Nov 27, 2019
Byte-Size Tech Tales is a monthly podcast featuring stories about the technology revolutionizing the City of Denver. Join Technology Services' interns in discovering how technology is transforming local government through the perspectives of city employees and IT experts.
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Dil: Hi. Welcome to Byte-Size Tech tales a monthly podcast telling stories about the technology the City of Denver government uses to revolutionize the lives of Denverites.
Ben: Today in our first episode we are going to be learning how Technology Services helps to improve kids’ health, we are interviewing Michael Ogletree from the Department of Public Health and Environment or DDPHE for short. He is the air quality program manager for the air quality sensor project that was recently deployed around Denver. We are going to be talking to him today about the project so stay tuned for more.
Michael: My name is Michael Ogletree and I'm the air quality program manager and I sit in the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, I’ve been at the city just under four and a half years I started beginning of 2014.
Ben: Very cool. And so, is the Air Quality sensors, is that your main project that you're focused?
Michael: Yeah most of the work have been focused on this new sensor project which is part of the million-dollar grant funded by Bloomberg philanthropies placing sensors at school and finding ways to limit exposure of kids to air pollution.
Dil: What are air quality sensors and how do they work?
Michael: We were trying to look at different off the shelf sensors and we found we were limited with what was available especially when we looked at citywide deployment of the air sensors. So, we actually worked with a local aerospace engineering company to develop a sensor technology specific for our use case. So, we took the internal off the shelf sensor which was about $15 and then changed basically everything around it like the way it communicated. Then the actual sensors themselves are a laser particle counter so it just counts the particles in the air that go through the sensor.
Dil: Alright, and what do they look like?
Michael: The entire like sensor unit is probably about the size of a shoebox. And then there’s a solar panel about 1 foot by 1.5 foot. So, combined they easily kind of mount on any kind of pole infrastructure.
Ben: Nice. So, are they solar powered did it sound like?
Michael: Yeah, they’re solar powered with batteries. So, they can go without any solar input for about 48 hours, which is pretty good considering were sending data every minute. With the data being sent every minute and collected continuously it’s a lot to run without any solar input.
Ben: Ok. So, talking about the sensors themselves. You said you went out and purchased an out of the box one and totally recreated it to become your own. I’m curious without going too in depth technically what are some of the features or modifications you guys made to personalize it.
Michael: Yeah, a lot of the components were on the cheaper side, so they were just kind of mass marketed for consumers. So, we really industrialized it. Technology services was a part of a lot for that especially when we were first testing the sensors. We made up three different types of models to test active air flow versus passive air flow and different configurations of vents and things like that. Were also looking to deploy sensors in the city outside of the Bloomberg project. At traffic signals and having the data and power over POE power over ethernet so that we can then not have to pay ongoing costs for cellular data. Or power right, so if they’re connected right to a power source and directly into the transportation network we can pull in data and power and not have increased costs or any down time from a shortage of power. It’s been really great working with the technology services team and all that they can provide in the support they can provide for the project. And everyone has been supportive, and it’s been great working with them and I look forward to continuing that relationship with our department Denver Department of Public Health and Environment and Technology Services. And really use technology to really make an impact on the health of Denver’s kids.
Dil: Cool. So, in regard to air quality. What does bad air quality look like to the average person?
Michael: So, in Denver our primary source of pollution is vehicles. And one of the main programs we are looking to put in schools is anti-idling campaigns or different ways of making vehicle movement around schools more efficient. So, looking at different strategies for improving vehicle flow around schools.
Dil: How is air quality measured?
Michael: So, for our program we are specifically focusing on fine particulate matter. They call it PM 2.5, 2.5 being the size of the actual particle. 2.5 microns. And then also we want to be able to communicate really well with the public and if we go into the breadth of different pollutants it can get confusing, so we tried to keep it simple to start.
Dil: Is there an area of Denver that is most affected by bad air quality?
Michael: From what we’ve seen, we’ve had sensors out now close to a year and in some places over a year. It affects everyone but susceptible populations such as kids are at higher risks for impacts, especially kids with growing lungs which is why our project is targeted toward school age kids because they can be really impacted. So those are the populations we are looking at.
Dil: Ok. That kind of leads into my next question. Do you want to describe the types of places the sensors are being placed you mentioned kids are most susceptible to bad air quality? Was there a strategy around your deployment?
Michael: They are all at public schools. In our pilot we have 10 schools, 6 elementary schools and then we worked closely with Denver public schools to narrow down the schools that we would try to work or partner with for the pilot. So, the first thing we do is look at asthma rates. So, we looked at data to narrow down the 210 campuses and then we looked at free and reduced lunch rates as an economic indicator, and lastly, we looked at school readiness. A term we came up with to find out which schools would be prepared to take on these different programs. Because we didn’t want to just put sensors at schools we wanted the schools to be able to put programs in place.
Dil: So, in total, how many sensors are out there?
Michael: Right now, we have about 13. So currently as of today we have 4 sensors at 4 schools and then the rest of the 9 are colocations or doing some kind of testing to make sure the data is good.
Dil: So, we hear that you have been traveling the nation sharing air quality ideas and innovations Denver has been rolling out in the past couple of years so tell us a little about that and how are you helping and shaping Denver to become a model for cities not just in the nation but around the world?
Michael: Yeah. So, the sensor projects nationally it’s one of those things that we want our ideas to be replicable and part of the way the grant was written we really want to not only address it here but be a model other cities could follow.
Dil: Now were going to take a quick pause to hear a word from our sponsor.
Ben: Byte-Size Tech Tales is brought to you by YCN. Your City Now. A Denver 8 tv original weekly series that highlights local government news and events. You can watch new episodes of Your City Now when they air on Denver channel 8 when they air at 7 pm or on YouTube they come out on Fridays at 4 pm. I know our favorite part of the week is Friday afternoon tuning into Your City Now. And if you missed past ones, they’re all available on Denver 8 YouTube page on the YCN playlist. So, go binge them today.
Dil: Thank you to our sponsor. Now back to the episode
Ben: Switching paths, a little bit here you mentioned the million-dollar Bloomberg grant award. Could you maybe tell people what that Bloomberg program is and what that million dollars helped you guys to do?
Michael: It was actually a national challenge called the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge that came out at the end of quarter 3 of 2017 where cities and mayors were tasked with coming up with innovative solutions to pressing problems in their cities. The grant was open to cities larger than 35,000 around the U.S. Around 350 cities applied, Denver being one of them, and we were selected as one of 35 pilot cities. So, at that point we were given 100,000 in 2018 to pilot our idea. Over a 6-month period and then the 35 cities were then asked to submit an additional application of which 9 were selected for the million-dollar grant. So fortunately, end of October 2018 we were awarded one of the million-dollar grants.
Ben: Awesome, that’s cool. So definitely helped kick start move from pilot to mass deployment eventually?
Michael: Yeah absolutely. And it really allowed us to innovate in ways that can be difficult for cities to do. Where we come up with this great idea, but it is hard to get internal funding to test some of those ideas and really codevelop the program with direct feedback from the community. So, in our pilot we had focus groups to see what does the dashboard look like we are relaying info to the community. And use that feedback to change the project and really have the community be involved in the development of the project instead of just providing this data and program that may or may not suite all the needs of the community members. So, it was a cool way to test and learn and have the flexibility and funding to be able to do that.
Ben: So, speaking of the sensor data, are people using that? Who has access to that? Do the teachers at the schools are they looking at the data? Or just city people right now.
Michael: Right now, it’s just city people and then some schools have reached out about some of the sensors at the school to get the data. This summer we are installing dashboards. So, you know about 40-inch screens at all the pilot schools to be able to relay data in real time from their own sensor. So, then schools can use that in their STEM learning whether it be like let’s try and find an algorithm to correct it or linear regression. Use it as a local data set that people can explore.
Ben: So, you’re going to be installing TV monitors with cool graphs and depictions about how the air quality outside the school is.
Michael: Yeah that’s the idea. And the actual dashboard, what’s on the display., We worked through iterative focus groups with parents, teachers, and nurses inside Denver Public Schools to come up with what that looks like. So, the community was really involved in the development of those dashboards.
Ben: Ok. Nice. I foresee some kids huddling around it trying to find excuses to get cut from school early because of the air quality.
Michael: Um something like that. We really do want to empower the kids, especially ones with asthma or respiratory issues to take ownership of their own activities outside. They do know that they are sensitive and on high pollution days they can take it easy. And also work with schools to be like ok so if air quality is at an extreme level what can we do as a school now do as far as school policy if it gets to this amount we should all stay inside. And a lot of those are exceptional events that happen. So, if there’s a wild fire that is impacting a certain school or area it is something that a local sensor could then help you as a school make the decision to have something like that.
Ben: So, you don’t have to wait until there’s a haze fog over your school to realize the air quality is bad.
Michael: Right. Exactly.
Dil: So, you touched on these programs before. What are these programs in schools?
Michael: So were ending the school year right now. It’s been more about the data collection and what people want. And then in the next couple weeks were putting together focus groups to refine the menu of options and what kind of programs the schools will actually have. It consists of in school curriculum, education for nurses, different types of strategies. But they kind of break down to what individuals can do, what the schools’ communities can do, and what the city can do.
Dil: We know you’ve been doing some citizen science with kids to educate them about the sensors. Could you describe one of these workshops to us?
Michael: So, we have these hand-held sensors that you can walk around with. And test your own air quality. So, some of the schools were looking at have project-based learning curriculums where they can go out and test their air quality to see what that looks like. And one of the grant funded pieces will be having a sort of science sensors fair where we will invite DPS schools to submit applications for this and we will select 10 schools for this first pilot. And then provide them with funding. We’re talking like a couple hundred dollars to be able to come up with a project as a school and then test it out. And we will have assigned coaches who are sensor experts frame the projects and make sure they are scientifically valid. And then at the end we would have a judge and science fair where everyone comes in and shows it and we pick a winner. Really crowdsource cool ways to use sensor data and make it applicable.
Dil: So, I’m going to argue this is one of the most important questions we are going to ask you. We noticed some of the sensors are decorative and have like a bronco and another has purple and blue. Are you hiring artists to decorate the sensors or are kids doing that?
Michael: Yeah so, we wanted the schools to take ownership over these, so we worked with a local artist to go out to the school and to work with the schools about how they wanted to paint their sensors. So, it was a way to engage the community. So, some of them have flying pigs or different unique color pattern that are ideas from kids. So, I think it’s a great way to not just have a grey box out there but something the kids can take ownership of.
Ben: So, paint us a picture of what the future of air quality sensors is going to look like?
Michael: So, in terms of scale over the next 3 years we will be adding 10 sensors a year at schools. So right now, in probably 2-3 months we’ll have 10 sensors at 10 schools. And add another 10 by the end of this year. And then 10 each year going forward so by the end of 2021 we will have 40 sensors and dashboards at schools, with programs in place as well. And we also looked to make the program sustainable long term so continue to be able to scale to meet the needs of all the schools in Denver and really, we don’t know what density of sensor is an appropriate density.
Ben: Sure, like every block? Not quite?
Michael: Right how many is too many. So, we don’t actually know so as we scale we’ll be able to be like ok maybe we don’t need one at every school or maybe one per square mile. So, I think it’s going be a learning process. But right now, we’ll be scaling to 40 schools over the next three years.
Ben: Nice. And I guess you talked a little about being able to empower people to take their health in their own hands. But why does this project and should this project matter to the typical citizen walking down the street.
Michael: Because air quality impacts everyone’s health. It’s one of those things where if your running outside and the air quality is poor you’re going to have trouble breathing. Even if you are a healthy adult at some level it’s going to impact everyone and especially looking out for the next generation. Really making sure we protect the health of kids. Especially with growing lungs. I think it’s important to everyone.
Ben: What a cool story. If you liked hearing about this story. Michael did an interview with local news organization Denverite about the air quality sensors that has more details about this project and the air quality sensors if you would like to learn more.
Dil: Thank you so much for listening to our first episode. We hope you enjoyed. Join us next month for our next episode.