Innovation @ the US EPA: Air pollution sensors + NASA International Space Apps

Advanced low-cost air pollution sensors

Advancements in air pollution measurement technologies have brought sensors down to a physical and cost scale that makes them attractive and powerful tools for polluted and environmental justice communities to measure and monitor air pollution, providing them with solid scientific evidence and data in their fight to breathe clean air.  

As a first-year AAAS Fellow on the Innovation Team in the Office of Research and Development at US EPA Headquarters, I was fortunate to be a part of the team promoting the advancement of air pollution sensor development through strong community partnerships.  We wrote an $4.5 million RFA titled, Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities, which

seeks research on empowering communities and individuals to take action to avoid air pollution exposure using low-cost portable air pollution sensors, on the ways communities and individuals interact with air pollution sensors and their data, on methods for understanding and managing the quality of data from air pollution sensors, and on how sensors and sensor networks compare to traditional air quality monitoring methods.

2014 NASA International Space Apps Challenge

The 2014 NASA International Space Apps Challenge provided me another opportunity to promote collaborative community innovation, this time around addressing the urban heat island effect and climate change adaptation.  Below are the two challenges I submitted as the US EPA’s contributor to the event that solvers from across the world tried to tackle:

i) Cool it!

The heat island effect is described as a significant temperature difference between urban areas and surrounding rural areas. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “the annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8 to 5.4°F (1 to 3°C) warmer than its surroundings. On a clear, calm night, however, the temperature difference can be as much as 22°F (12°C).” (EPA Heat Island Effect Basic Information page). Increased urban temperatures lead to increased energy consumption and costs for air conditioning, summertime peak energy demand, and air pollution, as well as increased heat-related illness and mortality.

Temperature and relative humidity sensors are coming down in cost and the ability to network them has been piloted. This provides you with the opportunity to think of new and actionable ways in which these data can help communities prepare for and address the urban heat island effect.

Here are some ways for you to build this solution:

Hardware: Sensor kit (sensors): Potential ten minute time resolution on temperature and relative humidity data; target accuracy with temperature--+/- 1 degree centigrade; relative humidity--+/- 2-5%; communicate with the micronet; strive to be low cost with deployment of many sensors in a single community envisioned; sensors could potentially leverage presence of existing platforms in communities (smartphones, etc.); use data standards so the data are interoperable; post technical drawings and pictures of the hardware in public locations so they can be shared; and bring your own component hardware.

Software: Micronet and Data Visualization: Build open source databases, user interfaces, software back ends, and micronets that use standards for data read/write (potentially with the Sensor Observation Service). For the micronet, consider a user interface and backend that could be used to manage the network of climate kits and data collected. For websites, consider data displays from network of sensors with interactive display functionality to allow people to zoom in to specific times, places, and time durations. Potentially create a map, perhaps layered with an API that allows users to see a spatial distribution and make comparisons.

Impact: City Alert apps: Create apps that use synthesized micronet data and make the data interpretable and actionable. Consider creating creative community alert systems that can help people understand when local conditions are too hot.

ii) Community Visions of Climate Adaptation

Create an app, web interactive, map, 3D model, or visualization for actionable community plans about climate adaptation to better enable communities to prepare for weather and climate patterns. You can base your plans on the latest scientific data from sources like the National Climate Assessment, the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, or the 2012 EPA Climate Indicators Report. Work with community residents, urban planners, and city officials to create these plans so they are realistic and reflect community needs. You can use scientific visualizations, imagery, data, graphics, and artist renderings as motivation and inputs for creating detailed maps and plans of action for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.