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Air Quality Sensor Pilot Offers Lessons for Other IoT Installations

Portland, Ore., and Portland State University partner on sensors to improve air quality monitoring and delve into how other cities and municipalities can explore their own sensor projects.

In this installment of the Innovation of the Month series (read last month’s story here), we explore how Portland, Ore., is testing sensor pilots to help improve air quality monitoring, and then look at how other cities and municipalities can explore their own sensor pilots. 

MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine sat down with Christine Kendrick, air quality lead/smart cities coordinator at the city of Portland; Linda George, professor of environmental science and management at Portland State University; and Andrew Rodgers, director of research and applications strategy at The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., to learn more. 

Ben Levine: Can you describe what Portland’s air quality sensor device pilot focused on and what motivated your respective institutions to address this particular opportunity?

Christine Kendrick: Our communities want more information about localized air quality. Ambient air quality monitoring at high spatial resolutions is resource-intensive to install and maintain, and air pollution is not homogenous across the urban landscape. We know that there are limitations in current sensor technology for air pollutant measurements at the lower ambient levels found in U.S. cities.


SenSevere RAMPS installed at OR DEQ monitoring station for co-located field deployment in the City of Portland Air Quality Sensor Pilot.

As a first step, we wanted to explore the uses of sensors, recognizing the current technology limitations. The City of Portland Air Quality Sensor Device Pilot is testing new models of more affordable air quality sensors to see if they can provide reliable air quality data from the roadside environment.

Using multiple types of co-located deployments in our project design allows us to better understand the limitations and uses of the type of data achievable from lower-cost devices. Can they be used to identify relative differences in air pollution between locations? Or assess pollution levels before and after construction projects in the roadway or built environment? Or can they help identify where additional resources should be invested for air pollution monitoring with higher-grade instruments?

The pilot involves three types of co-located deployments:

  • Testing sensors against known concentrations of gases and particles in the Sustainable Atmospheres Research (STAR) Lab at Portland State University (PSU).
  • Co-locating sensors together at an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality urban ambient monitoring station.
  • Co-locating different types of sensors at three signalized intersections on a major urban arterial roadway.
Finally, this project also serves as a pilot for:

  • The deployment of a distributed sensor network or Internet of Things (IoT) project in the public right-of-way.
  • Management and analysis of data collected across multiple locations in real time.
  • Methods to add attachments to the city’s streetlights and traffic signals, which will all help to inform additional citywide policies and guidelines.
Linda George: The PSU STAR Lab has been interested in exploring and understanding urban air pollution for the last decade. In order to assess this variability with observations, we need much lower cost measurement devices. In addition, we are also very interested in understanding the drivers of spatial variation and what can be done to reduce air pollution where levels are elevated. We collaborate with transportation engineers, urban planners and epidemiologists to explore these issues. This project gives us an opportunity to provide feedback to developers of low-cost sensors as cities consider taking them up for widespread use. We have designed a state-of-the art testbed for air pollution sensor testing against Federal Reference Method (FRM) instruments.

Levine: Who was involved with the City of Portland Air Quality Sensor Pilot?

Kendrick: The City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability pilot project is supported by a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Replicable Smart City Technologies Cooperative Agreement grant.


Philip Orlando, graduate researcher, working with the sensor testing chamber and Array of Things Node in the STAR lab at Portland State University. 

Partners involved are Portland Bureau of Transportation, NIST, Portland State University, and the sensor providers (three devices from each provider): Apis, SenSevere, and Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago.

Levine: What have been the biggest lessons learned? How can other cities/counties implement effective sensor pilots? Are there overarching governance and policy issues that must be considered?

Kendrick: There are new challenges at every step of the way in creating a sensor network. As we talked to colleagues in other communities we realized we were not alone in figuring out these steps.

Common issues included:

  • Cultivating resources to address a wide range of needs (sensor validation, privacy, security, community engagement and more).
  • This type of infrastructure for a city is a departure from past projects.
Through participation in the NIST Global Cities Team Challenge (GCTC) program, we had the opportunity to collaboratively compile these overarching governance and policy issues into the Recommendations for the Development & Implementation of Distributed Sensor Networks blueprint.

A recurring theme in the blueprint is that you need to ask yourself critical questions at each project stage to ensure the sensor network you are building truly fits the needs of your community. Putting together a multidisciplinary team will help you address the variety of challenges encountered and also help to build those lessons learned into new guidelines for your municipality.

For example, when reviewing air quality sensors, we had to create unique selection criteria to fit our project’s needs. This was not a review that could be conducted solely by the city’s procurement officers. Collaboration between me, an air quality scientist, and our procurement team with their expertise in our city’s legal and purchasing requirements and sustainability goals resulted in a unique process, and it’s one that can now be applied to a future technology project rather than creating it as we go.

Levine: How did you become involved with the blueprint for sensor network development?

Kendrick: While participating in the first Transportation SuperCluster Blueprint Workshop, the topic of sensors in the right-of-way kept coming up. Sensors were discussed as a tool to help collect data for transportation projects. However, from the first months of our pilot and conversations with colleagues like Andrew who had conducted a variety of pilots, it was clear that creating, installing and maintaining a sensor network had its own set of issues and guidance needs.

For the second workshop in Portland, we created a work session focused solely on sensor networks. We got feedback from participants with backgrounds in the research, private and public sectors. Andrew and I then took the lead in creating the Sensor Network Recommendation blueprint. We were excited about creating this resource that could provide a stepping stone for those tasked with planning and managing similar projects.

Andrew Rodgers: While attending the first Transportation SuperCluster Blueprint Workshop, I realized that many communities were grappling with the same challenges that Chattanooga had regarding deploying technology projects, specifically IoT sensors, in municipal agencies that were used to dealing with a very different type of infrastructure. At the second workshop, the conversations at the session Christine facilitated really highlighted the need for a resource focused on providing a neutral entry point for newcomers. I saw working with Christine as a way to share and codify some of the early experiences we had as a community, along with some of my personal experiences managing early IoT systems in the manufacturing space.

Levine: What are the next steps for the City of Portland Air Quality Sensor Device Pilot and your work to exchange lessons learned from sensor deployments among communities? 

Kendrick: The City of Portland Air Quality Sensor Device Pilot is still in progress. Next steps will be to document the maintenance required once devices are installed at the roadside and write a collaboration paper with NIST. We are also in the planning stages to create a community workshop focused on data sharing and how to best communicate short-term air quality measurements. We want to engage with various community groups to learn what other uses they see for air quality sensors. As discussed in the blueprint, coordinated effort and communication with stakeholders is key to understand the cultural, technical, and resource constraints of your community. 

Continuing to collaborate across communities will allow us to learn about changes in available technologies. Writing proposals together is a great way to build on our initial sensor pilots. Opportunities for colleagues across institutions to meet in person like the Global Tech Jam in Portland in June 2018 are also additional tools to exchange lessons learned and explore sensor installations.

Rodgers: We’re actively working with other communities that are going through this process, through MetroLab and other organizations, these collaborations enable a two-way experience sharing that supports both those communities new to deploying these systems, the communities that may be looking to replace “legacy” systems in this rapidly evolving market, and the researchers who might be developing new systems to better address some of the concerns outlined in the blueprint.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics, and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development, and deployment of projects that offer technologically- and analytically-based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork.

Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.

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