April Showers and Smart Green Infrastructure

We’ve had a rainy start to April, here in Wilmette, but so far no “100-year” storms. Not that my dog Ellie cares. In fact, during her Wednesday morning walk, she seemed oblivious to the runoff streaming across the cement sidewalks.

After the walk, and after splashing through multiple “Lake Wilmette” sized puddles, I went to the Wilmette Library and couldn’t help but notice something–or rather the absence of something. No puddles. None. Nor were there any streams flowing off the parking lot, into nearby streets or properties.

As a local taxpayer who helped foot the bill (~$300K) for the library’s new permeable paver system, I was happy to see that it appeared to be working.

But how could we know for sure that we made a good investment?

Data Dashboards for Green Infrastructure

This week, at one of my favorite tech meetups, Chi Hack Night, I heard about an interesting pilot project to test new technology for monitoring green infrastructure.

One of the presenters, Dana Al-Qadi, Engineer at AECOM, provided an overview.

First, the project team identified test sites for monitoring four types of green infrastructure:

Sensors installed at each site collect information about the weather, as well as surface and groundwater conditions. The information is collected and stored via the cloud, and is accessible for analysis, via a Cook County open data site.

Pretty cool, right? Just as your car dashboard displays the outdoor temperature and the car’s oil level and maintenance needs, the smart infrastructure dashboard can monitor stuff like temperature and runoff at a permeable paver site. Anyone with an internet connection can start analyzing specific green infrastructure performance.

How could this help Wilmette?

To be completely honest, initially, I was a little bit disappointed by the presentation. I thought I would leave with some stormwater management solutions that we could instantly apply in Wilmette. That wasn’t the case.

But after talking with the project team, I realized there are two big takeaways…

Takeaway Number 1: Collaborative Problem Solving

David Leopold, Director of Project Management for City Digital, said that a big achievement has been pulling together a wide range of expertise from both the public and private sectors, getting everyone from civil engineers to hackers to public information officers to work together to solve problems.

If you’re as interested in stormwater solutions as I am, you’ll realize this is a fast-moving and responsive approach, compared to traditional civil engineering. (Just mention “stormwater study” in Wilmette, and you’re apt to hear everybody groan!)

A traditional process goes something like this:

  1. People complain.
  2. Municipality debates problem, plans project, sets budget, hires engineering firm.
  3. Engineering firm buys software, crunches data, prepares a printable report.
  4. People & municipality receive report, review results, ask questions…
       And the cycle starts all over again, at step 1…

You get the picture. I’m going to date myself here, but I remember when this linear style of problem solving dominated the software development industry, when I started doing technical writing, about 25 years ago.

Today, software development is an inclusive, iterative process, with everyone working together using a divide-and-conquer strategy that developers call agile development.

For stormwater management, there’s still a role for traditional civil engineering projects. But the SGIM team members and organizations like Center for Neighborhood Technology are discovering that a better way to solve extremely complex problems is to get everybody in the same place, at the same time, pooling information and ideas for solutions.

Wilmette should be headed that way also.

Takeaway Number 2: Jumping into Open Data

The second takeaway is that Wilmette should be ready and willing to jump into digital tech, open source, and open data solutions when the time is right.

For example, for the smart monitoring pilot project, David Leopold explained that the initial installation cost per site was less than $5K. Whereas, a 2010 Wilmette storm sewer study lists $25K as the cost per installation for a permanent flow meter within a storm sewer pipe (using a connection to telephone power lines to transmit data).

Furthermore, the pilot project’s green infrastructure performance data is freely available for analysis on an open data site, whereas some of the basic data and modeling from Wilmette’s engineering studies remains inaccessible to the public.

Future Scenarios

So let’s imagine some possibilities for the future…

What if we could create a couple of test rain gardens in Wilmette, installing sensors and an open data collection system, so we could figure out exactly which types of materials and plants work best at a particular location? This might be a great high school or scout project!

Or what if we monitored some single-family residence sites to analyze the effects of various types of new construction on groundwater levels? We might come up with some zoning rules that would benefit both new and long-term property owners.

And what if cities and towns across the U.S. started sharing open data about green and grey infrastructure? What if cities could use weather data and sensors to adjust infrastructure for rainfall conditions?

Maybe we could all start finding building blocks faster, for more responsive and less expensive solutions, using green infrastructure effectively as a supplement to the old-style pipes and drainage systems.


Stay tuned! I’ll update this blog when green infrastructure data becomes available on the Cook County open data site. (They need to configure a new URL to handle all the data…)

In the meantime…

Find out more about Chi Hack Night.

Read more about the project in Chicago Magazine.

Learn about the participating organizations: UI Labs, which merged into MxD, Microsoft Chicago, Opti, Senformatics, West Monroe Partners, and AECOM.

Follow the presenters on twitter or linkedin:

  • Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation Chicago
  • Dana Al-Qadi, Engineer at AECOM
  • Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer at the City of Chicago


  1. Daniel Bassill April 12, 2017

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