UIX: In two weeks, this group built an air quality app that could save lives

While her Weather Worry Wonder team members were explaining their air quality reporting app to a crowded room at Start Garden, Lisa Rizzo walked off stage, and into the midst of the audience.

 

Moments prior, Rizzo qualified her technological acumen previous to the Grand Circus boot camp as slim to none. Before the three-month engagement her background was in philosophy, but she had the attention of the 100-plus attendees as they waited for Weather Worry Wonder to bring back air quality measurements at 40 Pearl St. NW.

 

And waited. And waited.

 

Rizzo explained how the app was parsing a torrential stream of data from more than a dozen sensors placed around Grand Rapids. She explained how the team was astounded when they first realized how much information was being chirped out from the long range gateways, how during the development stage they corroborated their findings with news reports to pinpoint the source of dangerous ethylene oxide emissions in the Westside neighborhood, and how their app could be used to warn residents of other cities of invisible cancer-causing carcinogens.

 

Then, nothing.

 

The screen behind the group turned white; the request timed out with a cordial yet consternating, "Sorry, something went wrong."

 

Lisa RizzoRizzo's colleague Steven Vallarsa was hiding his laughter on stage, while Brad Kapteyn says, "The last two weeks of my life flashed before my eyes."

 

"After that initial shock, it was, 'We need to show this,'" he says. "We put so much work into it, we had been code sprinting for about two weeks. And then I think I was kind of physically sprinting at that point."

 

Behind the scenes, having been drained during development, the Microsoft Azure server subscription the app was based on was raising the white flag. But, the team knew their app worked. They had seen it work. They had confirmed their results with the Environmental Protection Agency's standards of measurement.

 

Rizzo stood steadfast. She kept the conversation going, and a few minutes and a subscription update later, the results were retrieved and displayed. The streets around 40 Pearl were busy during the lunch rush, but the air was clear, and the Weather Worry Wonder team had its confidence restored.

 

A few months earlier, Rizzo and her colleagues, Kapteyn, Vallarsa, and Callista Gloss Sullivan took part in the spring Grand Circus Front End & .NET C# coding boot camp that helped them build marketable skills and improve their technological acumen. For 12 weeks they learned about coding in C, one of the most prolific programming languages in use today, along with the Microsoft .NET framework, and how to combine those skillsets into a fully-functioning app.

 

Steven VallarsaWWW backstory

 

The Weather Worry Wonder app brought this quartet together in the final two weeks of the boot camp, but each came from vastly differing fields before ever crossing paths at Grand Circus.

 

"I was frustrated and at a dead end," Vallarsa says. "Previous businesses I worked for [I was] doing graphic design, sign making, manufacturing, and production. I just happened to take part in a Grand Circus evening of coding and I realized I still have the spark.

 

"I was a really good programmer as a teenager, and it was just like 'wow, this is fun.'"

 

Vallarsa went on looking for ways to build up his coding skills with a structured learning format he could thrive in. When he returned to Grand Circus for the C# .NET boot camp, he found it.

 

"I was able to break out of my previous constraints," he says. "And now I'm graduated, and ready for the world."

 

Kapteyn got into coding in high school and college, but early 2019 found him working as a carpenter. While revisiting his more technologically involved skills, he too sparked a rekindled interest.

 

Brad Kapteyn "I ended up getting pretty into it, spending quite a bit of nights and weekends just building web applications," Kapteyn says. "A good friend of mine was in the industry as a developer. I asked him if he knew of any good places to get a more formal education and he pointed me towards Grand Circus and it was great timing. They were just about to start the April class and I just kind of ran in there and got with David and I haven't looked back."

 

Rizzo was working at John Ball Zoo as a database specialist before starting the boot camp. She was tasked with integrating different software components within the zoo's platform, and started to wonder how and by whom those components were built in the first place.

 

"I joined the class writing zero lines of code before, it seemed incredibly scary," she says. "And my philosophy in life is if something scares you, then you should do it."

 

Sullivan was introduced to web design while practicing law. No other lawyers at her firm had the skills or interest in front end design, but it suited her well.

 

"As my career progressed, I was doing half web design, SEO, and online marketing for my law firm, and the other half practicing law," she says. "I realized that technology was making me way more excited, and I really wanted to change careers.

 

"Even though it was scary, I knew that it was the right thing to do, and my husband's a programmer, so he really encouraged me.”

 

Callista GlossSullivan enrolled in a back-end coding class at Grand Valley State University before learning about Grand Circus and the semester wrapped up shortly before the C# .NET coding boot camp began. She’s since been confident it was the right career change to make.

 

Boot camp

 

There were eight individuals enrolled in the April C# .NET coding boot camp who were split up into two teams. For this particular session, Grand Circus partnered with the Seamless Consortium, and concentrated on working with the Long-Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) air quality sensors that the City of Grand Rapids had installed over the course of 2017 and 2018.

 

The Prime Path team developed software that finds the healthiest walking path between two points in the city based on where the ozone (O3) and particulate readings are lowest. Weather Worry Wonder concentrated on calculating air quality measurements at the address level, using complex mathematics to weigh and blend the readings from the 16 different sensors around the city. Incorporating the vectors of weather forecasts, the app can extrapolate those air quality readings over the course of a week or more.

 

Rizzo and Sullivan focused on building out the app's database. Kapteyn, being familiar with geocoding — latitude and longitude — drew up the trigonometric algorithm for data fusion. Vallarsa worked with the various API calls that pulled in weather and sensor data.

 

"And to kind of keep us on the same page, we would sometimes work in other areas," Kapteyn says. "I could go back into the database and we'd swap up just so everyone knew where the code was."

 

More sensors, and better connected sensors like these can help improve Grand Rapids air quality.C2H4O

 

The sensor data Weather Worry Wonder was working with provided O3 and particulate measurements. A few months earlier, the State of Michigan had been monitoring sensors that reacted to ethylene oxide (C2H4O), a dangerous carcinogen linked to increased cancer rates, and the source of a cancer outbreak on the Westside.

 

The team used sensor readings from March to prove their app could be used as an early warning system.

 

"At the beginning of our project, we were noticing that there was a considerably high spiking point at one center location in general," Rizzo says. "That led us to dig into what was going on on the Westside of Grand Rapids. And that's how we stumbled upon the story."

 

News articles from January 2019 and on detailed the ethylene oxide emissions at the Viant Inc. plant at 620 Watson St SW. The city's air quality monitoring system was not equipped with ethylene oxide sensors, and the Weather Worry Wonder team could not find a direct correlation between the EPA-mandated air quality index involving O3 and particulate readings and C2H4O. In other words, the chemical may have never been detected were it not for an orthogonal study, conducted months earlier by Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) (previously known as Department of Environmental Quality).

 

Prompted by increased reports of cancer on the Westside, Kent County Health Department researchers began looking at blood samples taken from cancer patients around the city. Those samples were traced back to the addresses of the donors. A much higher concentration of addresses was found around the Viant Inc. plant, where medical devices are put through a sterilization process that involves ethylene oxide.

 

The EGLE followed up by looking at ethylene oxide readings from three EPA air monitoring devices in Jenison, 14 Mile Road and U.S. 131, and downtown Grand Rapids, eventually tracing the emissions back to Viant Inc., which was first cited for ethylene oxide emissions in 2017. According to the U.S. EPA, another citation occurred in July 2018 when the EGLE Air Quality Division was found in violation of the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants found in the Clean Air Act, measured at 0.0002 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

 

“Living in Grand Rapids, we have pretty good air quality, overall,” Sullivan says. “Since we're a heavy medical community, ethylene oxide is one that we're obviously really concerned about. We've kind of moved away from manufacturing, but there is still carbon monoxide from cars. And ozone is always a concern, but that’s measured in every sensor we work with.”

 

Per discussions with EGLE, Viant has committed to stop its ethylene oxide sterilization operations in Grand Rapids by the end of 2019.

 

On Grand Rapids' Westside, the air is getting cleaner, but in cities around the country where ethylene oxide sensors are not available, there may be hidden dangers.

 

"If we took air quality sensors and put ethylene oxide sensors on, we could have been more proactive rather than reactive," Rizzo says. "The EPA is studying after people already have cancer. If we had sensors for different pollutants that we were worried about, then the city could have caught it. Short term exposure to that fluid may not be harmful. But over the years, [with] the exposure, then you're going to see cancer incidents increase."

 

The Weather Worry Wonder team was also concerned about finding particulates larger than 2.5 micrometers in diameter around Godfrey and Wealthy. Particulate matter that size isn't typically seen outside of areas near wildfires, incineration plants, or heavy industrial districts.

 

In order to locate the sources of that pollution, "the next step would be to look at particulate matter, and triangulate the factories in the area, or find different causes for why particulate matter is that size,” Rizzo says.

 

Time constraints
 

Building a working app in three weeks was a challenge for the Weather Worry Wonder four, but their biggest hurdle was knowing where to set their expectations. They had the training for it, and were dedicated to the work, but a viable product was a more realistic outcome than reaching every envisioned milestone before launch.

 

"It was it was tough, I would say that our focus kind of wanted to change," Kapteyn says. "And our heads just kind of kept getting bigger. But we were looking at a time constraint; we had to stay on task and wanted to at least get the original plan done."

 

"When we found out about the Westside ethylene oxide leak, that put the passion into our project," Rizzo says. "We knew that with technology, even our application can lead to a proactive approach to the prevention of toxic pollutants. I think that's what helped in our mindset. It grew."

 

Forecasting

 

The next plan for Weather Worry Wonder is to move the application from the open source ASP. NET platform to ASP. NET Core, enabling ports to macOS, Linux, and Windows systems, and the improved performance they need to integrate it with real-time data through Amazon Web Services.

 

"Which means we really need to continue to optimize our code," Rizzo says. "We saw it crashed because a ton of people wanted to get on it. And it's already heavily involved with a lot of data, but we can pare down some of that information."

 

The team is also trying to increase the number of air quality sensors in Grand Rapids. With more sensors, the accuracy of triangulated air quality measurements would improve by magnitudes.

 

Weather Worry Wonder intends to model their application for other cities, as well. Particularly those with worsening pollution issues.

 

“There was quite a bit of interest in the ability to forecast,” Kapteyn says. “As of right now the formula is down to 75 percent accuracy. In the future, we'd like to implement something like an account that the user can create. Say, if you have asthma, you can have push notifications to remind you tomorrow or the next day that there might be an air quality index advisory.”

 

Separately, the members of Weather Worry Wonder are hoping to land positions using their new skills, but they still intend to build out the features of their app, share their knowledge with other cities where the same systems can be put in place, and providing an easier way for communities to make actionable decisions about their air quality policies.

 

To try Weather Worry Wonder out for yourself, visit http://weatherworrywonder.com/

 

 

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]

 

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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