Monitor Air Pollution Using Street Lights?

Last month I attended Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C. where over 1400 people from various organizations and institutions like government, technology, non-profit and trade groups, businesses, academia, and civic organizations gathered together to consider how we can develop and build a better future for cities and their residents. The concept of Smart Cities was fairly new to me. Basically, the idea is that cities drive the national economy, and most cities are growing rapidly. Local governments may be challenged in keeping up with the demands of citizens and handling aging infrastructure, economic disparity, congestion, pollution, impacts of climate change, etc. Smart Cities frame returns on investment in terms of the triple bottom line, also known as the 3Ps: people, planet, and prosperity. One of the goals of Smart Cities initiatives is to enhance livability, workability, and sustainability. A smart city recognizes our interconnection and uses the internet of things (IoT) to analyze and share data to help government respond quickly and effectively to citizen needs.

This may sound somewhat abstract, so here’s an example to put it into context. As a city replaces its streetlights, it might choose to replace them with smart streetlights. These street lights are LED-powered and have the capacity to monitor traffic so that the city can better understand traffic patterns. The streetlight itself could respond by adjusting its brightness based on the traffic present. The streetlight could also be equipped with an air pollution monitor to collect data that the city environmental health department could use to better understand and respond to the toxic threats its residents face. The streetlight embodies “smart” technology in that it allows the city to better understand traffic patterns and air quality and make adjustments that allow for a healthier city, such as more efficient energy use, updated traffic signals to enhance traffic flow, or changing policies to improve air quality.

Another example came out of Louisville, KY, where citizens were involved early on in a research project helping to address asthma. Using GPS enabled asthma inhalers, the city identified asthma hotspots. They began to roll out some interesting solutions like green filtration – planting trees to help filter and reduce asthma-inducing pollution.

Smart Cities infrastructure can help to use energy more efficiently, to conserve water resources, to reduce food waste and redistribute food to community members in need, and to improve the government’s efficiency at responding to resident needs, among other things. The need to find community partners was highlighted, as well as asking communities what they wanted rather than forcing solutions onto communities. One speaker stated “If we’re doing our job right, most of this work should be happening in underserved communities” where technology can have the biggest impact.