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Air Quality Network Plays Growing Role in Denver Public Health

Through the Love My Air program, the city of Denver is empowering residents and public officials alike to make better decisions with data related to air quality for personal and public health.

The city of Denver is working to use air quality data to improve public health outcomes through its Love My Air program.

The initiative was borne out of a desire to to improve the city’s historically poor air quality caused by factors like population, industry and geography. In 2018, the city received $1 million from the 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge to improve its network of air quality sensors, and in May 2022, the Love My Air app was launched.

“Love My Air is one way we can sharpen our climate action efforts through the use of data, work to improve our air quality around our schools, and take local, actionable steps to help address a global challenge,” said Mayor Michael B. Hancock in a statement.

Aubrey Burgess was the program manager with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) and the Love My Air program manager up until Aug. 4.

Burgess said the connection between air quality and incidence of asthma prompted program officials to pair increased air quality monitoring with outreach and education efforts.

Initially, the scope of the program was focused on providing real-time, local access to this data for the community. It involved an air quality sensor network with sensors at the 40 participating schools.

Schools were at the heart of this effort, Burgess explained, because of their standing as community hubs, places where people may go for access to community services. While air quality can affect people of all ages and with a variety of health conditions, asthma is something that can be developed at a young age.

Bill Obermann, the air policy program manager for DDPHE, has been involved in the Love My Air program on the technical side, working to refine the sensor network and database. In recent months, he has been helping with the program’s strategic planning, and since Burgess' departure, he’s taken on more of the day-to-day management duties.

The network currently measures PM2.5 — particulate matter in the air that has a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller — which is especially impactful to public health.

This year, the data shows PM2.5 levels have decreased. Obermann credits this to fewer days impacted by smoke from wildfires than in previous years. However, he does note that while it has been a stable year for particulate matter, the number of ozone action days — or days during which the ozone concentration is higher than the EPA standard — has increased.
At this point, the sensor network is a standard system that is working well. Over time, Obermann said, the city may look to monitor new pollutants. That development will likely depend on the availability of high-quality, low-cost sensors for nitrogen dioxide.


“I’d say the forefront of where we’re going to be moving in tech is with our app,” Obermann said.

The Love My Air app, originally launched during Air Quality Awareness Week in May 2022, aims to build on the data available through the webpages with more real-time messaging and comparisons between school sites, said Burgess. It also incorporates data from state reference sites that use larger-scale instruments, as well as neighboring municipalities' sensor networks.

The idea, she said, was for it to act as a weather app that offers an air quality forecast for users and stakeholders. The app was developed in partnership with SensibleIoT.

The app is still in its beta version, but city staff are currently working to add new features, like push notifications, to make it more distinctive and relevant to city residents than other apps that include air quality metrics. Obermann expects the addition of push notifications to happen in the coming months, and analytics will be used to improve user experience.


“The emphasis of this project up until recently was really singularly focused on the behavior change at the individual level and in our individual schools,” Burgess said.

She explained that the information allowed school employees to make informed decisions on outdoor activities on bad air quality days or for students with asthma or other health concerns. In addition, it empowered students to take preventative asthma medication or find alternative activities to protect their own health.

However, now that the city has several years of data, the goal is to leverage that information to influence smart policies in the city.

Obermann said that part of his role will be representing the city in policy work at the state level, with three specific pieces of climate-related law coming up in the next year related to heavy-duty trucks, a refinery near the northern boundary of Denver and air toxins in disproportionately impacted communities. The city will likely use data from this network to inform those discussions, he explained.

And while the grant from Bloomberg ends Dec. 31, 2022, the city has plans to continue the program through its own funding to keep the sensor network running and evolve it.

“We’re committed to running it in 2023 and beyond,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
Andrew Adams is a data reporter for <i>Government Technology</i>. 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.