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On a recent Saturday morning, Kansas City residents gathered with local organizations to learn how to monitor air quality in the city’s Troost Avenue corridor.
Hosted by KC Digital Drive at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, the event aimed to inform community members about how they can participate in an ongoing program to measure climate, temperature and particulate matter by installing small sensors on their properties.
So far, KC Digital Drive said it has deployed about 30 of the smoke-detector sized devices at local businesses and residences. The group is hoping to find 20 more volunteers to mount the free sensors.
“I was interested in this because it was on either side of Troost,” said Mary Margaret Saxon, a longtime resident of the area. As a former epidemiologist, she said she was drawn to learn more about air quality issues.
“I’m just curious to find out how it all works,” she said.
Troost Avenue, long known as an economic and racial dividing line in Kansas City, anchors the roughly 18-square-mile target zone for the project. Jim Starcev, solutions lab program manager for KC Digital Drive, said the team selected the area because of the wide range of factors that could be studied, including diverse income and density levels, as well as the effects of segregationist housing policies.
“Troost is a historic redline district and there’s a lot of difference on the east and west sides of the town based off of that,” Starcev said. “There are a lot of environmental justice issues that come out there.”
Air sensors and the internet of things
Ina Montgomery, executive director of Urban TEC – a nonprofit organization geared toward closing the digital literacy divide in urban schools and communities – spoke at the event about how the sensors are a part of the “internet of things” because they connect and exchange data with other devices over the internet.
“I easily bought into this project,” Montgomery said. “I wanted to be a part of the opportunity to educate and provide information for neighborhood and neighborhood leaders to make the decisions to have the sensors in their area.”
She added that she hopes to get high schools involved with the project by giving students and teachers the chance to work with the resulting data.
“I think it’s an excellent educational opportunity.”
How do the air sensors work?
Starcev with KC Digital Drive said the sensors use light beams to measure the amount of particulate matter in the air. Using very little power and a Wi-Fi connection, each sensor reports up to 720 readings per day. The locations of the existing sensors and some of the real-time data are available online.
Doug Norsby, an air quality planner with the Mid-America Regional Council (another partner in the air sensor program), said particulate matter can be produced from small intense sources, such as an individual fire, or larger events like fireworks on the Fourth of July. People exposed to the affected air can breathe in the particles and absorb them into their bloodstreams, causing potential heart and breathing issues.
“These really tiny particles that you can’t even see with the naked eye are capable of causing such trauma,” Norsby said. “That’s why it’s important, that’s why we want to know what’s going on.”
Norsby also said collecting data on air particulate matter can help fuel both long- and short-term solutions. Scientists and community leaders can use the information to analyze trends to counteract the underlying causes of the air pollution, while residents can use real-time data to make decisions about their risk level on any given day. For example, someone with asthma may use a high reading as a signal to wear a mask for the day or stay inside as much as possible.
“There’s an applied part of this. You’ve got the air sensors to figure out what’s going on, what issues are there,” said Norsby. “Then it’s how can you approach a solution to them?”
Can I still volunteer to host an air sensor?
Starcev said there are still plenty of devices available.
The program aims to distribute devices roughly every half-mile in the target area. While program officials are open to considering volunteers slightly outside the Troost Avenue corridor, the target program boundaries are bordered by Front Street to the north, 85th Street to the south, Main Street to the west and U.S. Route 71 to the east.
The sensors can be placed on the outside of either residential or business buildings. Volunteers will need to mount the devices between six and 20 feet off the ground where an electrical outlet is accessible.
This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective to support and enhance local journalism so every person in Kansas City can lead a richer life. Members of the KC Media Collective are KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.