JustAir puts air quality in residents’ hands while working to decrease health disparities

Darren Riley’s concern for air quality isn’t simply tied to his desire to build a better world, but is part of his personal story. His father has asthma and after moving to southwest Detroit, one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the country, Riley also developed the condition.

“I’m really fascinated about using entrepreneurship as a vehicle to solve problems that are near and dear to my heart,” says Riley, co-founder of JustAir. “I think entrepreneurship is a form of expression and if you can authentically express your personal experiences, those are problems and solutions that you can bring to the world that can really move us in the right direction.” 

Riley was using Arduino boards to teach kids to code and build their own air quality sensors, when he and James Meeks, who would become JustAir’s co-founder, decided to build a business model around air quality sensors, which is the start of the company.

Partnering with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., JustAir has installed its first pilot program in downtown Grand Rapids, which is home to 10 air quality monitors. Community members can view the Air Quality Index (AQI) recorded by the monitors here and can sign-up to receive air quality alerts here and using the code airgr1.

JustAir dashboard
Poor air quality can lead to several health conditions such as asthma, which can also increase the risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19. People of color are exposed to more pollution than non-Hispanic whites, according to a ScienceAdvances study, proving that health disparities and inequities exist. 

“If you look at the data from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] around asthma inpatient hospitalization around the US, and especially in urban cores and big cities, you'll find that ZIP codes that contain neighborhoods of color and probably most underserved communities within our city context, disproportionately have some of the highest rates of asthma, pulmonary disease, COVID, mortality rates, etc.,” says Riley.

JustAir has used some of its own capital to support a pilot program in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood so that the AQI between the downtown and Grandville Avenue neighborhoods can be compared.

“And, from that comparison, we actually saw data that we thought to be true, to actually be true,” says Riley. “So, when you have more sensors, you have more data from a spatial perspective, you really understand the disparities and the differences between even maybe a mile apart.”

Many cities, according to Riley, have only one air quality monitor. In the future, he hopes to have air quality monitors installed to cover every neighborhood in Grand Rapids, which should be a total of about 50.

While air quality has significant impacts on health, it has economic effects as well, from children missing school or absenteeism in the workplace. According to a 2019 study, pollution costs the U.S. about 5% of its annual gross domestic product, which equates to about $790 billion (2014). 

When air quality is poor, Riley recommends trying to stay inside and limit strenuous outdoor activity. Just like with storm warnings, Riley hopes people will begin to change their behavior due to air quality alerts. 

“The other levers you can pull in terms of policy and environmental changes, really comes from your activism for your political activity,” says Riley. 

Moving forward, JustAir will be working on infrastructure expansion, data service partnerships and expanding its products. “We’re trying to create data partnerships in a way that's aligned with our vision, our view, so we close the gaps of health disparities and make sure we have a healthy economy, healthy population,” says Riley. 

JustAir’s mission is also about encouraging entrepreneurship, especially in many underserved communities that often feel the effects of important issues such as health and climate change. 

“There are a ton of great ideas from underserved communities and so many problems that we can solve through entrepreneurship by connecting resources like capital, talent, technology resources to some of the brightest ideas and communities surrounding us,” says Riley. 

He wants to see a world where “no matter where you grew up, where you live, what neighborhood you're from, you have that access — you have that potential to really express your ideas [and] solve problems that are near and dear to your heart.”


Photos courtesy of JustAir