The Community Becomes the Classroom

3 min read
August 3 2017

Practicing Environmental Health Science with Air Quality Data

Did you know that your zip code may be a better predictor of your health than your genetic code? Research shows that the places where we live, work, and play greatly impact health and wellbeing throughout our lives.

In a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology, Aclima, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Google found that air pollution levels vary at a hyperlocal level in Oakland neighborhoods. There are several busy freeway corridors, an important port, and a large industrial sector in the City of Oakland — all of which can generate high levels of pollution that makes it harder for us to breathe. Armed with this new layer of environmental intelligence, people can better understand air quality in the places that matter most to them. In turn, this understanding can inform and motivate action to reduce air pollution and improve health.

To explore how Aclima can continue to lead the way in collecting hyperlocal data, Aclima recently collaborated with Streetwyze to combine state-of-the-art sensing data with on-the-ground experience. Streetwyze is a mobile, mapping, and SMS platform that collects on-the-ground knowledge about how people are experiencing air pollution at the local level, allowing communities to report problems they are seeing in real-time.

Streetwyze has partnered with SF BUILD, a project funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Dr. Leticia Marquez-Magana from San Francisco State University and Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo from the University of California San Francisco, to enhance the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce. During the summer of 2017, SF BUILD scholars began their experience with a two-week rotation at the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab (SOUL) that partners SF State and UCSF faculty and students, and that is led by Dr. Antwi Akom. One of the key goals of the lab is to increase research that is relevant to local communities so that vulnerable populations can help build healthier neighborhoods.

Streetwyze map of truck loading zones, truck counts, as well as sensitive receptor data in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood.

It was in this spirit of cross-collaboration and connecting data to the real-world that brought Aclima’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Melissa Lunden, to the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab to give a lecture on the science behind air quality measurement and share our Oakland study with the SF BUILD scholars. Utilizing neighborhood maps generated by the year-long research effort, scholars visited selected sites in Oakland and used the Streetwyze application to collect real-time information about the area by taking pictures of various sites, counting vehicle traffic, and more. The goal of the exercise was for the scholars to pair this high resolution air quality data with contextual data to help connect the dots between day-to-day city activities and the impact on the air we breathe.

Empowered with the data and maps developed from the results presented in the ES&T paper, the students visited Uptown Oakland, starting at San Pablo Avenue and 16th Street. Scholars Martha Arriaga and Imani Davis noted that they “immediately noticed many construction sites [and] full garbage cans.” As the students approached the I-880 freeway bordering the south of the region, they noted “a large truck population.” Referencing the hotspot map of black carbon, the scholars identified diesel trucks and cars as a large contributor of emissions in the area. Over the course of one hour, Arriaga and Davis counted 84 buses and 1,284 other vehicles pass at the intersection at West Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Map showing 30m average black carbon concentrations.

Black carbon is a type of particulate matter emitted from incomplete combustion, primarily from diesel engines and biomass burning, and contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even birth defects. With a significant amount of black carbon, likely from trucks and goods transport, West Oakland experiences higher rates of asthma, stroke and congestive heart failure in comparison to other parts of Alameda County.

It is clear that to improve health and wellbeing in cities, hyperlocal information is needed to address sources of pollution. It is also essential to create community awareness to inform and involve citizens. According to Dr. Antwi Akom of Streetwyze,

“By integrating community-generated data with predictive analytics, cities and community leaders are empowered with forward-looking knowledge that can track equity indicators, identify hot spots and cool spots for equitable development, and predict future trajectories for vulnerable populations. This work is the leading edge of a new science of cities.”

Applications like Streetwyze and data generated by Aclima’s platform can help shape the way cities and communities develop and mitigate pollution that affects our environment and our health.