Air pollution is responsible for respiratory illnesses and can amplify various underlying health conditions and potentially lead to death. In Houston, a local clean air advocacy group has identified a lack of awareness about these dangers and the differences in air quality between communities and has set out to make a difference.

While Houston’s air quality has steadily improved over the years, there’s more work to be done, and Air Alliance Houston (AAH) is helping to lead the charge. Raising awareness on the state of the city’s air is key to mobilising a greater number of advocates for fresh air. AAH is experimenting with personal pollution monitors as a a way to engage their community, and to start collecting data. Most recently, they organised a sensor-enhanced community bike ride throughout the city!

The purpose of this experiment was to raise awareness about the growing problem of air pollution in the city of Houston by collecting localized air quality data.

This initiative was also be used to bring the AAH bike riding community together to discuss air pollution and how to reduce their exposure based on the information collected.

Finally, this event helped raise the profile of AAH’s fundraising efforts and set the stage for future work.

What they did

Air Alliance Houston partnered with McMac Cx through their Air Champions – Social Change Scientists initiative to organise a sensor-enhanced series of bike rides throughout the Houston area. Riders were equipped with Flow 2 personal pollution monitors for the duration of their rides. Each rider’s pollution exposure was continuously measured during the ride and plotted on an interactive map.

Participants in Action

The data was also collected and analyzed using the Plume Labs Fleet Basecamp dashboard. Participants were also invited to discuss their experiences following the ride, and all of this information was incorporated into a final report published by AAH.

Project implementation

Seven groups of bikers equipped with Flow personal pollution monitors rode along designated routes in the Houston area, collecting data for each route. This data was displayed in a number of street maps and line graphs – showing each rider’s exposure, what pollutants they were breathing, to what degree, and where.

For the street maps in particular, users were able to filter the results by pollutant. This allows for a deeper analysis of exposure levels. The user can also freely select automatically generated ‘moves’ and ‘spots’ on the map. ‘Moves’ correspond to each user’s GPS measurements and pollution exposure levels, and spots indicating when the participant remained static for an extended period of time.

Participant pollution data was also populating line graphs that display data on each of the pollutants as well as a total Air Quality Index adding an additional option for analysis and story-telling.

Project results

Simms Bayou Group

The streaks of red shown on the Simms Bayou group’s map indicates the highest amount of pollution during the ride was between Old Spanish Trail and South Loop. According to their line graphs, there is a noticeable spike of NO2, PM10, and PM2.5 at around 11am due to diesel exhaust from heavy-duty machinery and vehicles.

East End Group

The lines on the East End group’s map appear strange at first but were still able to indicate high pollution levels more in the orange zone. At 11am, there was a spike in NO2 and then PM10 levels shortly afterwards, perhaps due to car exhaust and/or industrial facility emissions.

Heights Group

The Heights group actually had two sets of data as one member had their own personal air monitor with them. This allowed us to not only witness high pollution levels in the purple zone, but corresponding spikes of PM10 and PM2.5 when they transfer from one device to another after a few minutes.

Brays Bayou Group

As for Brays Bayou group, they’re lacking a map due to Bluetooth connectivity issues. Therefore, the particular route that was taken along with the location of any high air pollution contributors will be unknown. However, the line graphs will still be able to portray a story, with PM10 fluctuating throughout and with NO2 gaining slight elevation of about 50ug/m3 around 10:30am.

Downtown Group

The Downtown group’s map seems to be the only one so far to display a single high air pollution reading in the red zone for a period of time. There are high levels of PM10 and PM2.5 around 11am, which seems to have been captured as the group rode along the designated bike greenway. The cause was thought to be linked to construction dust and industrial emission that was present in the area.

Sheldon Group

The Sheldon group was perhaps the only group to encounter and record the highest amount of pollutant concentration. This became most notable as NO2 levels shot up immediately after the monitor was powered on and quickly leveling off after the group left their origin point and into more rural portions of the ride. Elevated PM10 levels were observed around noon.

Spring Creek Group

Just like the Brays Bayou group, the Spring Creek Greenway group is lacking a map (caused by Bluetooth connection issues). Spikes in NO2 and VOC levels are the most visible due to instrument calibration as the monitor tries to return to its normal recording state and a tailpipe exhaust that is measured in the parking lot before the ride respectively.

Project impact

This project helped AAH get a basic understanding of the air quality in the local area, and to spread the word. In fact, environmental attorney and friend of Air Alliance Houston, Jen Powis, had the chance to discuss her experience during the ride on on the air.

Next Steps

Collect more data and improve the data collection process. Because air quality is highly variable – hour to hour, day to day, the decision was made to collect more data. A lot was learned from this first proof of concept in terms of deployment and logistics. For example: some monitors weren’t fully online and synced with the app during the rides. It may also be helpful to have multiple monitors along for future rides. It is also important to make sure all monitors are online and synced to GPS ahead of the ride to prevent loss of valuable data and to preserve accuracy.

Conclusion

This experiment was as a useful stepping stone for what lies ahead when it comes to raising awareness about air quality and pollution. With this experience under their collective belt, Air Alliance Houston continues to test the tech and collect data. They plan on organising more rides and events to keep the momentum going.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. i kave had 2 flows now -and tehe problem with getting them accepted as anything more than toys by local authorit3es in the UK is that they cannot be calibrated – or standardised to demonstrate their reliabilithy – piry relly Flow have had plenty of time to resolve this but can’t be bothered – my local authority dismisses my Flow results stating that unless they coe from a machine costing £20k they are rubbish

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    • Hi David, sorry to hear you are having this conflict with your local authorities. People often use their Flows to collect data to be used in various steps of their lobbying or activism efforts–as part of a broader campaign. For example, using your Flow, or various Flows to measure personal exposure during the day. This information can then help you make statements like: “80% of my daily exposure takes place during my commute” or “whenever I am walking on X street, I am exposed to high levels of PM 10”. This information is then very useful in solidifying a hypothesis, and then launching further studies in collaboration with other researchers who can create evidential quality data to test the hypothesis, and ultimately take it to the local council.

      Flow is designed to measure personal exposure – what you’re being exposed to, to what degree, and where that exposure is happening. This makes it a very powerful tool to enhance your air quality story-telling and has been used by many journalists and community leaders to raise awareness.

      Please keep up your work in the fight against air pollution and I hope this information is helpful.

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  2. Very interesting initiative, which aims to raise awareness of issues such as air and environmental pollution, through a healthy and fun activity at the same time. It is important to make people understand the causes of poor air quality and to understand what we can all do every day, as a community, to help improve the situation in our way. There are many actions that can remedy environmental pollution, such as preferring travel by public transport, bicycles, or electric vehicles. This action leads to a decrease in fuel-powered cars, and therefore smog. The use of household water purifiers, eliminating the consumption of plastic bottles is something we can do every day, in addition to properly carrying out separate waste collection; in fact, when waste is not recycled, it risks being dispersed into the environment or burned, with disastrous consequences for the air and soil. In our small way we can still take action to fight this phenomenon, simply with a change in our lifestyle we can do a lot.

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