Improving the EPA Smart City Air Challenge

Safecast believes strongly in citizen-based environmental monitoring, and we constantly encourage official government bodies and others to support it. Recently, the US EPA announced a grant program called the EPA Smart City Air Challenge, which asks communities to propose their own plans for deploying air quality sensors and offers up to $40,000 for implementation. It sounds like a generous and helpful grant program, and evidence of thinking in the right direction. But after looking at the conditions of the program a bit more closely in the light of our own experience developing a reliable air quality sensor system, we have serious reservations about it.

The program asks recipient communities to deploy between 250 and 500 air quality sensors. At 1st place, a $40,000 grant would cover sensors units that cost no more than $160 each (at 250 units) or limit it to $80 each (at 500 units). For 2nd place that drops to $20,000 with the same requirements resulting in 250 $80 units or 500 $40 units. And that’s assuming every cent is spent on deployable units. Add in things like testing, prototyping, shipping, and any staff or contract work and funds available for the hardware itself shrink to nothing quickly. Having tested many gas and particulate sensors from different manufacturers in the course of developing our own Safecast Air systems, we can say that as with most things, you get what you pay for. It’s hard to find a reliable sensor module alone of any type for $160, meaning that building an adequately robust device for that cost is almost certainly impossible at present. And while several consumer-oriented air quality monitors have appeared on the market in recent years at this price point or below, none of them produce what we would consider useful, quality, trustworthy data, something Safecast has spent a lot of time evaluating in regards to radiation measurements, for instance. The EPA is asking too much for the size of the grants it is offering. We consider this a problem of misalignment of goals on their part.

In a recent EPA presentation, the price-point for sensor devices to be used for “hand-held, short-term monitoring by citizens,” similar we think to what is expected under the Smart City Air Challenge, is given as between $500-$2000 per unit. This is consistent with our own experience. Air monitoring units developed for the international Citi-Sense project also cost approximately $1000 apiece. So there’s no arguing that they don’t know what these devices cost.

In its brief, the EPA states that, “The award money only covers part of the program costs, so communities will need to partner with sensor manufacturers, data management companies or others to get resources and expertise to implement their plans.”  In other words, they know that the money offered is insufficient. We’ll call this a cop out.

While there may be sensor manufacturers who would be willing to collaborate on a project like this, we can’t imagine anyone is going to donate 500 sensors which cost several hundred dollars apiece. So this assumption immediately restricts the kinds of companies that can even be considered as partners, and would almost certainly mean locking a proprietary closed technology into the overall system from the start, and possibly, in the case of obtaining data management support from a commercial entity as well, being beholden to a proprietary closed database system. It’s important to remember that the goal of sensor manufacturers is to sell sensors, and if there isn’t a commercially viable outcome for them in this they won’t be bending over backwards to be involved. Very few for-profit hardware companies would be willing to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist in a grant they aren’t assured to see any future sales from. Because of this, we expect that successful grantees will be forced to cut corners in many important areas due to the inadequacy of the funding.

Indeed we’ve already been contacted by almost a dozen different groups who are working on proposals for this program and are hoping to tap into the Safecast network and ecosystem to help bridge some of these shortcomings. Many are asking us to donate our time, efforts, and devices.

To its credit, the EPA has been discussing community-based air quality monitoring since at least 2013, when it released its Draft Roadmap for Next Generation Air Monitoring, which includes a prominent guideline directed at developing a citizen monitoring toolkit. It has also been researching low-cost air-quality sensors.

At many points in these documents and others, the EPA says that it encourages the use of open-source solutions and open data, and transparency is given a clear emphasis in the current grant offering. We think openness of the entire system should be a requirement, given the clear benefits Safecast and others have demonstrated for it in related fields.

Most importantly, this sets a bad precedent. We are concerned that with the present requirements and cost constraints, it will be very difficult for any community to produce good, scientifically valid results under the Smart City Air Challenge program. The EPA is a very high-profile government organization, and this appears to be an important program for testing the validity of a citizen-based approach, about which there are still many skeptics, if not outright hostility from some corners of the scientific community. If our fears are borne out and it proves impossible to obtain reliable data under this program, critics will be able to point fingers at it and say, “Even with government funding and assistance the citizen data was unusable.” Actually, we suspect that the people deciding what the technical requirements would be and the people deciding how much money would be spent were not in the same room. Even though it’s a great idea in general, somehow the funding aspect became disengaged from the realities of hardware, production and personnel costs.

It is almost certainly too late to change the parameters of the Smart City Air Challenge, but we would nevertheless like to offer our recommendations:

1) The “ask” should be more reasonable. 500 sensors is certainly too many to expect for $40,000, much less for $20,000, and even 250 is too many to implement well.

2) It would have been best not to specify the number of sensors to be deployed, thus limiting the overall approach. Rather, it would have been better to specify an area to be monitored and to encourage communities and citizen groups to apply creative thinking to determine what the best possibilities for “low-cost deployment” there are. Citizens should be encouraged to figure it out and experiment with radical solutions. Radiation and air-quality are very different, but Safecast produced a large amount of useable, timely data in our first year with only a few dozen sensors, in an extremely open and participatory way.

3) Openness should be a requirement for any program like this. As long as the sensors used are not too cheap to provide consistent performance (a real risk in this case), an open project is almost certain to produce useable and useful data. Even in the worst case it would likely result in a giant pool of data that will be suitable for many uses and types of research and analysis. The current plan will very likely produce a giant pool of locked up, unuseable data instead.

There are a lot of things we like about the EPA’s stated goals for the future of air-quality monitoring, including their assumption that citizens and communities will and should play a role. Very recently they awarded $4.5 million in grants to six universities to explore low-cost sensor systems for a variety of US communities, most of which look very promising. Our criticism is really limited to the aspects of the Smart City Air Challenge we discuss above. It would have been very easy to reshape the guidelines to help ensure success and innovation in what is likely to be regarded as a primary test-case of the citizen-monitoring idea. We hope a more carefully though-out grant program is unveiled somewhere soon.

About the Author

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.