Ted Smith

Ted Smith

Join us on Tuesday, Feb. 17, for our next Insiders Meetup at Vincenzo’s. Below is a primer on the topic — ‘citizen science’ — which special guest Ted Smith and others will discuss at the meetup. Click here to RSVP

If you’re familiar with Weather Underground (the weather service, not the socialist organization), you already are familiar with the idea of citizen science. What makes the Underground uncannily accurate when it comes to weather prediction is that it pairs information from the National Weather Service and NOAA with information gathered by more than 40,000 members with personal weather stations.

Metro Chief of Civic Innovation Ted Smith and Mayor Greg Fischer want Louisville to be doing more citizen science, a logical endeavor for this “top digital city.”

With that in mind, last fall Smith took on two new roles in addition to his Metro position: executive director of the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil (founded by Christy Brown) and director of the Urban Laboratory Projects of the Institute.

The institute is expanding the use of citizen science, ultimately with the goal of improving overall well being in a city that often doesn’t fare well in studies assessing the health of residents and the environment in which they live.

When it comes to air quality, for example, the city is abysmal: In 2013, Kentucky was cited as having the fourth highest adult asthma prevalence in the country. Louisville was named one of the top 20 “Most Challenging” cities to live in with asthma, and the Spring Allergy Capital in the United States in 2014.

Smith wants to know how we can turn this around, but the big picture of air quality is hard to determine. The air quality in Butchertown is going to be different than in Rubbertown. The particulates in the air on the Ohio River are going to be different than those off of I-264.

Smith thinks this is the perfect case for the use of citizen science: Create an air quality map of the city where we can pinpoint exactly where bad air “hot” spots are located.

Here’s how the air map works: While the city has a certain number of municipal devices spread out across many neighborhoods measuring air quality, it seeks to pair those instruments with citizen-operated devices. As Weather Underground has shown, more data is better data.

Several projects will help generate the data the air-quality map needs to be comprehensive and solution-focused, all of which are examples of citizen science.

In mid 2014, the institute crowdfunded Air Quality Eggs, which were a huge hit on Kickstarter in 2012. The $200 egg-shaped monitors turned out to be inconsistent and basically outdated by the time they shipped. The project was deemed problematic.

But Smith is going to give crowdfunding another go. Air-quality monitor technology has leapt forward since mid-2014, and the devices are more sensitive and cost less. Residents will have a chance to buy devices — maybe you want one at home and one near your kids’ school — to monitor air quality. This information then will be sent to the air quality map as open data.

As we reported back in November, yet another citizen science project also brings the arts on board. Metro Government is partnering with City Collaborative, IDEAS40203, Creative Commons, Urban Matter Inc. out of Brooklyn and others to create an interactive, kinetic art installation powered by open data health information — specifically air quality. Puneet Kishor, the manager of science and data policy at Creative Commons, is the man behind this project. He described it like this:

“In a nutshell, the group plans to install sensor-based air-quality hardware around the city (20-40 different locations, depending on what the budget will allow). These sensors will collect environmental information like temperature, humidity, particulates and dust and stream them to a central server where the data will be collected and translated into an art installation developed by Urban Matter Inc.”

That data, too, will be sent to the air quality map linking even more sensors to the citizen data collection.

“Common people feel left out of data,” Kishor told Insider Louisville in November. If they’re disengaged from policy-making, it’s easy for them to become apathetic. This project is meant to “collect and communicate data from people, and then share it with the people the data is about.”

Finally, IL will share details about yet another citizen science project in a post later this week: A thousand Propeller Health devices will be distributed throughout the city thanks to a $750,000 grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The devices attach to asthma inhalers and sync with a smartphone. When you take a puff, the device records your location.

Syncing this data with the air map will further assist the city in identifying hot spots for asthma sufferers. This the second rollout of this effort; the first round was in 2012, with 350 devices distributed. The data was tracked over 13 months.

“The more we know about our environment,” said Smith, “we can make smarter choices.”