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Thursday, June 12, 2014

HARC’s help on a “groundbreaking” ozone map: Bridging the gap between science and the public

Ozone Viewer

Online tool provides real-time information about pollution levels

"Ozone Viewer" by Houston Clean Air Network

Expanding its work on air quality issues in Houston into a new area, HARC will now be helping the Houston Clean Air Network enhance, promote and perhaps expand its groundbreaking online tools that provide real-time information to local residents about pollution levels.

The Clean Air Network’s website and mobile apps, introduced in 2012, allow people to find out where ground-level ozone – a lung-damaging product of chemical reactions in the air and the main ingredient of smog – is occurring at elevated concentrations of concern.

The interactive map’s instantly accessible information – presented as moving, color-coded clouds that show ozone’s different concentrations and movement around the Houston area – is particularly useful to those with asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

“It’s bridging the gap between sound scientific data and the general public, making complex information digestible for everybody."

--Jeff Williams, Manager of Information Technology

Their conditions might be seriously aggravated by breathing high levels of ozones. But such ozone-sensitive residents are not the only ones who can benefit from the mapping tools – the website and app can help anyone plan the timing and location of outdoor activities to limit their exposure.

Heading HARC’s participation in the project is Jeff Williams, HARC manager of information technology.

As an IT professional, Williams said, he sees the project as an opportunity to help “communicate complicated, important information in an easy-to-understand way” – an area, generally speaking, that he hopes HARC can become more involved in.

“It’s bridging the gap between sound scientific data and the general public, making complex information digestible for everybody,” he explained.

The Houston Clean Air Network launched the map initiative with funding from Houston Endowment, a leading philanthropy. The Network was founded as a partnership of Air Alliance Houston (the leading local advocacy group working for cleaner air), the American Lung Association and the University of Houston.

Upon the launch of the Network’s website in 2012, Matthew Tejada, then executive director of Air Alliance, said of the ozone map, “This sort of a resource has been a dream of local public health and environmental experts for many, many years.”

Dan Price, a philosophy professor who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston, said recently that the idea for the mapping initiative grew out of his involvement in a UH project on asthma four years ago.

A UH colleague, Barry Lefer, a member of the university’s atmospheric science faculty, commented at the time that he was frustrated about the limited amount of information available to the public, especially ozone, a longstanding air quality concern in the Houston region, Price recalled.

Data posted on a state website lags behind the actual measurements at pollution-monitoring stations and is harder to interpret than it should be,” he said.

Those conversations eventually led to the creation of the Clean Air Network partnership and its successful application for funding to Houston Endowment to develop the map website.

Many people interpret air quality as a dichotomy – industry versus regulation, Price said. “I think the map can help us reframe it as being exposure that people are concerned about, leading with a question of how I can minimize my exposure to pollutants.”

The Network map covers a part of the Houston metropolitan area that stretches 105 miles by 75 miles. It uses data about recorded ozone levels from 42 monitors operated by Texas, Houston and Harris County agencies, as well as UH.

Estimates of ozone levels for the entire region are calculated on the basis of measured data at the monitoring sites themselves – “interpolated,” in scientific terminology – and presented in near real-time as the map’s animated ozone “clouds.” The clouds are color-coded to match the colors for different ozone levels, with varying threats to public health, in the official Air Quality Index, the standard public-health tool for communicating air pollution hazards.

A Clean Air Network summary of the project calls it “a unique resource” for making informed decisions about outdoor activity:

“For example, a runner will now be able to decide between running in Herman Park or Terry Hershey Park based upon where the ozone values are lower, or will allow a high school coach to decide whether practice should be held on the playing fields or indoors in the gym to prevent exposure from high afternoon ozone levels.”

The summary calls the map tools “truly groundbreaking,” noting their greater “usability and depth of data,” compared to other online data presentations such as those developed by the European Union and California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District:

“Currently, there are other online resources for real time air quality data available for other parts of the world. These resources, however, have not taken the final leaps of interpolating such data in real time across an entire heavily populated region and then presenting those interpolations in an easy to use map which replicates the ease of use of a typical weather map.”

The Clean Air Network map depicting an ozone cloud forming and moving over the Houston region is refreshed with new data every five minutes. That means residents can check it anytime for an up-to-date read on the air quality in a specific place, instead of relying on morning forecasts that provide only a general idea about whether it’s likely to be a bad ozone day, said Gavin Dillingham, a research scientist at HARC who will be working on the project.

“My role will be more on outreach, figuring out how to get it out to people, how to make it a more useful, robust tool and get more people engaged with it,” he said.

Other possibilities for enhancing the website that are being discussed include expanding the service to include maps of air pollutants other than ozone and extending the website’s reach to provide real-time air quality date in other Texas cities, too.