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Air Quality Sensors Track COVID-19 Activity in Kansas City

A collaborative research project in Kansas City, Mo., uses sensors placed on buildings across diverse neighborhoods to monitor general air quality, as well as that in COVID-19 hotbeds, with publicly accessible data.

Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City, Mo.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight KC Digital Drive’s Air Quality Sensor Project. This project is focused on reducing air pollution in COVID-19 hot beds and improving overall air quality using citizen-accessible data and sensors. MetroLab’s Josh Schacht spoke to Jim Starcev, Solutions Lab program manager at KC Digital Drive; Jensen Adams, energy and sustainability officer at the Kansas City Public Library; and Doug Norsby, air quality planner at the Mid-America Regional Council.

Josh Schacht: Can you tell us about the need for this project and what the team’s goals are?

Jim Starcev: At KC Digital Drive, we sit at the intersection of emerging technology and improving the lives of all Kansas City residents. The Air Quality Sensor project was therefore started under the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program to reduce air pollution in areas of high COVID-19 transmission to help reduce infection rates in addition to improving overall air quality. The project continues to be funded and strategically supported as part of US Ignite’s smart community network under NSF grant 1531046. Initially a program at the University of Utah, the project was expanded to include three additional metros: Kansas City, Cleveland and Chattanooga, Tenn. Each city received 50 Tetrad sensors to deploy in their respective areas. Each sensor measures temperature, humidity and the amount of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), and uploads data every two minutes via a Wi-Fi connection.

This project fits well into our mission of using technology to engage citizens, capture meaningful data and use that data to benefit the entire city. Air quality is an important topic because of the impact pollution has on all residents. Pollution exceeds World Health Organization guidelines for 92 percent of the world population, resulting in 6.5 million deaths and $21 billion in health-care costs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produces maps based on very limited high-quality measurements that are very useful in tracking air quality, but these maps fail to capture local dynamics. By using an array of low-quality sensors placed in close proximity to each other, we can produce higher-resolution pollution estimates, down to the neighborhood scale. This effort took on added significance in 2020 as recent studies have shown that higher air pollution is strongly correlated to more COVID-19 deaths.

Schacht: Who are the partners on this work and how did they come together for this project?

Starcev: KC Digital Drive brought together a group of experts on air quality issues for this project. Representatives from city, regional and state governments and agencies; academic and university researchers; community organizers; and environmental justice groups were part of our leadership team. This diverse group helped us define the area to place the sensors, provide expertise to normalize the data from the sensors, use the data for research purposes and build community engagement. Through these partnerships we were able to gain access to additional data for the project including data from the EPA sensor where we co-located asthma rates by ZIP code, hospital admittances and other atmospheric data. The group included people associated with a number of organizations: Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Children’s Mercy Hospital, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City Public Library, University of Kansas, city of Kansas City, Missouri, Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas, and CleanAir Now.

Schacht: How can Kansas City residents engage in this process and with your findings?

Air Viewer map of Kansas City
Starcev: We decided to do this program as a citizen scientist project to involve more residents. The vast majority of our sensors have been or are being placed on residential homes. We chose an area roughly along Troost Avenue to prioritize the placement of sensors. Historically, Troost has represented a racial north-south dividing line for Kansas City. By deploying the sensors within an area 2 miles east and west of Troost we are able to involve a very demographically diverse group of people, many of whom had never participated in a project like this. Any resident in the approximately 18-square-mile area can sign up to have a sensor to install on their home. Anybody can sign up to receive updates and access the AirViewer map (see image, right), which provides hourly updates of the PM 2.5 readings from each sensor. We are hosting community meetings that are open to everyone to provide more information about the program. We are also planning on providing access to much of the research that our partners do as part of this project.

Schacht: How will other partners in the city, including the local government, use this project?

Jensen Adams: Kansas City Public Library loves partnerships like this! Libraries are great for citizen science and deeply engaged in digital literacy and inclusion. In addition to hosting the sampling equipment, each branch has computers where patrons can access the project dashboard and learn about changes in weather and air quality in their neighborhoods. Librarians know where to find reading material and web resources about the environment. The partnership builds on KCPL’s commitment as a community leader in green practices.

Schacht: What are some adjustments most cities can make to better support air quality for their community?

Doug Norsby: Often the adjustments that make the most difference in improving air quality result from prioritization and investment in existing programs and popular activities. For example, everyone loves parks and trees! Green space reduces heat reflected from concrete and asphalt while increasing the capture of particulate pollution. Taking the next step by actively integrating green infrastructure within the built structural environment significantly reduces building heating and cooling energy needs. Investing in surrounding landscaping — especially elements that incorporate native grasses and trees — can really make a difference in air quality while also creating appealing aesthetics.

Another government responsibility revolves around providing effective transportation networks. Commitment to developing or enhancing walking trails, adding infrastructure to support biking, and establishing measures to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety encourages citizens to expand their use of non-motorized travel. While vehicle emissions controls are continuously improving, driving still contributes to air pollution, so offering inviting, non-motorized travel alternatives is a critical role for a city.

Cities can also provide leadership in adopting operations technologies that directly reduce air pollution. Replacing or converting diesel-powered trash and recycling trucks to alternative fuels like compressed natural gas directly alleviates particle pollution throughout the community, demonstrates alternative fuel use to the private sector and builds support for local investment in new fueling infrastructure. Other operational changes could involve energy conservation measures such as LED street and traffic lights, HVAC upgrades in public buildings and modifying waste treatment processes. Until all electricity is generated by clean, renewable sources, energy conservation translates to reduction in air pollutants.

Schacht: What do you see as the future of this project? Where will it go from here?

Kansas City air quality metrics
Starcev: The project is very much in its infancy. We began deploying sensors in the spring of 2021, with the goal of having all of them in place by the end of 2021. Our plan is to collect data for at least three years. Data from the sensors is stored in a Google studio (see image, right) and is updated every two minutes. Currently the data displayed is actual readings that are uncorrected. One of our sensors is co-located at an EPA monitoring site. We have months of data from both the EPA sensor and our sensor and are using it to create an appropriate correction factor that can be applied to each of the sensors we have deployed. All of our partners have access to both the raw and correct data that we are collecting. The public will be able to view a visualization map with hourly updates from each sensor as well as other sensors in the area that we can download data from. This will provide a level of information on air quality that most residents have not had the ability to see before. While this data is interesting in and of itself, the real value is in analyzing it with other data sets we or our partners have created or have access to. Some areas that we plan to explore include:

  • Existing air quality data — what do we learn that is additive, different or misleading?
  • COVID-19 admissions data, some with geography and date time stamp
  • Survey data that we collect from residents about concerns/actions related to air quality
  • 311 air quality data
  • Hospital visits, pediatric and adult
  • KU atmospheric data
  • Kansas City life expectancy data

Our overall goal is to make this a meaningful project that both actively and/or passively involves many citizens, researchers and civil servants.
Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.