Air Quality Sensors Track COVID-19 Activity in Kansas City
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights the impactful technology, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you would like to know more or contact the project managers, please contact MetroLab at [email protected] for more information.
In this month’s episode of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight the KC Digital Drive air quality sensor project. This project focuses on reducing air pollution in COVID-19 hot beds and improving overall air quality using data and sensors accessible to citizens. Josh Schacht of MetroLab spoke to Jim Starcev, Solutions Lab Program Manager at KC Digital Drive; Jensen Adams, energy and sustainability manager at the Kansas City Public Library; and Doug Norsby, air quality planner for the Mid-America Regional Council.
Josh Schacht: Can you tell us about the need for this project and the team’s goals?
Jim Starcev: At KC Digital Drive, we are at the intersection of emerging technology and improving the lives of all Kansas City residents. The Air Quality Sensor project was therefore launched as part of the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program to reduce air pollution in areas with high transmission of COVID-19 to help reduce rates of COVID-19. infection in addition to improving the overall air quality. The project continues to be funded and strategically supported as part of the US Ignite Smart Community Grid under NSF grant 1531046. Initially a University of Utah program, the project was expanded to include three additional subways: Kansas City, Cleveland and Chattanooga, Tenn. Each city received 50 Tetrad sensors to deploy in their respective areas. Each sensor measures temperature, humidity and the amount of fine particles (PM 2.5) and downloads data every two minutes via a Wi-Fi connection.
This project fits well with our mission to use technology to engage citizens, capture meaningful data, and use that data for the benefit of the whole city. Air quality is an important topic due to the impact of pollution on all residents. Pollution exceeds World Health Organization guidelines for 92 percent of the world’s population, resulting in 6.5 million deaths and $ 21 billion in health care costs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produces maps based on very limited high quality measurements that are very useful for tracking air quality, but these maps fail to capture local dynamics. By using a set of low-quality sensors placed in close proximity to each other, we can produce higher resolution pollution estimates, down to the neighborhood scale. This effort has gained in importance in 2020, as recent studies have shown that higher air pollution is strongly correlated with more deaths from COVID-19.
Schacht: Who are the partners on this work and how did they come together for this project?
Starcev: KC Digital Drive has assembled a group of experts on air quality issues for this project. Representatives of city, state and state governments and agencies; university and university researchers; community organizers; and environmental justice groups were part of our leadership team. This diverse group has helped us define where to place the sensors, provide expertise to standardize sensor data, use the data for research, and build community engagement. Through these partnerships, we were able to access additional data for the project, including data from the EPA sensor where we co-located asthma rates by zip code, hospital admissions and other atmospheric data. . The group included people associated with a number of organizations: Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Children’s Mercy Hospital, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City Public Library, University of Kansas, city of Kansas City, Missouri, Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas, and CleanAir Now.
Schacht: How can Kansas City residents engage with this process and with your findings?
Starcev: We decided to do this program as a citizen science project to involve more residents. The vast majority of our sensors have been or are placed on residential houses. We chose an area roughly along Troost Avenue to prioritize the placement of the sensors. Historically, Troost has represented a north-south racial dividing line for Kansas City. By deploying the sensors in an area 2 miles east and west of Troost, we are able to engage a very demographically diverse group of people, many of whom have never been involved in a project. like this one. Anyone living in the approximately 18 square mile area can register to have a sensor installed in their home. Anyone can sign up to receive updates and access the AirViewer card (see image, right), which provides hourly updates of the PM 2.5 readings from each sensor. We organize community meetings open to everyone to provide more information about the program. We also plan to provide access to much of the research that our partners are doing on this project.
Schacht: How will other city partners, including local government, use this project?
Jensen Adams: The Kansas City Public Library loves partnerships like this! Libraries are great for citizen science and deeply committed to digital literacy and inclusion. In addition to housing the sampling equipment, each branch has computers on which customers can access the project dashboard and learn about weather changes and air quality in their neighborhoods. Librarians know where to find reading materials and environmental web resources. The partnership builds on KCPL’s commitment as a community leader in green practices.
Schacht: What adjustments can most cities make to better support air quality in their community?
Doug Norsby: Often, the adjustments that make the most difference in improving air quality result from prioritizing and investing in existing programs and grassroots activities. For example, everyone loves parks and trees! Green spaces reduce the heat reflected from concrete and asphalt while increasing the capture of particulate pollution. Taking the next step by actively integrating green infrastructure into the built structural environment significantly reduces the energy requirements for heating and cooling buildings. Investing in surrounding landscaping – especially items that incorporate native grasses and trees – can really make a difference in air quality while creating an attractive aesthetic.
Another responsibility of government is to provide efficient transportation networks. The commitment to develop or improve walking trails, add infrastructure to support cycling, and establish measures to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety encourages citizens to expand their use of non-motorized travel. While vehicle emission controls are constantly improving, driving still contributes to air pollution. It is therefore essential for a city to offer inviting and non-motorized travel alternatives.
Cities can also show leadership by adopting operating technologies that directly reduce air pollution. Replacing or converting diesel garbage and recycling trucks to alternative fuels like compressed natural gas directly mitigates particulate pollution throughout the community, demonstrates the use of alternative fuels to the private sector and strengthens support for local investments in new refueling infrastructures. Other operational changes could involve energy conservation measures such as LED street and traffic lights, HVAC upgrades in public buildings, and modification of waste handling processes. Until all electricity is produced from clean, renewable sources, energy conservation translates into reduced air pollutants.
Schacht: What future do you see for this project? Where will he go from here?
Starcev: The project is still in its infancy. We started deploying sensors in spring 2021, with the goal of having them all in place by the end of 2021. Our plan is to collect data for at least three years. Sensor data is stored in a Google studio (see image, right) and is updated every two minutes. Currently, the data displayed are actual readings which are not corrected. One of our sensors is co-located on an EPA monitoring site. We have months of data from the EPA sensor and our sensor and we’re using that to create an appropriate correction factor that can be applied to each of the sensors we’ve deployed. All of our partners have access to the raw and correct data that we collect. The public will be able to see a visualization map with hourly updates of each sensor as well as other sensors in the area from which we can download data. This will provide a level of air quality information that most residents have not had the opportunity to see before. While this data is interesting in itself, the real value lies in analyzing it along with other datasets that we or our partners have created or have access to. Some areas we plan to explore include:
- Existing air quality data – what do we learn that is additive, different or misleading?
- COVID-19 admission data, some with geography and time stamp
- Survey data we collect from residents on air quality concerns / actions
- 311 air quality data
- Hospital, pediatric and adult visits
- Atmospheric data KU
- Kansas City life expectancy data
Our overall goal is to make it a meaningful project that involves both actively and / or passively many citizens, researchers and officials.