$1.5M NSF Award for Real-Time Mobile Air Quality Monitoring and Intervention

Qi Wang, Yanzhi Wang, and Amy Mueller

CEE Assistant Professor Qi Ryan Wang is leading a $1.5M NSF grant, in collaboration with ECE Assistant Professor Yanzhi Wang, CEE/MES Assistant Professor Amy Mueller, CAMD Associate Professor Brooke Foucault Welles, and Adrienne Katner from the LA State University Health Science Center, to work on “Toxic-Free Footprints to Improve Community Health against Respiratory Hazards.”

Have you ever received a local air quality alert on your smartphone but wondered what it really means? Should you modify your plans for the day—and what are your real risks of exposure?

A group of researchers at Northeastern University and the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center New Orleans, led by Assistant Professor Qi “Ryan” Wang, wants to address the current lack of publicly available information about real-time, local pollution levels so individuals can protect their respiratory health. This project team will specifically study how human mobility (the pathway they take through the city each day) affects exposure to airborne toxins as well as how dangerous exposure levels can be more effectively communicated.

Recognizing the importance of this research, the National Science Foundation has awarded $1.5 million in funding to Wang and his co-investigators for their study called “Toxic-Free Footprints to Improve Community Health against Respiratory Hazards.”

“Fifty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, nearly half of the US population lives with and breathes polluted air—including many people in industrial, impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged urban communities,” says Wang, the principal investigator of the study. “We know surprisingly little about how people are actually impacted every day by air pollution and how they might change their behavior to mitigate the effects.”

“It’s relatively easy to install fixed sensors and monitor a single location,” he continues. “But people are constantly traveling throughout the day to jobs, schools, shops and other destinations. As they move through their daily routines, how does that affect their exposure to respiratory hazards? Our first research goal is to develop a methodology for quantifying the relationship between mobility and risk exposure.”

The team is developing innovative tools—including air pollution sensors that collect real-time environmental data via a cell phone—as well as data-driven models that quantify the relationship between location and respiratory hazards. The research brings together many technology aspects—including AI, geo-mapping, sensor deployments, and app development―but also requires deep community engagement as well as an understanding of public policy and health care issues. Wang has assembled a diverse team that includes two College of Engineering faculty members: Assistant Professor Amy Mueller of CEE and the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences, along with Assistant Professor Yanzhi Wang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The sites for the research are Roxbury, Massachusetts where Northeastern University is located, and St. John Parish, Louisiana, which Dr. Adrienne Katner, a co-PI on this project, has worked with extensively. These two diverse communities with higher-than-average rates of both air pollution and respiratory illnesses. “Measuring the wide variety of air pollutants everywhere in a city is a daunting and cost-prohibitive proposition,” Prof. Amy Mueller pointed out, “but by partnering with the community we are getting information that crisscrosses the city as they move from home to work to shopping.  This lets our team get city-wide information from a relatively small number of sensors – and focused on the areas where people spend their time.”

But the approach doesn’t stop with gathering data. “The next and equally important step is developing communication and intervention strategies,” he explains. “How can we help people make better and more informed choices to protect their health?” Part of the answer, the team believes, lies in developing a readily available, AI-powered mobile app for mainstream smartphones. Prof. Yanzhi Wang from ECE, who works on developing real-time and computationally efficient deep learning and artificial intelligence systems, will help develop the Toxic-Free Life app to provide real-time estimations of pollution exposure.

Another key feature of the Toxic-Free Life app is to support network-based interventions such as personalized alerts that help people reason about their pollution exposure. “The key to an effective intervention is to make complex data accessible and relevant for real people,” explains Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles (CAMD), a co-PI on the project. “People’s perception of risk is culturally and socially constructed, if we don’t engage the social circumstances of people using the Toxic-Free Life app, even the best models will fail to produce behavior change.”

“The relationship between human beings and air pollution is complex, and not everyone has access to the information and health care resources they need to protect themselves,” notes Wang, who is also affiliated with Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “I’m lucky to be part of a really special community here in the College of Engineering where we are encouraged to step outside our own departments, form interdisciplinary teams, and explore these types of complex problems.”

“By having the freedom to connect with other experts, both inside and outside the College of Engineering, we can make rapid progress on critical social problems. Unfortunately, air pollution is an ongoing challenge—but I’m hopeful this study will have a positive and rapid impact on at-risk populations,” Wang concludes.

Abstract Source: NSF

Fifty years after the passing of the Clean Air Act in the U.S., nearly half of the nation’s population is estimated to live with and breathe polluted air in 2020. The recent acceleration in the number and intensity of wildfires driven by climate change and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic have made air pollution effects on public health an even more heightened concern. This Smart and Connected Communities project builds and enhances technological, economic, political, and social infrastructures in vulnerable communities to better sense and monitor air quality, prevent exposure to respiratory hazards, and raise awareness of and battle misinformation on air quality. The research aims to build smart and connected toxic-free communities, which resonates with NSF’s mission “to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare.” The research team collaborates with local grass-root organizations, communities, research centers, and planning agencies in two communities, Roxbury, Boston, MA and St. John the Baptist Parish, LA. The new technological approaches and air quality data generated by the project along with the deep community engagement will potentially influence and enhance policies and benefit underserved communities with more equitable access to a healthy environment.

In this research project, the research team (1) develops data-driven approaches to seamlessly link human mobility (i.e., a person’s footprints within and beyond the residential place) and respiratory hazards measured by air quality monitors; (2) designs real-time AI technologies to connect information and communities that support both network-based interventions; and (3) deploys the methodology in two representative local communities characterized with minority and diversity both burdened by air pollution. The research focuses on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (e.g., PM2.5) for their known health impacts of causing lung cancers and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The key deliverables of work include: (1) a data-driven and real-time AI-based framework that links multi-model data streams (e.g., geolocations, air quality, social networks, etc.) to quantify and predict air pollution exposures associated with human footprints; (2) social network-based interventions strategies developed interactively with and tested by two communities burdened by air pollution (Roxbury, Boston, MA and St. John Parish, New Orleans, LA); and (3) real-time AI-powered mobile application (App), Toxic-Free Life, for mainstream smartphones that allows real-time estimations of air exposure and supports network-based interventions.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Faculty: Qi “Ryan” Wang, Yanzhi Wang, Amy Mueller

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering