Air Quality Network plays a growing role in Denver’s 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 born out of a desire to improve the city’s historically poor air quality caused by factors such as population, industry and geography. In 2018, the city received $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge 2018 to improve its air quality sensor network, and in May 2022 the Love My Air app was launched.
“Love My Air is a way to refine our climate action efforts through the use of data, work to improve the air quality around our schools, and take local, concrete action to help address a global challenge,” said Mayor Michael B. Hancock. in a report.
Aubrey Burgess was the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) program manager and Love My Air program manager until August 4.
Burgess said the link between air quality and the incidence of asthma prompted program officials to combine increased air quality monitoring with outreach and education efforts.
Initially, the scope of the program was focused on providing local, real-time access to this data for the community. It was an air quality sensor network with sensors in the 40 participating schools.
Schools were central to this effort, Burgess explained, because of their status as community hubs, places where people can go to access community services. While air quality can affect people of all ages and with a variety of health issues, asthma is something that can develop at a young age.
Bill Obermann, Air Policy Program Manager for DDPHE, has been involved in the Love My Air program on a technical level, working to refine the sensor network and database. In recent months he has helped with strategic planning for the program and since Burgess’ departure has taken on more of the day-to-day management duties.
The network currently measures PM2.5 – particles in the air with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less – which has a particularly large impact on public health.
This year, data shows PM2.5 levels have declined. Obermann attributes that to fewer days affected by wildfire smoke than in previous years. However, he notes that even though the year has been stable for particulate matter, the number of ozone action days—or days when the ozone concentration is above the EPA standard—has increase.
At this point, the sensor network is a standard system that works well. Over time, Obermann said, the city may seek to monitor new pollutants. This development will likely depend on the availability of high quality, low cost nitrogen dioxide sensors.
THE LOVE MY AIR APP
“I would say the forefront of the evolution of technology is with our app,” Obermann said.
The Love My Air app, originally launched during Air Quality Awareness Week in May 2022, aims to leverage the data available on web pages with more real-time messaging and comparisons between school sites, Burgess said. It also incorporates data from state reference sites that use larger-scale instruments, as well as sensor networks from neighboring municipalities.
The idea, she said, was for it to act as a weather app that offers an air quality forecast to users and stakeholders. The application was developed in partnership with SensibleIoT.
The app is still in beta, but city staff are currently working on adding new features, like push notifications, to make it more distinctive and relevant to city residents than other apps that include air quality measurements. Obermann expects the addition of push notifications to happen in the coming months, and analytics will be used to improve the user experience.
BIG AND SMALL IMPACTS
“The focus of this project until recently was really singularly focused on behavior change at the individual level and in our individual schools,” Burgess said.
She said the information helps school employees make informed decisions about outdoor activities on days with poor air quality or for students with asthma or other health conditions. Additionally, it allowed students to take preventive medication against asthma or find alternative activities to protect their own health.
However, now that the city has several years of data, the goal is to leverage this information to influence smart policies in the city.
Obermann said part of his role will be representing the city in state-level policy work, with three specific climate laws coming next year relating to heavy-duty trucks, a refinery near the northern edge of Denver and airborne toxins in disproportionately affected communities. The city will likely use data from that network to inform those discussions, he said.
And while Bloomberg’s grant ends Dec. 31, 2022, the city plans to continue the program with its own funding to keep the sensor network running and growing.
“We are committed to making it work in 2023 and beyond,” he said.