After being narrowly turned down for a National Science Foundation grant to build an air sensor network pilot project in DFW, DFW ARC team members decided to press on and slow cook the same network. They've grown the concept bit by bit with donations, grants and new monitor orders. Twenty monitors have already been distributed for installation with another 10 to 50 on order. Now ARC members are on the verge of handing off this network to a new local government entity whose job will be to expand it. The jump from a handful to dozens of monitor sites is revolutionary, but so is the way the network was founded and operates. It represents a model for other areas seeking to yoke technology to public service.
There are the impacts one can think of now and the ones we can't imagine on this end of things. In the short term, monitors along a facility's fence line might act like 24/7 environmental beat cops and discourage polluters from even thinking about shady discharges "at night, weekends and holidays" that would have been routine before. Plano proposed to use the network to help time traffic lights and find the pattern that most reduced vehicle pollution along major streets. The public and officials could track pollution levels in real time during accidents and fires, providing better evacuation routes and warnings. You can track work productivity, school absenteeism, ER asthma visits, heart attacks and strokes with pollution levels and then estimate how much economic cost there really is to "bad air days." Neighborhoods can map their own air pollution burdens, showing that they're already breathing higher levels of pollution than other parts of town. Those are the highlights.
The organization of ARC is a model into itself, combining scientists, citizen groups and local officials to harness technology in a way that hasn't been seen before in the local environmental community. Because of its pool of expertise, its been able to take the lead in setting standards instead of taking a back seat to government or industry. It's creating an agenda for high-tech-low-cost monitoring in DFW where there was none before and then goes further to propose systems that are more advanced than almost anything else being tried, even by much larger and better-funded entities.
In terms of an idea or innovation that could really change The Way Things Are Done, this network is maybe the biggest there's been on the local level in a very long while.
Through his work at The University of Texas at Dallas, Dr. David Lary has become one of the nation's foremost authorities on environmental sensors and monitoring. As important, he's had a tremendous role in shaping the technological response to chronic air pollution in DFW. His National Science Foundation proposal for dense grids of air monitors in Plano and Fort Worth is responsible for the creation of the DFW Air Research Consortium and the proposed North Texas Clean Air Network. Dr. Lary embraces grassroots citizen science and has sought out community groups to work with to build better projects for breathers in DFW. If DFW has an academic environmental star right now, it's this guy.
Dr. Lary persisted in his vision of a local air monitoring network despite not receiving the NSF grant two years ago. As a result DFW is on the verge of having the most advanced air quality monitoring networks of any metropolitan area in the state, and perhaps the Southwest.
We can't yet imagine all the productive uses of a new air quality network, but a few public health benefits that seem obvious are:
An active monitoring presence discourages bad actors.
Coordinating stoplight timing to reduce pollution.
Tracking accidents and incidents & providing warnings.
Correlating school absenteeism/prevention.
Correlating COPD, asthma, heart attacks, strokes/prevention.
Identifying hotspots and mapping pollution burdens and disparities .
By the end of the year, there are due to be at least 70 new, high-tech low-cost PM pollution air monitors distributed from Joppa to Plano, all plugged into the Clean Air Network. That's 62 more than EPA and the state operate in all of North Texas now, and he's just getting started. He's also working with Plano on installing real time water monitoring at city parks, and he just got a grant from the Armed Forces to help them put sensors on soldiers to give them real time information in the battlefield.