Partnering with the Community: Operation Healthy Air

By Mark Chandler

In May, we began Operation Healthy Air in Long Beach. There was strong support from the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach City College, California State University Long Beach, Saint Anthony’s High School, the City itself and many local residents. This was our first deployment of sensors. The feedback from local participants and partners helped us figure out how to best continue the program. We learned about the subtle (and not so subtle) temperature gradients that cut across the city, and the challenges in finding suitable backyards for the ozone sensors given how compact the downtown area of Long Beach is.

From the beginning of July through the end of September, we worked with partners to train and find interested community members across the Inland Empire. Partners included: Chino Basin Water Conservation Resource District, Riverside Corona Resource Conservation District and the UC Cooperative Extension for Master Gardeners. These partners hosted training events and supported our collective efforts to plan and support the setting up of sensors in local backyards, front yards, parks, and schools. Through discussion groups, we found that there is interest from community members in understanding the effect of landscaping on local temperature, as well as the influence of seasonal winds from the foothills.

As our Operation Healthy Air participants know, opportunities to engage in the “science” were quite varied—with some ways being quite challenging. Those of you who tried the mapping know! Thank you for all of your feedback to date. It has been a huge help in shaping our efforts going forward. Many of our participants had sensors in their backyard, while others wanted to do all of the possible activities.

Based on our preliminary findings, it seems that every part was useful. Many participants who collected in-home temperature data said that they learned a lot about which parts of their houses were cooler and at what times. They were able to use that information to decide when to open or close windows to move cooler air from outside when it was hotter inside.

For those of you who wondered if we lost any iButton sensors left on street trees, the short answer is yes, but not enough to create a problem. Working with incomplete data is a challenge that we face in cities, and we have some data analysis tools that help us overcome that.

We found the mapping component to be the most challenging. We are working closely with the developers of the programs and they are thankful to have all of your feedback—even those who were frustrated. We have seen interest from teachers in mapping, as it fits well with the science curriculum they need to teach. We hope that involving students could be helpful in finishing the mapping work that remains. If you are a teacher or know one who is interested in participating (regardless of your location), please contact Mark Chandler at mchandler@earthwatch.org.

After spending time with community members, it is clear that there is an interest in figuring out how to create more livable cities.

There are several next steps planned. The first is to process all the data. Processing the data means putting it all into spreadsheets, cleaning it up (making sure it contains as few errors as possible), and then sharing it with partners and anyone who is interested in access to “raw” data.

We have much of the air temperature data from Campaigns 1 and 2 available for sharing for anyone who wants raw data. We have begun to incorporate some of the ozone data into a website where you can view the data based on which sensor it came from. We will share updates on this as they become available.

We look forward to sharing more results at upcoming workshops early in 2018. This will also be a chance to share what our plans are in 2018 for continued engagement.

We are also working with students from Claremont McKenna College who will be conducting a survey of all those who participated to better understand why you became involved and what your hopes for outcomes might be. This again will be very helpful as we think about how best to engage community members going forward. Thank you for your time on this.

Savvy and Sensing: Our Next Generation of Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

In the age of Fitbit, iPhone health apps, and social media, the technology-savvy user is keeping track of their own health, counting the extra calories, developing fitness routines, and tweeting success stories on a daily basis. The requirement for personal tracking devices is high, and science is delivering to this demand. A similar trend is surfacing quite prominently in the area of environmental and climate science. In recent times we have seen the development of affordable digital sensing devices for monitoring the environment (e.g. water, soil, and air quality). The users of these devices are not just the health conscious runners or bikers in the neighborhood, but a growing community of concerned citizens who we call “citizen scientists.” Empowering this group of individuals with digital technologies is our step towards a movement called “citizen sensing.”

When Citizens Sense Pollution

Even with an increasing number of successful citizen science programs around the world, there is often some level of concern raised by scientists, politicians, and other key stakeholders about the credibility of data collected through citizen-led monitoring programs. At the same time, there are entities which support citizen science generated data with the consensus that ‘citizen sensing’ can help provide additional environmental data in areas where monitoring infrastructure is currently absent or limited (Gabrys et al., 2016). The overall support garnered in the whole ‘citizen sensing’ approach revolves majorly around the fact that this practice could lead to ‘indicative measurements’ about environmental pollution. If scientists can rely on indicative organisms (e.g. lichens) to study patterns and changes in environmental conditions, then having access to additional ‘indicative measurements’ of pollution through low-cost sensors should also be beneficial.

Just Good Enough (Data) for the Environment

Rising above the criticism faced from certain constituencies about citizen data, here we discuss how these data sets can go forward in generating impactful ‘data stories’ and help in initiating dialogues with environmental regulators, scientists, and policy makers. Data stories can be compelling as they provide more insight into environmental pollution over time and space. The consensus is not to replace ongoing academic laboratory research or agency led monitoring projects, but adding on to these results and reports with indicative trends and “just good enough data” supporting larger environmental goals (Gabrys et al., 2016).

Operation Healthy Air

Acknowledging the crucial role which citizen sensing projects can play in generating evidence-worthy data stories, we are launching the Operation Healthy Air (OHA) project in California this summer. The goal of the program is to understand how local habitats (trees and water bodies) and human-made infrastructure (such as buildings and pavements) affect air quality and temperature. After identifying and building a local citizen network, air sensors will be distributed which have the ability to detect temperature, humidity, and atmospheric ozone levels.

 

The top five objectives of the OHA project are:

  1. Getting access to air quality data in areas where there is relative absence of monitoring
  2. Gathering data over longer monitoring periods, versus episodic and random time points
  3. Identifying patterns and trends in the data and tying them with the findings from research and government led air sensor data
  4. Using the data to develop some predictive models for our climate study goals
  5. Identifying geographic areas and locations which may need follow-up monitoring

Finally, we hope the OHA project will help in developing data stories with patterns, trends, and ‘just good enough data’ to present them to our regulators and scientific partners.

Overall, the OHA data story will help answer three central questions:

  • If, where, and to what extent are current air-pollution events occurring?
  • Do we need improved air quality regulations from local government and increased accountability from industry?
  • Is there a requirement for more investment in air quality infrastructure?

 

If you wish to help find answers to these questions and participate as a citizen scientist in one of our pilot sampling campaigns for OHA in Long Beach, Chino, and the Inland Empire this summer, then keep in touch with us through Facebook and subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Next year, we also plan to expand the program to greater Los Angeles and other cities. Stay in touch to be a part of our citizen data stories.