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By Laura Adler

A city’s air is one of its most critical resources. From the factory smoke of industrializing cities, to the smog hanging over the 20th century American metropolis, to the haze enveloping contemporary Beijing, city governments have continuously struggled to reduce emissions and curb pollutants in the air we breathe. Today, data is beginning to play a role in helping cities measure and manage air quality.

Among the many environmental challenges facing cities, air quality is especially difficult to manage. Air pollution diffuses quickly, so that everyone shares the costs of emissions. Enforcing regulation is complicated by the difficulty of tracking down the source of harmful emissions. Moreover, reducing pollution is expensive. The cheapest ways to produce energy and dispose of waste cause the most detrimental pollution, such that reducing emissions inevitably requires a transition to more costly processes.

Despite these challenges, ensuring clean air is one of government’s most important jobs. The negative impacts of pollution include elevated risk of cardiovascular problems like heart disease and stroke and more acute asthma. According to the Clean Air Task Force, pollution may also have negative consequences for risk of cancer and reproductive or developmental problems.

Data is beginning to play a role in helping cities measure and manage air quality.

Some cities are using data to advance efforts for cleaner air. Their approaches vary: Chicago is implementing a citywide sensor network that will allow officials to make decisions based on real-time data; in Pittsburgh, high-tech cameras allow citizens and officials to quantify and monitor pollution events; and Louisville is putting a tool for gathering data literally into the hands of its citizens, with inhalers that relay information back to the city. Each of these approaches leverages new technologies—sensors, cameras, and GPS—to make air quality improvement efforts more responsive to real-time events.

Chicago: The City of Chicago has begun a major effort that will test the limits of big data and urban sensor networks. Since the summer of 2014, the city has worked with the Argonne National Laboratory and the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology to deploy the Array of Things—a citywide network of lamppost-mounted sensors with an important air quality component. The sensors will measure environmental factors such as light, vibration, and temperature, allowing the city to develop a data-rich map of granular conditions on the ground. The sensors will also measure important air quality components, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, with plans to implement tracking for more pollutants in the future, including volatile organic compounds, ozone, and particulate matter.

Chicago’s goal is to use this data to address individual incidents, but there are further plans to analyze data over time in order to understand patterns. Such patterns will allow the city to predict potential incidents and take preventative action. In addition to better monitoring of environmental issues, the city plans to make the data publicly available for use by individuals and developers.

Pittsburgh: Pittsburg consistently ranks among the most polluted American cities across multiple measures of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Recognizing that air quality is a key component of livability, a coalition of public, private, and nonprofit organizations came together to launch The Breathe Project. The Breathe Project aims to raise awareness about Pittsburgh’s pollution problems and empower residents to mobilize for enforcement. The primary tool for engagement is the Breathe Cam: four panoramic cameras that provide almost real-time views of Pittsburgh. Citizens can use the Breathe Cam to zoom-in on specific sources of emissions, use computer vision to quantify the amount of pollution being emitted, make recordings of pollution events, and scroll back and forward in time to compare visibility and identify repeat polluters.

The project has been spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University, whose CREATE Lab developed the camera technology, and the Heinz Foundation. With the successful implementation of the first four Breathe Cams, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has taken notice. The ACHD Air Quality division has purchased its own Breathe Cam, which will be directed at the Shenango Coke Works facility and used to support better enforcement of air quality regulations.

Louisville: While Pittsburgh is monitoring the source of the problem—air pollution—Louisville is taking an innovative approach to tracking and mapping the health outcomes. A program called AIR Louisville, launched in 2012, uses GPS devices embedded in inhalers to collect data on where and when people with asthma are particularly affected.

According to the CDC, 26 million Americans suffer from asthma, and the weather conditions in Louisville make the problem of asthma particularly acute: 10-15 percent of adults in the city are affected, compared to 8.4 percent nationwide. As Chief Innovation Officer, Ted Smith saw a chance to leverage a new technology to gain a better understanding of where and how frequently citizens were suffering symptoms. Partnering with Propeller Health, the city launched AIR Louisville with funding from foundations and local healthcare organizations. The program has enrolled 300 participants and plans to expand by an addition 500-2,000 users in the coming year.

Using the 5,400 datapoints collected over the 13 months of the initial phase, Propeller Health and Louisville are now conducting analysis to identify hotspots—clusters of inhaler use, indicating areas with particularly bad air quality—and other patterns in the data, which will inform policy. In addition to helping the city target its air quality programs, Asthmapolis also serves the individual users, providing personalized analysis of inhaler use to participants and their doctors. Although the program is still in its early stages, it represents a remarkable opportunity for data collection: prior to Asthmapolis, the data available on asthma was limited to national surveys and aggregated hospital data. As the program expands, Louisville will be able to take a proactive, data-driven approach to addressing air quality issues.

Measures of air quality have existed for decades. The Air Quality Index, developed in 1968, remains a valuable and widely used standard for signaling potentially hazardous levels of pollution to local officials and residents. But the development of more advanced sensors, analytics, and communication tools is allowing these cities to make citizens more aware, engage residents in reducing pollution, and address the health outcomes of poor air quality. By distributing the data-collection network throughout the city—on lampposts or in the hands of citizens—cities can develop smarter, more timely responses to pollution and help ensure cleaner air for all residents.

About the Author

Laura Adler

Laura Adler is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard. She received a Bachelors from Yale University and a Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Laura's research interests include urban planning and social policy in the US and abroad, with recent academic work focused on the relationship between urban governance and technology. Prior to beginning graduate study at Harvard, Laura worked for the City of New York's Department of Information Technology, where she focused on long-term technology strategy in support of the city's operations and expanding broadband access for New York City residents.

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