live / 2014

Mapping Los Angeles Air Pollution through a mobile application to create awareness and engagement.

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by UCLA

Mapping Los Angeles air pollution sources and levels on a mobile application to enhance community awareness, engagement and reduce exposure.


Please describe yourself.

Solo actor (just us on this project!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

UCLA is a research university focused on the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for society’s betterment.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

MyAir LA will provide residents of Los Angeles comprehensive information easily accessible through a mobile application about the manufacturing sources of air pollution and information about the current air quality (AQ) in their neighborhood. 376 facilities in the Los Angeles area report to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). These facilities emitted more than 8 million pounds of toxics into our environment in 2012 alone. With MyAir LA people will easily access current air quality in their location and tips to enable them to make healthier lifestyle choices. Users will also be able to upload personal tips and pictures on the mobile application and use the application to contact facilities directly to encourage them to reduce toxic releases

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

We will use publicly available information available from the US EPA about Toxic Releases and Air Quality that has been made available to the public but is currently in a format relatively difficult to access and digest for most people. For example, the TRI was developed by the EPA as a tool of information disclosure to encourage low releases of air toxics by facilities but this information has not been used much by the population yet because of its complexity. Researchers and students at UCLA have recently launched a website, Cal EcoMaps, to communicate this information to the residents of Los Angeles through an interactive map. Our objective is to build on this platform to provide people with a mobile application that will provide real time information about air quality, allow users to upload their own information and access this information in various locations.

The main feature of MyAir LA mobile application, will be an interactive map displaying all the facilities in the Los Angeles area with major toxic releases and real-time updates of AQ. Associated health risks in terms of numbers of cancers based on toxic releases and sensitive populations susceptible to air pollution will be identified. The application will encompass sources of air pollution and AQ data with associated health effects and provide corresponding advice to mitigate exposure. Through MyAir LA, residents of Los Angeles will have easy access to this information at their fingertips. Once the mobile application is developed, a campaign will be undertaken to advertise it and reach out to as many people in Los Angeles as possible. Users of MyAir LA will be able to view the AQ and toxic releases in their area based on a zip code or their current location.

MyAir LA will also contain additional features that will allow for community engagement, besides enhancing community awareness of air pollution. Tips for residents to lessen their negative environmental impact, especially on days with poor AQ will be provided. Alerts will be provided through the application for any spikes in worsening AQ. Users of MyAir LA will be able to upload pictures of AQ in their neighborhood and share it with other users. An important aspect of MyAir LA will be enabling users to contact companies that report to the TRI. By using the power of information disclosure residents of LA can encourage companies to adopt better environmental practices and reduce their toxic releases.

How will your idea/project help make LA the healthiest place to LIVE today? In 2050?

Los Angeles continues to have some of the most polluted air in the nation. We need air to survive each moment of each day and when the very thing we need to live is polluted, the quality of our life is greatly diminished. Providing TRI information and AQ information will both work towards improving the air in Los Angeles in different ways. Reducing the negative effects of air pollution will not only require public policy but will also require individual action.

Our project is geared to make LA the healthiest place to live by empowering people, especially sensitive populations, with knowledge that they can act on to improve the air they breathe. Rates of childhood asthma and allergies are rapidly rising. The rates of heart disease, cerebovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer are growing, diseases attributed to air pollution, and the exposed population is getting larger. Many populations like young children, the elderly, pregnant women, asthma patients, patients with allergies and sensitivities are especially vulnerable to air pollution.

Our project is geared to make LA the healthiest place to live by using the power of awareness to incentivize companies to improve their environmental performance. By generating awareness of air toxics and the facilities that release these toxics, companies will be likely to change their management practices to reduce their environment impact through the influence of information disclosure. Users of the mobile application will be able to take direct action by engaging with companies to encourage them to adopt better environmental practices. They will be able to provide feedback to companies and email them. Users can also take pictures in real-time and upload them onto a common map where other users can view the pictures and know the air quality in a specific location. This level of detail is not possible with AQ updates since monitoring stations in one location cover large areas of the city. Over time, the power of community awareness and engagement would lead to making LA a healthier place.

Whom will your project benefit?

This project is intended to benefit the common resident of Los Angeles by creating awareness of the air pollution in their neighborhoods and communities through MyAir LA. This is an especially useful tool for populations that are vulnerable to air pollution. This project has implications for the health of minorities and sensitive populations, which are adversely impacted by low air quality. Approximately 40% of California’s residents live in high traffic areas. This number is significantly higher in densely populated areas such as Los Angeles. Populations of non-white residents, minorities and low-income households are higher near major roadways almost everywhere in the nation but this disparity is much higher in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. People of lower socio-economic status disproportionately incur the negative health effects of air pollution more than other segments of the population. It is also these families that are likely to have least access to this kind of information about air quality and have low awareness of mitigation options. By providing them with health tips to reduce their exposure they can make healthier choices. Parents can be more cognizant of what the best times are to take their children outdoors. Residents can determine what times are best for outdoor exercise.

By bringing to light data of toxic releases in our communities, facilities will be pushed to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and over time this should result in fewer toxic releases in Los Angeles. With MyAir, toxic releases can be viewed in the vicinity of schools and colleges and it is of prime importance that releases be reduced in these areas where children often spend time outdoors. With MyAir, sensitive populations can make healthier lifestyle choices before traveling or moving homes by being aware of sources of air pollution in those areas.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

We don’t have any outside collaborators but several researchers at UCLA are part of the MyAir LA team.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Live” metrics?

  • Exposure to air toxins

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Exposure to air toxins will be reduced as people are given tips on how to reduce their exposure to poor quality based on the AQ information provided by monitoring stations in Los Angeles. Sensitive populations will be identified based on real-time AQ and targeted heath advice and tips to mitigate exposure will be provided through MyAir LA.

Over time, toxic releases are also expected to go down as facilities in the Los Angeles are forced to adopt cleaner and more environmentally friendly practices, as information about toxic releases is more widely available. This would result in further improving the air in Los Angeles.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

To begin with, this project will be evaluated by the number of people who download the MyAir mobile application. Areas of Los Angeles where the application is being accessed will also be recorded. This may highlight potential communities who do not have awareness of this application or who do not have access to the technology. This will enable us to conduct a targeted and more effective campaign in those areas if required. MyAir will also include a feedback page for users to provide comments and/or suggestions for improvement, which will then be taken into consideration as the application is improved. The features of the MyAir application that are most used will also be observed to judge the effectiveness of information communication

On the other end, the environmental performance of facilities that may be contacted by many users through the MyAir application will be observed for many changes in toxic releases.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Learning that more than 8 million pounds of toxics were released in the Los Angeles area just in 2012 alone is shocking. Many of these toxics are carcinogens and/or harm other integral systems of the body. A preliminary analysis has also revealed that these releases are on the rise. Though facilities are required to report their releases into the air, water and land they are usually not mandated by law to reduce their releases. The TRI was developed as an information disclosure tool to encourage companies to perform better environmentally and this goal hasn’t been achieved to a great degree. Providing this information to the public so that we may all take action to reduce the toxics released into our environment was a strong motivation for developing this project.

The EPA classifies Los Angeles as being a severe non-attainment zone with regard to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Some of the most polluted air in the nation is found in the Los Angeles area. Despite tremendous efforts through public policy, the deadline for achieving compliance with the NAAQS has long passed. The problem is so big that is also it requires individual action especially in regards to protecting one’s health. As individuals, if empowered by the right information, we can take simple protective measures to reduce our exposures. Mitigation strategies exist and what remains to be done is to the bridge the gap by providing people with the knowledge of what actions they can take to protect their health. Over time, they may also be able to observe better health. The cost of this technology, and associated costs of other technology that they may adopt e.g. air filters, is greatly outweighed by the health effects and loss of productivity associated with air pollution.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Implementing this project within the next 12 months is a realizable goal. The data for developing the mobile application is publicly available. Additional analysis of the data to better communicate it will be required and is expected to take about a month. Developing and testing the mobile application is expected to take about 4 months. A campaign for spreading awareness about MyAir is expected to go along with the development of the mobile application and will continue even after the application is launched. The development of the project is expected to last 6 months. Beyond that, time will be spent in evaluating the success of MyAir, improving upon it and generating more awareness.

This project will be conducted under the guidance of Magali Delmas, who is a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Our team is comprised of three engineering graduate students and eight undergraduate students. We benefit from the support of several other faculty members at UCLA who are experts in air quality. This project will build on the Cal Ecomap platform we have developed (http://www.environment.ucla.edu/ccep/calecomaps/) and will benefit from a partnership with the US EPA TRI University Challenge, which allows us to work with EPA experts to facilitate the access to TRI and Air quality data.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

One potential barrier of this project might be the difficulty to reach out to people that do not have access to smart phones or similar hand-held devices. Though the number of people who have access to this technology has rapidly increased, low-income populations and minorities may not have as much access to this technology and they are populations that are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Current research from the Pew Foundation (http://www.pewinternet.org/) shows that in 2014, 90% of American adults have a cell phone and 58% have a smart phone. This statistic does not vary much by ethnicity with a slightly higher take up rate of smart phone within the Hispanic community (61%). Lower income populations of less than $30,000 annual income report a 47% take up rate. This provides us with still half of the population with cell phones in low income areas, which we believe will be adequate to spread the word.

Another challenge is getting up-to-date information from the TRI databank. The most recent data that exists is for 2012. The 2013 year will be available in the next few months. Our representation of the TRI data will show the last three year in order to show trends of toxic releases in the most recent years. However, the Air Quality information will be uploaded in real time.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Technical infrastructure (computers, etc.)