Can big data help solve big climate problems?

Johns Hopkins grad student launches Baltimore Open Air project to record air quality data for use by researchers

Anna Scott holds one of the sensor cubes, a white box with black grates for air intake

Image caption: Anna Scott holds one of the sensor cubes that will collect weather data from around Baltimore City.

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Arts and Sciences Magazine.

Research ideas can come from the unlikeliest of places. Just ask graduate student Anna Scott.

Scott was attending a protest in 2015, shortly after Freddie Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore police. A young woman was addressing the crowd.

"She said that every single person at the protest could do something to make Baltimore a better place," recalls Scott, a student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "She told us that everyone could take their talent or their gifts and do something positive for the city. And I thought, 'Maybe I could do something with my studies on climate science.'"

"It's a new way of thinking about environmental data, but if we can get this right, the data could propel efforts that would improve air quality, reduce asthma, and make policy."
Anna Scott

And so was born the Baltimore Open Air project, an effort to build and install cube-shaped, wireless sensors around the city that will collect data and measure the effect of green spaces on heat in Baltimore.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Baltimore City regularly ranks as having the worst air quality on the Eastern Seaboard, posing significant health risks for the community.

After speaking to her advisor, Darryn Waugh, Scott reached out to two of her friends in JHU's Whiting School of Engineering who she thought could help with the design of the sensors: Yan Azdoud, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Civil Engineering, and Chris Kelley, a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering.

"The question we hope to answer is: Can we create a low-cost sensor network to receive data? Right now, there is no off-the-shelf product for that," says Scott.

The idea is that Scott and her team—with help from community members—will build the sensors and, in partnership with the city's Office of Sustainability, place them in various neighborhoods in the city. The sensors will collect critical data about heatwave events, temperature, and pollution, and those data will be wirelessly transmitted in real time to cloud services, ready to be analyzed and used by researchers, educators, community groups, and other interested parties. The data will also be used to measure the effectiveness of green-friendly efforts such as planting more trees, installing white roofs, and other green infrastructure.

"It's a new way of thinking about environmental data," says Scott, "but if we can get this right, the data could propel efforts that would improve air quality, reduce asthma, and make policy. This work will serve as proof of our concept so we can translate science into policy."

In December, the team was awarded a $40,000 grant from the EPA as part of the agency's Smart City Air Challenge, allowing Scott and her team to create 300 sensors. The Johns Hopkins Environment, Energy, Sustainability, and Health Institute matched the EPA funding. Add to that $2,000 from a crowdsourcing campaign, and the researchers were ready to go.

Scott purchased the materials to build 20 prototypes, which have already gone to testing sites, and additional prototypes will be deployed in early summer.

Working with community members and nonprofit organizations is key to the success of the project, as city residents are the ones most affected by what is known as urban heat island effect—cities are hotter than rural areas due to urban development and industrialization. To that end, Scott, Azdoud, and Kelley have already held two DIY workshops so community members can help build the sensors.

"This is a critical time to empower citizens, researchers, and government agencies with the information needed to inform environmental and health decisions," says Scott.