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Streetlight Sensors Measure Spokane Air Quality

For the last several days, you’ve seen with your own eyes the wildfire smoke that is hovering over our region. But other sets of ‘eyes’ have also been ‘seeing’ that smoke and taking samples of it. Among those ‘eyes’ are three sensors that sit on the tops of streetlight poles in Spokane’s University District. Brian Lamb, a professor of atmospheric research at Washington State University, says all of the sensors are showing elevated levels of particulates from the smoke.

But, Lamb says, when the smoke is gone, the sensors show some interesting air quality differences that confirm the phenomenon that we know as microclimates.

“We’ve got one sensor down by the Hamilton/I-90 freeway exchange that seems to show a little bit higher PM levels,” Lamb said.

PM is shorthand for particulates, the microscopic suspended particles in our air.

“We have another sensor over where Division goes under the railroad tracks. That shows elevated levels sometimes, but not as high as we see by the freeway," Lamb said. "And then the third sensor is located up on the north end of the Gonzaga campus in more of a residential area. And as we might expect, the particulate levels are a little lower there.”

In addition to reading particulate levels, the sensors are also measuring carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Lamb says WSU expects to put up another eight or 10 sensors in the University District during the next several months to give researchers even more data about air quality and microclimates.

“Typically the clean air agencies have maybe one or two monitors within the Spokane city area. And here we’re talking about having a dozen or more within a relatively small area. So we’ll learn a lot more about how similar or how different different parts of that neighborhood can be,” Lamb said.

The air quality sensors are part of a larger project with many partners. Kim Zentz co-directs WSU’s Smart City Initiative as part of what has become known as the Urbanova project. She says sensors created by Itron now bolted to 10 poles operated by Avista are gathering data that are interpreted by researchers at WSU and perhaps even used by traffic engineers at the city of Spokane.

“The real impetus behind smart and connected streetlights, the part that pencils out with the most return, is to dim the streetlights consistent with ambient lighting so that you can save energy," Zentz said.

“Sounds like there’s also an effort to improve the traffic flow on the streets. Is that part of it as well?” Nadvornick said.

“It is. The city is just examining use cases where they could take the data they collect from traffic signals and connect that to the data from the streetlight poles so that the lighting can be adjusted based on various traffic levels,” Zentz said.

And there are projects at the personal and public health levels.

“What we’re trying to do is to bring the science down to a more approachable level," Zentz said. "So, where people live, to try to get a more accurate picture of what we’re breathing, and then looking for opportunities with other researchers to look at how those air quality effects might affect other health-related behaviors. Does the location of the walkways that you might put in a neighborhood lead to people being more willing to walk? And when they’re walking, what kind of air quality are they breathing and then how is that related to their overall health?”  

Zentz says Spokane’s Smart City project with its sensors is similar to what other cities, such as Barcelona, Copenhagen and San Diego, are doing.

“They’re trying to take their signals from what the citizens are interested in," she said. "Seattle, for instance, they’re focused on environmental types of improved solutions. They’ve also got some energy saving, of course, and in addition, some mobility tracking for people that are differently-abled to make it around the city with a lot of hills.”

As for all the data that’s being collected, Zentz says Urbanova is aware of the sensitivity surrounding questions about privacy and personal information.

“We’re looking for the innovation opportunities that happen in the boundaries between not including the very private data and the public data," Zentz said. "We’ll be adhering to a very strict data privacy and data security policy so that no one’s data is misused or insecure.”

Zentz says Urbanova will install another 29 sensors in the University District later this fall to collect even more information researchers and agencies may consider useful.