have all been enhanced through Big Data. However, local governments are beginning to recognize the value Big Data offers to create more livable cities.

Chicago is leading the way. The Windy City calls its efforts the Array of Things (AoT). By gathering data, and employing predictive analytics, the goal of AoT is to help America's third largest city handle everything from rodent problems to health threats, from traffic flow to police beats.

Currently, Chicago is mining the city's already existing data such as inspection records, census data, and even complaint calls about uncollected garbage. City leaders have discovered that through predictive analysis, this seemingly mundane information allows for better allocation of physical resources, and keeps Chicagoans safer.

For example, by tracking complaints about uncollected garbage and calls to animal control about rodent infestations, city leaders discovered a link: in areas where garbage collection lagged, rodents flourished. Pretty commonsensical, right? However, in 2013, by deploying trucks more frequently to neighborhoods that historically have more garbage complaints (as well as reacting more timely to complaint calls), the city saw a decrease in requests for rodent control by 15%.

Additionally, the city is working to limit potential lead poisoning in children through the predictive analysis of everyday building inspection records crossed checked against census data. By doing so, they are better able to predict which buildings may have a lead issue and have children living in them.

Pinpointing specific potential "problem buildings" through the use of predictive analysis also has been used successfully in New York City. There fire safety inspectors worked to predict buildings posing a greater-than-normal fire risk by focusing on missed tax payments and utilities - signs the building was being neglected, and therefore a fire risk. This effort allowed them to discover more potential risks in a shorter period of time than random inspections or going door-to-door ever would have.

In addition to the mountains of already-existing data, Chicago is also beginning to gather Big Data from its citizens. For example, over a three-year period, some 500 sensors will be placed throughout the city to register WiFi and Bluetooth devices to help with everything from pedestrian signals and the assignment of police officers to enhancing the flow of traffic at intersections based on work and holiday schedules. (There may end up being a total of 1,000 sensors.)

To allay fears of "Big Brother," City official have pledged that no surveillance will occur, and the use of open source guarantees transparency.  

You can read more about Chicago's ground-breaking use of Big Data in these two articles: "Chicago and Big Data" and "Chicago Uses Big Data to Save Itself from Urban Ills."