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New App Helps Los Angeles Area Residents Breathe Easier

The South Coast Air Quality Management District reports high engagement with a new mobile application meant to equip citizens with knowledge about current smog levels as well as air quality forecasts.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know if the air is breathable in Los Angeles today? At the risk of sounding cliché: There’s an app for that.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) released an IoS air quality application in November and plans to follow up with an Android version in May. The interactive tool gives citizens access to air quality information, weather updates, news about the SCAQMD’s activities and other key data.

“The public uses our website, they use our phone number, but most people have a mobile device. This seemed like the easiest way for them to get this important information and to be a partner with us,” said Assistant Deputy Executive Officer and Chief Information Officer Ron Moskowitz.

The SCAQMD spent about $130,000 to build the app, devoting four months to development and a month to testing prior to launch. The resulting tool quickly proved itself as a means of driving citizen engagement.

“Over 3,500 users installed this app within the first four months of release,” said SCAQMD Systems Analyst JiaYuan Li. “An average of 350 sessions are generated each day, which means users are constantly checking the app throughout the day.”

There’s plenty to check. Users can tailor the app to report on air quality and weather in multiple locations in order to plan their daily activities. They can get targeted alerts when air quality becomes unhealthy and check on forecast air quality for the coming days.

The SCAQMD taps a range of sources for this information. “The data is collected through an EPA-approved and -regulated monitoring network, and the air quality index is calculated using EPA-approved methods,” Moskowitz said. Weather comes from the online service OpenWeatherMap, and the app taps into Esri GIS data to locate fueling stations for drivers of alternative-fuel vehicles.

An interactive map allows users to see their air quality data in real time, and the app also provides direct contact with the SCAQMD's 1-800-CUT-SMOG phone line.

All these tools are being deployed to service some 18 million residents across the counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Los Angeles.

The interface is constantly under review, as managers seek to make the app ever more user-friendly. “To tackle this challenge, a dedicated mobile experience team has been formed,” Li said, adding that the group is made up of district analysts, programmers and user interface designers. “The expressed purpose of this team is to continuously work with the users, bridging the gap between users and the agency.”

The planned Android release will deepen those engagements further. Even as the agency gears up for that next step, the IT team is looking at additional technology implementations. The team recently released an app to enable online permitting of dry cleaners, gas stations and spray-painting booths.

“It used to take days and weeks for an application to be submitted and approved. Now you can go online and within two hours you can get your permit,” Moskowitz said. “We are going to be doing a lot more with that, looking at a lot more forms. We want to continue to digitize our paper processes to make everything as easy as possible.”

In the longer term, the district is considering its options around emerging Internet of Things solutions. While the IoT vision of a sensor on every streetlight offers the promise of a significantly broader base of air quality data, Moskowitz is moving ahead with some caution.

“The problem with low-cost sensors is that they may not look at all the different pollutants we are looking at. On top of that there is a serviceability question, making sure that they are operational and accurate,” he said. “That being said, our scientists are evaluating these low-cost sensors and we expect that we will eventually be deploying these to get a more granular readout of the air quality.”

Air quality has been a longstanding issue in southern California, which in past decades was famous for its smog problems. Moskowitz remembers it well.

“Growing up, we had ‘smog days’ where we were told to stay indoors because your throat and lungs would actually hurt from breathing the air,” he said. “Over the last 30 years, we have made significant improvements cleaning up air pollution, but there is still so much work to do. This app helps accomplish some of that work by providing the public with important information in a way that they can access really easily.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.