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Project Aims To Create 'Neighborhood Watch' For Pittsburgh Air Quality

Purple Air
A snapshot of air quality sensor readings in the Pittsburgh area at 1:50 p.m. on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. The numbers correspond to the sensor's AQI reading. 25 sensors in the Pittsburgh area are hosted by employees of the RAND Corporation.

Graduate students in Santa Monica, Calif. are collecting hyperlocal air quality data -- in Pittsburgh. The hope for the project, run out of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, is that the data collected from at-home sensors will inform public policy. Pardee RAND is an extension of the RAND Corporation, which has an office in Pittsburgh.

Twenty-five PurpleAir sensors were distributed to RAND Corporation employees in Pittsburgh who volunteered to participate in the project. The sensors gather air quality data every 80 to 120 seconds; that information populates an open source map, which shows air quality not only in Pittsburgh, but also all over the world.

Director of Pardee's Tech and Narrative Lab Todd Richmond, who oversees the project, said it's like a neighborhood watch for air quality.

"The future of policy and the future of environmental monitoring and decision making really needs to be a collaboration," Richmond said. "Between government agencies, between the private sector and then individuals and families and neighborhoods."

Credit Kathleen J. Davis / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
RAND Corporation senior scientist Aimee Curtright points out her two backyard PurpleAir sensors.

As a RAND researcher who specializes in energy technology and policy, Aimee Curtright said she's thought a lot about Pittsburgh's air quality. Now that she has two of the sensors in her Point Breeze backyard, she said she thinks about things like if her kids should play outside on a given day.

"It wasn't really personal until I had an actual sensor in my house," Curtright said. "I can't turn away from that and say 'Oh, it's just somebody else's problem.'" 

The RAND team hopes the data will spur investment in air quality improvement for the neighborhoods that most need it.

The sensors cost more than $200 each, so one Pardee RAND student involved in the project is work to develop a less expensive sensor so more people will be able to install them and share air quality data.

WESA receives funding from the RAND Corporation.

Kathleen J. Davis covers news about just about anything at WESA. She’s also the primary reporter and producer of WESA’s weekly series Pittsburgh Tech Report. Kathleen originally hails from the great state of Michigan, and is always available to talk about suburban Detroit and Coney Island diners. She lives in Bloomfield.
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