Policy Forum recap: Community science, technology, and playing nice in the sandbox

Last week, Environmental Initiative hosted its first policy forum of 2021 on Gather.town and Crowdcast. The session, Community Science, Technology, and Playing Nice in the Sandbox brought together: Brandy Toft, Environmental Deputy Director, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Chris Nelson, Environmental Compliance Director, 3M, James Trice, Founder and CEO of Public Policy Project, Co-creator of the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council, and Kari Palmer, Air Assessment Section Manager, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for a conversation about air quality monitoring and community science. The informal and very candid discussion led me to three takeaways.

Air quality data collection is complicated

Air quality data for regulatory purposes are collected through a network of monitoring stations. These stations are often expensive,  housed on rooftops, and require technical expertise to operate. These monitors can tell us what is happening in the air more broadly and they help the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency understand if Minnesota’s air is in compliance with federal air quality standards. Air quality modeling is used to forecast air quality and provide air quality alert warnings and monitors provide data used to create the alerts.

In addition to traditional monitoring and modeling, smaller, less expensive monitoring devices, called sensors, have been developed to help measure air quality in real-time. An air quality agency in California compiled a list of the sensor technologies available, and spoiler-alert, it’s a lot.

While sensors are democratizing the collection of data, there is more to the story than simply buying a sensor or downloading an app. For air quality data to be actionable, everyone involved in the community science work or study needs to understand why the data is being collected and how the data will be used. Brandy Toft noted complexities in interpreting sensor data saying, “Monitoring data from sensors can easily be misunderstood. Agencies and governments need to work together to better communicate what the data really means.”

If not common understanding, then common dialogue

We all want to breathe clean air. We all want to understand what is in the air we’re breathing, and if air quality is poor, why. Unfortunately, figuring out the “why,” isn’t always straightforward. Chris Nelson said, “As we collect more data and put more sensors and monitors in communities, we need to work with local communities ahead of time. We need to be clear about what the data will and won’t tell us up front.” Being honest with community members about the limitations of data collection or other barriers faced by an agency or business can go a long way. We might not always agree, but if there is open dialogue, we can work together.

In many cases, people attribute air pollution in their community to a single source, or site. This isn’t always easy to do and is not often accurate. Chris said, “The classic picture I show when I do presentations on this topic is a guy sitting at a bus stop. In the photo, a bus goes by, the guy standing next to him is smoking a cigarette, the burger joint behind the bus stop is emitting smoke from the grill. With all of that going on, can you connect all of the air pollution data you’re gathering to a facility down the street? You really can’t.”

The reality is, at the individual level, we are exposed to a myriad of pollutants from a range of sources throughout a given day.

Relationships and inequities matter

Access to clean air is not equal. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are exposed to more pollution from every type of source. A study published earlier this spring, which builds on past research, has shown that people of color in America live with more pollution than their white neighbors. These exposure disparities are rooted in structural practices like redlining—a historically racist practice to deny financing to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk.

All of the panelists spoke to the need to build relationships and trust with communities when designing community science projects and programs. Kari Palmer spoke about MPCA’s efforts to monitor air in a more collaborative way. “We’re thinking about how we make the community part of our team, part of the data collection,” she said. James Trice reminded attendees, including me, that, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust.” BIPOC communities have not been given the same deference as white communities in environmental health relationships. We must acknowledge the 400-year history of discrimination and mistreatment of people of color to begin to build relationships and trust.

James also provided attendees with this call to action, “We need white people who are well meaning, who are progressive, who call themselves liberals, who call themselves allies of black and brown communities, to begin to hold institutions accountable. White allies need to challenge the systems of racism and white privilege. We need white people to step up, speak up, and support our communities.”

With the federal government planning to invest millions of dollars into community monitoring, air quality experts, community leaders, regulators, and businesses will have the opportunity to design programs anew. My hope is that any new programs are developed to center and support those who have been historically and disproportionately impacted, in Minnesota and beyond. Based on the conversation at the forum, we are asking the right questions, listening openly, and off to a good start.

If you missed the policy forum, the recording is available online. Environmental Initiative is continuing to work on voluntary emission reductions from smaller, more dispersed sources of pollution. If the forum, your work, or your work in community spark ideas or questions, contact me anytime. I welcome the conversation.