Improving Air Quality Through an Equity Lens

When the city of Portland began extending its air quality monitoring efforts, it took a two-pronged approach: 1) procure equipment that could be recycled; and 2) advance environmental and social justice by improving air quality in less-prosperous areas.

“We need to think through end-of-life considerations so that our procurements aren’t just focused on the lowest-cost product,” said Christine Kendrick, the air quality lead and Smart City PDX coordinator for the City of Portland. Smart City PDX guides the City’s use of technology, information, and partnerships to reduce inequities and disparities for people who have been left behind, specifically people of color and people with disabilities.

“Sensors don’t work perfectly,” said Kendrick, “and they won’t last as long as the housing they are installed in, so there can be a lot of waste.”

Kendrick wondered if sensors could be upgraded without throwing the entire device out. The City of Portland applied for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Replicable Smart City Technologies (RSCT) grant to study air quality and push the boundaries of innovation. APIS, Inc., located in Grants Pass, Ore., answered the bell.

“The City of Portland’s procurement requirement for a reusable sensor led us to keeping the modular design, and now it’s a feature we market with the product,” said Robert Beckius, the president and CEO of APIS. “Virtually all of the electronics inside our sensors are reusable. The only waste is a quarter-sized unit of electrochemical monitoring cells. It’s just like the batteries in a remote control. You don’t throw away the entire remote, you just replace the batteries when they wear out.”

APIS has deployed recyclable air sensors in East Portland along SE 122nd Avenue, at Stark, Market and Division streets — less-prosperous areas of the city. Installed on traffic poles, the sensors measure vehicle traffic emissions and how much nitrogen oxide (NOX) is in the air. The aim is to find ways to reduce those emissions based on traffic patterns. Current sensor technology for measuring the pollution levels found in U.S. cities is limited. This project uses a variety of co-located sensor deployments to address these limitations and understand the uses of air quality sensor data.

Beckius says low-cost sensors, such as those procured by the City of Portland, work well when they are connected to the cloud, using the Internet of Things (IoT) construct. They are a more effective, low-cost way to collect trustworthy data at higher spatial resolutions, he said.

“The monitors can be installed anywhere people are concerned about the air they breathe,” explained Beckius. “In Southern Oregon, these sensors are put on schools to monitor smoke during wildfire events so administrators know when students and staff can be safely outside. It’s information needed in real time for holding sporting events or recess.”

Beckius said that in The Dalles, the sensors can help identify the sources of the odors (such as landfills and industrial waste water). They can also be installed near oil and gas operations, such as on Portland’s Sauvie Island.

Currently, the City of Portland is continuing the Air Quality Sensor Testing and Deployment pilot with its collaborative partners: Green Electronics Council, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Portland State University, and the sensor providers (Apis, SenSevere, and Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Chicago).

The search for innovators in sensor design and the deployment of air quality monitors in less-prosperous areas of Portland align with Prosper Portland’s own efforts to encourage both small business growth and healthier neighborhoods throughout the city.