Is the City of the Future Finally Here?

By Tiffany Trader

October 21, 2014

Grid computing pioneer and big data visionary Charlie Catlett recently delivered a presentation on “Big Data and the Future of Cities” as part of the Argonne OutLoud series, hosted by Argonne National Laboratory. Catlett explores how emerging technologies in high-performance computing, embedded systems and data analytics can help mitigate some of the challenges associated with increased urbanization. He also highlights the work of the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD), established in 2012 within the Computation Institute, a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory that relies on computation and data science to address the effects of rapid global urbanization.

The talk starts with the question: Are there services and technologies that we can embed within cities that make them more livable, more friendly, even safer?

With data sources and technologies catalyzing new applications and services, there is the possibility to make policy that is proactive rather than reactive, contends Catlett. He and his Argonne colleagues are developing tools and methods to help social scientists, economists, policymakers and climate scientists study cities. During his presentation, Catlett describes some of these tools and how they are being implemented.

Catlett also gives the audience an overview of how supercomputing and computer science support the study of urbanization and urban processes. The goal is to get cross-fertilization between the different fields that use computing and computer scientists that develop the systems. “One of the ways to think about the laboratory is we run national and international instruments [like the world’s fifth fastest supercomputer, Mira] to do the kind of science you couldn’t do in the laboratory of a university or a small company,” observes Catlett.

Chicago Array of Things graphic

For his latest project, Array of Things, Catlett is working with the City of Chicago to build a platform that will enable researchers to collect data for various kinds of scientific inquiries into the sustainability and operation of of cities. Consider how city life could be safer and more navigable if on every street corner or street lamp there was a device that could provide information about the status of that location, says Catlett. With these sensors in place, pedestrians could be directed to use the most well-lit, most populated routes to reach their destination. The system could also gather information about weather, traffic and air quality to provide real-time interactive solutions to a range of problems.

Catlett is well-known for his contributions to grid computing, the forerunner to cloud. From 2004-2007, he was director of the TeraGrid Project. Currently a Senior Computer Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and a Senior Fellow in the Computation Institute, Catlett was recently recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business Tech 50 list for his role in “shaping Chicago’s technology digital scene.”

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