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Army of Air-Quality Sensors to Offer Lafayette, La., and Baltimore Glimpses of Ozone, Humidity Levels

The monitoring programs are part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart City Air Challenge — a 2016 competitive grant program that made $40,000 available to each community.

Like temperature, air quality is hardly static, and can swing widely from one day to another — or even from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Baltimore, Md., and Lafayette, La., will soon have detailed air-quality data buzzing in from monitors mounted across both cities, offering real-time glimpses of ozone, temperature, humidity and particulate levels. The monitoring programs are part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart City Air Challenge — a 2016 competitive grant program that made $40,000 available to each community. Both cities used the money primarily to purchase the air-quality sensor devices, but also develop the sort of software platforms needed to monitor and analyze the data.

In Lafayette, the project is a partnership among the city, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and CGI, a Canada-based IT consulting firm with an office in Lafayette. The three formed the Lafayette Engagement and Research Network.

“The primary role that CGI is playing is actually implementing a data management solution around all of the data that’s coming from these [Internet of Things] devices,” explained William LaBar, CGI vice president for consulting services at the company’s Lafayette location.

A sensor being installed atop a light pole. Photo courtesy of CGI.

LaBar and his team will deploy some 300 air-quality sensors across the city, mounting them largely on traffic signals, which are already wired with electric power and the city’s fiber communications network. That portion of the project should be complete by the end of the year, he said. Already, two “prototype” sensors are installed, and technicians are shoring up the calibration of those devices.

“We’re just doing prototyping now because we want to ensure that design of the casing is going to be resilient, and able to handle different weather patterns,” LaBar said, adding that the prototypes have already survived a tropical storm and a hail storm.

In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University is taking the lead on that project. Known as Open Air Baltimore, the project will place about 250 air monitors across the city, offering a window into air quality in each neighborhood. Researchers want to know “how much does air quality vary throughout the city?” said Anna Scott, project lead of Open Air Baltimore, and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. 

This data can then be mapped and overlaid with other information looking at demographics, socioeconomics, industry and other factors found in an urban setting. 

“Eventually, that’s the kind of work that we’ll get out of this,” said Scott. “This type of technology is really well suited to understanding spatial variabilities."

Both projects take advantage of existing smart city infrastructure such as Lafayette’s fiber network, and open the door for other programs using data and IoT devices, say officials.

“Integrating our information systems and enabling open-data initiatives increases citizen engagement, improves government services, and promotes an innovative and thriving economy,” said Carlee Alm-LaBar, planning zoning and development director for Lafayette Consolidated Government, via email.

The hope is also that other communities could easily replicate what Lafayette and Baltimore are doing. CGI purchased several types of sensors from various vendors in a move to “purposefully create an ecosystem where you have all different types of data coming in, but you need to interpret it,” said LaBar. “So we can understand what kind of algorithms would communities use when you start to have a lot of data coming in from different types of devices. So we’re intentionally kind of creating this diversity in order to understand how people can make sense of it.”

CGI is developing an application programing interface (API) based on an Open Geospatial Consortium standard.

“And so our development of this API can be given back to the open-source community so that any city can sort of implement this API on top of their data-management platform,” LaBar explained. The open-source API is called Kinota.

In Lafayette, a city of 126,000 residents spread across nearly 54 square miles in the heart of South Louisiana Cajun Country, there is currently only one air-quality sensor, maintained by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Multiplying that information-gathering by 300 will offer a wealth of more data to be used not only by city policymakers, but also by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a National Science Foundation funded “big-data” research institution. The university is helping to determine the locations for the sensors so that they are in line with the sustainability strategic plan at the university.

Organizers in both Lafayette and Baltimore have reached into the community to use the programs as educational opportunities, teaching in many cases K-12 students technical skills related to electronics manufacture and assembly.

“So we’re going to do STEM [Science Technology Engineering Mathematics] as a part of the overall project — teach kids about IoT, teach kids about environmental topics, and also teach them about data and analytics,” said LaBar.

“We’ve teamed up with a local job-training organization to run a job training program that teaches Baltimore residents how to do electronics manufacturing,” Scott echoed.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.