Grand Rapids is connecting to the environment, one sensor at a time

If you've ever wondered what's in the air you're breathing, you'll soon have an answer. An open data air quality monitoring project is in the works thanks to partners like OST, the Seamless Consortium, and the City of Grand Rapids.

Take a deep breath, and let this set in.


During an unseasonably hot weekend in September, thousands of people could be found milling around downtown Grand Rapids looking at various art installations. While the quality of the art was somewhat subjective, the quality of the air in downtown Grand Rapids had dropped 15 points below the national average, roughly 53 percent of a perfect score. By early afternoon on Sept. 24, the temperature had pushed upwards of 100 degrees. The air was hot, sticky, and stagnant with ambient pollution from roadways and businesses.


As Grand Rapids grew even more congested during the first week of ArtPrize, likely few understood the implications of long-term exposure to their less-than-optimal environment.


So what would happen if they did?


A project aimed at connecting Grand Rapidians to their environment through real-time updates has been taking shape for years. It's so far been able to monitor and track data from the Grand River, the city water, storm drain, and sewer systems, but the latest integration involves air quality.


The city is matching a $40,000 in-kind donation from Open Systems Technologies, which is prototyping and developing the data analytics and cloud architecture for the project, while an electronics engineering company will be contracted to produce the sensors—at least 25 will be installed around the city. Additional support has been generated by the coalition of IoT interested companies that make up the Seamless Consortium, Rockford Construction, American Seating, and other businesses in Grand Rapids interested in providing a platform for open data collection.


The completed system will create a stream of real-time air quality data, accessible to anyone, at anytime, and much more accurate than a single-point system or those that derive insights from statistical analysis of satellite and weather maps.


Mike Lunn, manager of the city's Environmental Services Department, says the project could be completed in a matter of months, although what the final interface will look like is still to be decided.


Early stages


Wireless technology isn't a novel idea.


Electrical engineering has been incorporating the wireless transmission of energy into designs for over a century. It was the invention of the integrated circuit in 1953 that cleared the way for that energy to be translated into a computer command, however. More recent advancements in network strength and capability, as well as the continual reduction of size, weight, power requirements, and cost of circuitry, have made connecting more and more devices to the same network—the Internet of Things (IoT)—even easier.


A letter in Lunn's office from the early '70s references a need for such a network in Grand Rapids. While the technology may not have been around back when local interest groups first started putting earnest work into monitoring the Grand River, there's little difference in the vision of those who were handling that work five decades ago, and the systems now being put into place.


More sensors, and better connected sensors like these can help improve Grand Rapids air quality. "Back in 1968, we started the Grand River monitoring system with a bunch of groups that were going out and getting samples of the Grand River once a month," Lunn says. "They were doing it once a month but said it wasn't giving them a good picture, and what they really needed was real-time monitoring."


Lunn has been working on the city's monitoring systems for three years now, and says air quality is just one small piece of a much larger project. The technology involves a vast interconnected network of sensors, antennae, software, and other architecture to translate something like the daily flow rate of an individual sewer pipe into a number that humans can understand, but the aim is simple; Lunn hopes to connect people to the environment.


"Most people flush the toilet and they don't know that all this happens," he says. "You turn on the tap water, you don't know what happened to it before it got there. You want to go fishing in the Grand River, you don't know a lot about what's there, right?"


Computers that breathe


Determining a number like Air Quality Index (AQI) can be accomplished a number of ways. The most general ratings are calculated by comparing weather data from satellites to average values from previous years; just slightly more accurate than consulting your Farmer's Almanac.


A more accurate measure of air quality can be gathered with sensors that detect the presence of pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), or black carbon (BC), as well as the fineness of particulate matter (PM), measured in terms of micrometers.


As monitoring technology has become less costly, more portable, and "smarter," IoT engineers and open data enthusiasts have been inventing new uses for the data they can collect. It costs less than $100 to make a fully operational weather machine smaller than a fist, and far less to learn how to program it to generate an application programming interface (API) that translates the data into a visual display—a giant ball, perhaps?—or triggers some other process. For no cost at all, the Dark Sky API, an open source stream of computer code comprised of data feeds from connected environmental sensors around the world, can be leveraged in similar applications, or used to enhance design in other ways.


Existing technologies use large complicated components to measure air quality. The devices OST and partners are creating for Grand Rapids will monitor a combination of particulate matter and ozone levels. The original plan was to use long range, low power (LoRa) antennae supplemented by small battery cells, placed on telephone poles around the city, collecting data from the devices, and transmitting it to a server. It takes a little more than a few DC volts to power the system they've envisioned, though, so the antennae will be placed on public infrastructure where there is access to a 110-volt source.


Lunn says the city is working on placing five of these antennae around the city, which, along with data from the air quality sensors, will be making information on the other monitored areas like the sewer, storm drains, and Grand River accessible to all. The Environmental Services Department has partnered with the City Parking Services in using this technology to provide data on where parking spots are available, too.


"You'll know where the food trucks are and all that," he says.


A rendering of one of the new air quality sensors.Once the LoRa antennae are installed, the city will be monitoring of all of its environmental sensors through this new communications network, supported by Verizon.

Putting it together


The city is funding its side of the air quality project through the general fund. A monitoring platform for the sewer system and the waste treatment plant model is funded through the sewer fund. And the hydraulic model of the stormwater system is funded through a Stormwater, Asset management, and Waste (SAW) grant through the state.


OST has provided in-kind services for the project, supporting the development of software for the air monitoring devices that will be placed around the city. Other partners in the project are providing financial support, but they also stand to benefit greatly. Automotive design company Faurceia, for example, will be able to use air quality data to develop more environmentally considerate products, while Amway may apply it to designing innovative new filters. Other members of the Seamless Consortium, particularly Spectrum Health and Priority Health, will be able to translate the data into healthcare matters.


“The collaborative nature of our city makes this an exciting project to be a part of,” says OST Director of Marketing & Communications Michael Lomonoco. “Our key culture is learning, and we can learn a lot from this.”


This learning opportunity isn’t exclusive to West Michigan, nor did it originate here. As the air quality project has evolved, Lunn, Lomonoco, and others involved in the work have gleaned no small amount of inspiration from other smart communities around the country. Raul Alvarez Jr., Chief Communicator, Storyteller, and Synergist at GTSD Group, and a chief advocate for the project, says there are many examples of interconnected cities throughout the United States, and those that have successfully implemented environmental monitoring systems into their infrastructure continue to find new uses for the technology.


“I was amazed at how forward-thinking Louisville was,” he says of the city that partnered with Bosch to provide real-time environmental data, tailored to specific neighborhoods, along with early warning alerts for adverse climate conditions.


Staff from StartGarden and other organizations that touch the SmartZone are engaged in the air quality project. In St. Louis, sensors attached to light poles are able to detect arson and fire, connect drivers to the parking system, and even prevent crime through smart lighting systems and by triggering law enforcement calls.


Boston installed its Elm air quality monitoring system in 2014. Hundreds of other “Smart Cities” across the world have integrated the technology into their own infrastructure since then, each working toward equitable outcomes for all residents in their own innovative way, but we’ve by no means reached utopia.


“We really need to look at true access to Wi-Fi from an equity standpoint,” Alvarez Jr. says.


Raul Alvarez Jr.
A truly democratic society has no barriers to information, education, or the enlightenment of learning. Both Lomonoco and Alvarez Jr. agree on that point, wireless communication just hasn’t cleared those hurdles yet.


There’s no doubt the smartphone has become a silo of isolation for some, and consulting a device for something as simple as an air quality number may seem like putting even more space between human and humanity. Alvarez Jr. sees the difference between technology and environment becoming less noticeable as open architecture solutions can be built on principles of fair access.


“We champion connections that separate people and technology,” he says, ”but truly solid technology is one and the same. It doesn’t have to separate you from the environment.”


Open source future


As more and more people are allowed to interact with the open data model, the future will see new ways to leverage these systems. The next innovation has just as much chance at coming from someone’s basement laboratory as it does from a degreed engineer at a large company, or a local hackathon, or even a high school technology fair.


Apps like Breezometer can offer users a generalized look at the air quality in their neighborhood. On a hot, congested day, it could help determine the best route home, or which playground to avoid with children under a certain age. Add-on hardware for smartphones is also available, but for a cost. The air quality sensors being deployed by the city will allow us a more granular view of the environment in West Michigan, in real-time, accessible for free.


There is no barrier to the use of open source data other than one’s own interest in learning how to use it. But educational tools are available, as well. The open source programming community is fervently active on forums across the internet, on a variety of topics, each fostering the new ideas and makers that will shape the way we interact with the future.


“Some of these things could change your lifestyle,” Lunn says. “There will be someone that decides that they want to do this or that, pull in this or that. You've got the pollen count. Now, we can have the air quality number up there on the nightly news. What if you had water quality, too?”


If it helps you breathe easier knowing what’s in our air, you soon will.


This article is part of Rapid Growth's series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies (OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.

Projects like this are at the center of a Smart City Movement. Grand Rapids is poised to catch the wave of that movement and is well on its way to becoming a Smart City. For a look at what makes Grand Rapids so appealing as a Smart City and the benefits for the city itself, check out this article by Allison Spooner.


Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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