From Knowing to Doing: Operationalizing the 100 Questions for Air Quality Initiative

Report by Jessica Seddon, Stefaan G. Verhulst and Aimee Maron: “…summarizes the September 2021 capstone event that wrapped up 100 Questions for Air Quality, led by GovLab and World Resources Institute (WR). This initiative brought together a group of 100 atmospheric scientists, policy experts, academics and data providers from around the world to identify the most important questions for setting a new, high-impact agenda for further investments in data and data science. After a thorough process of sourcing questions, clustering and ranking them – the public was asked to vote. The results were surprising: the most important question was not about what new data or research is needed, but on how we do more with what we already know to generate political will and investments in air quality solutions.

Co-hosted by Clean Air Fund, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and Clean Air Catalyst, the 2021 roundtable discussion focused on an answer to that question. This conference proceeding summary reflects early findings from that session and offers a starting point for a much-needed conversation on data-to-action. The group of experts and practitioners from academia, businesses, foundations, government, multilateral organizations, nonprofits, and think tanks have not been identified so they could speak freely….(More)”.

Satellites zoom in on cities’ hottest neighborhoods to help combat the urban heat island effect

Article by Daniel P. Johnson: “Spend time in a city in summer and you can feel the urban heat rising from the pavement and radiating from buildings. Cities are generally hotter than surrounding rural areas, but even within cities, some residential neighborhoods get dangerously warmer than others just a few miles away.

Within these “micro-urban heat islands,” communities can experience heat wave conditions well before officials declare a heat emergency.

I use Earth-observing satellites and population data to map these hot spots, often on projects with NASA. Satellites like the Landsat program have become crucial for pinpointing urban risks so cities can prepare for and respond to extreme heat, a top weather-related killer.

Among the many things we’ve been able to track with increasingly detailed satellite data is that the hottest neighborhoods are typically low-income and often have predominantly Black or Hispanic residents….

With rising global temperatures increasing the likelihood of dangerous heat waves, cities need to know which neighborhoods are at high risk. Excessive heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death with prolonged exposure, and the most at-risk residents often lack financial resources to adapt.

Map of Chicago showing how heat deaths clustered in the urban core during the 1995 heat wave.
The July 1995 Chicago heat wave was blamed for over 739 deaths in a five-day period. Most victims were poor and elderly people who lacked air conditioning or feared opening windows because of crime. This figure shows the location of heat-related deaths clustered in areas of higher surface urban heat intensity.

Satellite instruments can identify communities vulnerable to extreme heat because they can measure and map the surface urban heat island in high detail.

For example, industrial and commercial zones are frequently among the hottest areas in cities. They typically have fewer trees to cool the air and more pavement and buildings to retain and radiate heat…(More)”

Dynamic World

About: “The real world is as dynamic as the people and natural processes that shape it. Dynamic World is a near realtime 10m resolution global land use land cover dataset, produced using deep learning, freely available and openly licensed. It is the result of a partnership between Google and the World Resources Institute, to produce a dynamic dataset of the physical material on the surface of the Earth. Dynamic World is intended to be used as a data product for users to add custom rules with which to assign final class values, producing derivative land cover maps.

Key innovations of Dynamic World

  1. Near realtime data. Over 5000 Dynamic World image are produced every day, whereas traditional approaches to building land cover data can take months or years to produce. As a result of leveraging a novel deep learning approach, based on Sentinel-2 Top of Atmosphere, Dynamic World offers global land cover updating every 2-5 days depending on location.
  2. Per-pixel probabilities across 9 land cover classes. A major benefit of an AI-powered approach is the model looks at an incoming Sentinel-2 satellite image and, for every pixel in the image, estimates the degree of tree cover, how built up a particular area is, or snow coverage if there’s been a recent snowstorm, for example.
  3. Ten meter resolution. As a result of the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme making European Space Agency Sentinel data freely and openly available, products like Dynamic World are able to offer 10m resolution land cover data. This is important because quantifying data in higher resolution produces more accurate results for what’s really on the surface of the Earth…(More)”.

Citizens of Worlds: Open-Air Toolkits for Environmental Struggle

Book by Jennifer Gabrys: “Modern environments are awash with pollutants churning through the air, from toxic gases and intensifying carbon to carcinogenic particles and novel viruses. The effects on our bodies and our planet are perilous. Citizens of Worlds is the first thorough study of the increasingly widespread use of digital technologies to monitor and respond to air pollution. It presents practice-based research on working with communities and making sensor toolkits to detect pollution while examining the political subjects, relations, and worlds these technologies generate. Drawing on data from the Citizen Sense research group, which worked with communities in the United States and the United Kingdom to develop digital-sensor toolkits, Jennifer Gabrys argues that citizen-oriented technologies promise positive change but then collide with entrenched and inequitable power structures. She asks: Who or what constitutes a “citizen” in citizen sensing? How do digital sensing technologies enable or constrain environmental citizenship? Spanning three project areas, this study describes collaborations to monitor air pollution from fracking infrastructure, to document emissions in urban environments, and to create air-quality gardens. As these projects show, how people respond to, care for, and struggle to transform environmental conditions informs the political subjects and collectives they become as they strive for more breathable worlds….(More)”.

How science could aid the US quest for environmental justice

Jeff Tollefson at Nature: “…The network of US monitoring stations that detect air pollution catches only broad trends across cities and regions, and isn’t equipped for assessing air quality at the level of streets and neighbourhoods. So environmental scientists are exploring ways to fill the gaps.

In one project funded by NASA, researchers are developing methods to assess street-level pollution using measurements of aerosols and other contaminants from space. When the team trained its tools on Washington DC, the scientists found1 that sections in the city’s southeast, which have a larger share of Black residents, are exposed to much higher levels of fine-soot pollution than wealthier — and whiter — areas in the northwest of the city, primarily because of the presence of major roads and bus depots in the southeast.

Cumulative burden: Air-pollution levels tend to be higher in poorer and predominantly Black neighbourhoods of Washington DC.
Source: Ref. 1

The detailed pollution data painted a more accurate picture of the burden on a community that also lacks access to high-quality medical facilities and has high rates of cardiovascular disorders and other diseases. The results help to explain a more than 15-year difference in life expectancy between predominantly white neighbourhoods and some predominantly Black ones.

The analysis underscores the need to consider pollution and socio-economic data in parallel, says Susan Anenberg, director of the Climate and Health Institute at the George Washington University in Washington DC and co-leader of the project. “We can actually get neighbourhood-scale observations from space, which is quite incredible,” she says, “but if you don’t have the demographic, economic and health data as well, you’re missing a very important piece of the puzzle.”

Other projects, including one from technology company Aclima, in San Francisco, California, are focusing on ubiquitous, low-cost sensors that measure air pollution at the street level. Over the past few years, Aclima has deployed a fleet of vehicles to collect street-level data on air pollutants such as soot and greenhouse gases across 101 municipalities in the San Francisco Bay area. Their data have shown that air-pollution levels can vary as much as 800% from one neighbourhood block to the next.

Working directly with disadvantaged communities and environmental regulators in California, as well as with other states and localities, the company provides pollution monitoring on a subscription basis. It also offers the use of its screening tool, which integrates a suite of socio-economic data and can be used to assess cumulative impacts…(More)”.

More than just information: what does the public want to know about climate change?

Paper by Michael Murunga et all: “Public engagement on climate change is a vital concern for both science and society. Despite more people engaging with climate change science today, there remains a high-level contestation in the public sphere regarding scientific credibility and identifying information needs, interests, and concerns of the non-technical public. In this paper, we present our response to these challenges by describing the use of a novel “public-powered” approach to engaging the public through submitting questions of interest about climate change to climate researchers before a planned engagement activity. Employing thematic content analysis on the submitted questions, we describe how those people we engaged with are curious about understanding climate change science, including mitigating related risks and threats by adopting specific actions. We assert that by inviting the public to submit their questions of interest to researchers before an engagement activity, this step can inform why and transform how actors engage in reflexive dialogue…(More)”.

Making forest data fair and open

Paper by Renato A. F. de Lima : “It is a truth universally acknowledged that those in possession of time and good fortune must be in want of information. Nowhere is this more so than for tropical forests, which include the richest and most productive ecosystems on Earth. Information on tropical forest carbon and biodiversity, and how these are changing, is immensely valuable, and many different stakeholders wish to use data on tropical and subtropical forests. These include scientists, governments, nongovernmental organizations and commercial interests, such as those extracting timber or selling carbon credits. Another crucial, often-ignored group are the local communities for whom forest information may help to assert their rights and conserve or restore their forests.

A widespread view is that to lead to better public outcomes it is necessary and sufficient for forest data to be open and ‘Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable’ (FAIR). There is indeed a powerful case. Open data — those that anyone can use and share without restrictions — can encourage transparency and reproducibility, foster innovation and be used more widely, thus translating into a greater public good (for example, Open biological collections and genetic sequences such as GBIF or GenBank have enabled species discovery, and open Earth observation data helps people to understand and monitor deforestation (for example, Global Forest Watch). But the perspectives of those who actually make the forest measurements are much less recognized, meaning that open and FAIR data can be extremely unfair indeed. We argue here that forest data policies and practices must be fair in the correct, linguistic use of the term — just and equitable.

In a world in which forest data origination — measuring, monitoring and sustaining forest science — is secured by large, long-term capital investment (such as through space missions and some officially supported national forest inventories), making all data open makes perfect sense. But where data origination depends on insecure funding and precarious employment conditions, top-down calls to make these data open can be deeply problematic. Even when well-intentioned, such calls ignore the socioeconomic context of the places where the forest plots are located and how knowledge is created, entrenching the structural inequalities that characterize scientific research and collaboration among and within nations. A recent review found scant evidence for open data ever lessening such inequalities. Clearly, only a privileged part of the global community is currently able to exploit the potential of open forest data. Meanwhile, some local communities are de facto owners of their forests and associated knowledge, so making information open — for example, the location of valuable species — may carry risks to themselves and their forests….(More)”.

Is AI Good for the Planet?

Book by Benedetta Brevini: “Artificial intelligence (AI) is presented as a solution to the greatest challenges of our time, from global pandemics and chronic diseases to cybersecurity threats and the climate crisis. But AI also contributes to the climate crisis by running on technology that depletes scarce resources and by relying on data centres that demand excessive energy use.

Is AI Good for the Planet? brings the climate crisis to the centre of debates around AI, exposing its environmental costs and forcing us to reconsider our understanding of the technology. It reveals why we should no longer ignore the environmental problems generated by AI. Embracing a green agenda for AI that puts the climate crisis at centre stage is our urgent priority.

Engaging and passionately written, this book is essential reading for scholars and students of AI, environmental studies, politics, and media studies and for anyone interested in the connections between technology and the environment…(More)”.

Befriending Trees to Lower a City’s Temperature

Peter Wilson at the New York Times: “New York, Denver, Shanghai, Ottawa and Los Angeles have all unveiled Million Tree Initiatives aimed at greatly increasing their urban forests because of the ability of trees to reduce city temperatures, absorb carbon dioxide and soak up excess rainfall.

Central Melbourne, on the other hand, lacks those cities’ financial firepower and is planning to plant a little more than 3,000 trees a year over the next decade. Yet it has gained the interest of other cities by using its extensive data to shore up the community engagement and political commitment required to sustain the decades-long work of building urban forests.

A small municipality covering just 14.5 square miles in the center of the greater Melbourne metropolitan area — which sprawls for 3,860 square miles and houses 5.2 million people in 31 municipalities — the city of Melbourne introduced its online map in 2013.

Called the Urban Forest Visual, the map displayed each of the 80,000 trees in its parks and streets, and showed each tree’s age, species and health. It also gave each tree its own email address so that people could help to monitor them and alert council workers to any specific problems.

That is when the magic happened.

City officials were surprised to see the trees receiving thousands of love letters. They ranged from jaunty greetings — “good luck with the photosynthesis” — to love poems and emotional tributes about how much joy the trees brought to people’s lives….(More)”.

Citizen science air quality project in Brussels reveals disparity in pollution levels

Article by Smart Cities World: “A citizen science air quality project in Brussels has revealed a striking disparity in air pollution levels across the city.

It shows socio-economically vulnerable neighbourhoods more likely to suffer from poor air quality. The dataset also shows air quality in the city has improved, but there is still a major health impact.

Between 25 September and 23 October 2021, 3,000 citizens participated in CurieuzenAir, the largest ever citizen science project on air quality in the Belgium capital…

The project is an initiative of the University of Antwerp, urban movement BRAL and Université libre de Bruxelles, in close cooperation with Brussels Environnement, De Standaard, Le Soir and Bruzz. This programme is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Brussels Clean Air Partnership.

For one month, citizen scientists mapped the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a key indicator of air pollution caused by traffic – in their streets via measuring tubes on the facades of their homes.

The project resulted in a unique dataset showing the impact of road traffic on air quality in Brussels in great detail. Results range from ‘excellent’ to “extremely poor” air quality across Brussels, with a stark contrast in air quality between socio-economically vulnerable neighbourhoods and green, well-off ones.

An interactive dot map shows how the air quality differs greatly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and even from street to street. From blue dots (0-15 µg m-3; “very good”) to a number of jet-black dots (>50 µg m-3; “extremely bad”), the CurieuzenAir dataset makes it clear that these differences are explained by emissions from Brussels traffic….

Alain Maron, Brussels minister for climate transition, environment, social affairs and health, said: “CurieuzenAir is a great example of the importance of citizen science. Thanks to all the citizens that took part in the project, we collected unprecedented results on air pollution in Brussels, which help us to better understand the problem in our city.

“While we see that the situation is slowly improving, the concentrations measured still remain unacceptable, and call for urgent, in-depth action. We need to make sure that everyone in the city, wherever they live and whatever they earn, get to breathe a clean and healthy air.”…(More)”.