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PRODUCTIVE

UT Dallas Air Quality Mapping Project

Could the Internet of Things, that somewhat mysterious global network promising to connect cyber space with physical space, actually help people to breathe a bit easier? According to Dr. David Lary, atmospheric scientist and associate professor of physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, the answer is yes. Using a network of specialized sensors across two different urban spaces, Lary and his team hope to collect, aggregate and analyze massive amounts of data on air quality.

Early in 2016, Lary and his team piloted the Geolocated Allergen Sensing Platform (GASP for short), a project supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation to gather and map air-quality data in real-time. GASP collects data through a network of advanced sensors deployed throughout metropolitan Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the UT Dallas campus and at schools in the Dallas area.

Tiny Particles, Big Data

In order to measure the air-quality in a given area, sensors need to be able to accurately count the number of tiny particles and classify them based on their size. At each station of the GASP network, sensors use lasers to count particles and measure their size as they pass through the laser’s path based on how much of the light they block.

The particle data is then transferred through an ultra-high-speed computer network with the bandwidth necessary to move and process the massive amounts of sensor data being collected and report the information in real-time. The GASP network hopes to gather an array of data at each node, including location, temperature, pressure, humidity, the abundance of six common pollutants (ozone, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide), the concentration of airborne particulates and the abundance of common types of pollen.

The GASP network harness the data collecting power of Waggle smart sensor platform, developed by scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, and support from US Ignite, a nonprofit organization that fosters the development of projects that use ultra-high-speed computer networks for social good.

“Collecting and streaming this amount of data requires bandwidth, and our partnership with US Ignite will facilitate this and hopefully many other projects,” said Lary in an interview with the UT Dallas News Center. “The combined use of all these technologies — big data, remote sensing, network connectivity, machine learning, the so-called Internet of Things — it’s all very up-and-coming, and it’s an approach that has tremendous potential to have a massive societal impact.”

Smarter Cities, Cleaner Air

Air pollution is responsible for around 5.5 million deaths globally each year, according to a February 2016 study from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. Airborne pollen and pollution also affect the lives of the more than 50 million Americans living with allergic diseases, including asthma.
While the Environmental Protection Agency does have automated monitoring stations throughout the U.S. to ensure that areas are meeting its air quality standards with websites reporting the data hourly, there are limitations to the existing infrastructure.

“Not only are existing instruments bulky, they also are expensive, around $100,000 to set one up,” said Lary. “In addition, they are widely scattered, with only a few sensors in the D-FW area and a minimum spacing of 33 kilometers. Ideally, to accurately characterize the spatial distribution of pollutants, we should be making measurements every half a kilometer or less.”

Beyond helping individuals affected by respiratory conditions identify which parts of their city are safest, the data could be used to inform policy decisions by helping to identify major sources of airborne pollution in cities and which areas are being most affected. The GASP project could be expanded to other metropolitan areas within the U.S. and around the globe, leveraging big data to improve environmental transparency between urban citizens and their spaces, help mitigate the effects of pollution and promote health and wellness.

2 Comments

  1. Gosh, I’m both a believer and a skeptic. I feel like progress needs to happen (I’m all for “smart” if it fixes potholes being in the year it happens) while having a good deal of apprehension in having all systems in one central location. But, I feel like we have to move towards progress while building checks and balances. Hiding in a bunker being afraid generally is not the greatest plan…

  2. I’m all for making our neighborhoods and cities safer and more efficient, but I draw the line at any use of the information to affect me specifically. For example, I’m all for using sensors to detect traffic buildup, or areas where the water table is drying up (which can lead to problems with home foundations, street damage, etc.), but I don’t want that same information used to automatically issue speeding tickets, or having environmental information passed on to insurance companies who can use the information to increase rates. It’s a selfish position but I’m going to stick with it.

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