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Cities Get Smart About Air Quality

The cities of Baltimore, Md. and Lafayette, La. are helping their residents learn more about air quality in their communities as winners of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Smart City Air Challenge. The two cities are deploying hundreds of sensors to measure local air quality and will share those measurements with the public.

EPA sponsored the challenge, which was hosted on GSA’s challenge.gov platform, to help communities investigate the best ways to collect, store, and distribute sensor data. Communities across the country submitted plans for collecting data and sharing it. As challenge winners, Baltimore and Lafayette each received $40,000 in seed money to implement their plans.

While both Baltimore and Lafayette are engaging local residents as part of their projects as they strive to collect and manage large amounts of air quality data, the focus of each city’s project is different.

Baltimore is part of an area that has had difficulty meeting air quality standards for ground-level ozone in the past, and community interest in monitoring and improving air quality is high, the city said in its Smart Cities application.

Baltimore’s plan is to deploy a low-cost, open-source wireless sensor network that will transmit ozone and nitrogen dioxide measurements via Wi-Fi and mobile phone networks to the Amazon Web Services cloud service. From there, the city plans to make the data available in real time on the city’s website so citizen scientists, academic researchers, and government decision-makers can use it.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University are working with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability and a nonprofit called B’More Cool to work with residents to set up the 300 sensors, which will be paid for using a combination of grants, donations, and crowdfunding.

Baltimore reports that many residents have offered to participate in the challenge by placing sensors in their communities. Residents wrote letters in support of the city’s application to participate in the challenge.

“It’s very important for us to have a quantitative understanding of the air quality in our area,” one resident wrote. “And, it’s important for us to know in real-time when unsafe levels of pollution are affecting our area so that we can react appropriately.”

St. John’s Cathedral in Lafayette, La.

In Louisiana, job growth in the Lafayette region is attracting more people: the city’s population, now about 100,000, is expected to double in the next 20 years. As the city grows, local leaders want to make sure air quality remains protected.

The local government has teamed up with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and CGI, a major employer in the area, to create an engagement and research network to carry out plans for deploying 300 air quality sensors. The team plans to measure particulate matter and ozone across the region. They want to store the data they collect in Microsoft Azure, providing a data management platform that displays real-time data and provides data analysis tools that will enable people to view air quality status and trends.

Local libraries, schools, businesses, and nonprofits are all playing a role in the effort, dubbed Lafayette Engagement and Research Network (LEaRN). This project seeks to allow the community to more easily collect, analyze, and share data that show the relationship between air quality and traffic congestion. The collected information could be used to schedule traffic signals and redesign intersections to lessen the impact of traffic on air quality. Local leaders say the data also could be used to develop policies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips and increase walking, biking, and the use of public transportation.

The Baltimore and Lafayette projects have tested and installed their first sensors and are working with local community groups to decide where to place them. By the end of the year, each community hopes to have 300 sensors installed with data streaming. At that point, EPA will evaluate the projects and award up to $10,000 to each challenge winner based on their accomplishments and collaboration with other communities. Community projects like these can help other cities that want to manage data from many sensors and use it to inform citizens about their air.

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