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Startups Join Forces to Map Air Pollution Vulnerability

Two companies have announced a new partnership, combining Aclima’s air quality data with UrbanFootprint’s vulnerability data. The data shows disproportionate impacts on people of color and low-income communities.

Los Angeles skyline filled with smog and palm trees
A fog-filled Los Angeles skyline, which has some of California's worst air quality.
Aclima and UrbanFootprint are launching what they call the “first-ever dynamic data solution” that tracks vulnerability to air pollution. The new partnership is aimed at addressing the need for data on who is affected most by air pollution in the U.S.

The data, available through the Aclima Pro software, includes the “Community Impact and Investment Index” as well as neighborhood block-level data on air pollution as it is collected by Aclima, though the solution works with existing, less granular air quality data where Aclima’s hyperlocal data is unavailable.

“What I hope for in the end is that this helps build more resilient places,” UrbanFootprint CEO Joe DiStefano told Government Technology.

Aclima has garnered significant attention from the public sector for their data collection methods in recent years. In July, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that Aclima was beginning to gather data in several New York communities.

New York is the second location where UrbanFootprint’s index is being used in conjunction with Aclima’s air quality data, with the first being in California.

Aclima is also expanding what data it has.

“Aclima is actively collecting data on the West Coast (including Northern and Southern California), the Midwest, the South, and the East Coast (including communities statewide in New York),” said Aclima CEO Davida Herzl in an email to Government Technology. “As we work with local and state governments and the private sector (including energy utilities), we are ramping up measurement collection and expanding across the U.S. In parallel, we are deploying in global cities, like Dublin and Hamburg, [Germany], through our partnership with Google Street View.”

As part of the product launch, the two companies released an analysis of data collected from their first implementation in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The company’s analysis showed that people of color are exposed to as much as 55 percent more nitrogen dioxide than the white population of the region. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “criteria air pollutants” used to track air quality.

In addition to racial disparities, the joint analysis found that those with lower incomes and those who live in rental housing tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution.

When asked about trends in air pollution, DiStefano said that trends vary by locale and that air pollution is affected by several factors such as geography and topography.

Sacoby Wilson is a University of Maryland professor and Aclima advisory board member. He believes the tool has the potential to advance climate justice in the country.

“Hopefully, the Community Impact and Investment Index will act as a decision support tool that can help impacted residents from communities with environmental justice issues receive restorative justice and obtain the benefits that they deserve,” he said in a Thursday press release.

While the new offering from Aclima and UrbanFootprint offers more granular data than what is commonly available, existing data does reflect racial and ethnic disparities.

In April of last year, a team of researchers led by Christopher Tessum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that racial and ethnic minorities are exposed to disproportionately high levels of fine particulate pollution. This kind of pollution increases risk of respiratory irritation, bronchitis, heart disease and premature death.
DiSefano said he expects the data to be most useful to government regulators at the state level, though he anticipates interest from energy utilities and some cities and counties as more federal programs are launched which require targeting interventions based on need.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes several grant programs aimed specifically at addressing air pollution, including $3 billion to reduce pollution at ports, $236 million for air pollution monitoring and $50 million to reduce air pollution at schools.

The act also includes $3 billion in block grants aimed at environmental and climate justice. Programs like this are where the data provided by the new product will be most useful, according to DiStefano.

“We have quite literally hundreds of billions of dollars moving through agencies,” DiStefano said. “The data is very specifically intended to direct that to where its needed most.”

This sentiment was echoed by Herzl, Aclima’s CEO, as well.

“As the nation prepares to make historic investments in climate action, it is critical that we prioritize and integrate the needs of communities that have been historically underserved and are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and pollution,” she said in a Thursday press release.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify that the index is available only through Aclima's software. The granularity level of the data has also been corrected.
Andrew Adams is a data reporter for Government Technology. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.