Researchers Earn $1.8M to Increase Air Pollution Data Literacy
Atlanta residents will soon have easy access to air pollution data that enables them to make data-driven decisions that positively impact their local environment.
Georgia Tech researchers Jessica Roberts, Alex Endert, and Jayma Koval earned a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to boost their efforts in promoting air pollution data literacy among middle school students and the public.
The grant will fund the researchers’ top two projects — designing and installing a public information kiosk and organizing a summer camp that uses environmental data to teach data literacy to middle schoolers.
Air Quality Index (AQI) data that is readily available helps people decide whether it’s safe for a morning jog or to send their kids outside to play. However, the researchers want to help people understand the big picture.
“The AQI is good for helping make just-in-time decisions,” said Roberts, an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing who researches how technology influences social learning experiences.
“It doesn’t help us think about what’s causing all this. ‘How can I allocate my resources toward pollution mitigation efforts? What should I do as far as where I live and the situation around me?’”
Data visualization provides perspective
Roberts said most people know enough about AQI that they understand safe and dangerous levels, which helps them in the present. However, environmental and air quality data that provides insight into long-term trends and solutions tends to be more complex.
“There are a lot of questions about how to get from this AQI value — this little number on your phone — to all the complex online data repositories that are available,” she said. “Air quality sensors spit out data all the time, but people don’t know how to access them. There’s nothing that bridges this simple number with these complex numbers.”
To solve this problem, Roberts approached Endert, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing who designs interactive visualization tools that make data more understandable.
“What excites me about this project is that it allows people to reason about their data through the visualization of air quality and places where they live and allows them to ask questions,” Endert said. “‘Why is it worse over here but not as bad where I live? What’s causing that? Why is it bad this time of the year but better at other times?”
Roberts said she has a background studying how technology helps present information in museums, and that inspired her with the idea for a kiosk. She and Endert plan to locate the kiosk, which they named Contextualized Air Quality Timeline (Contaqt), around Tech Square, where the Georgia Tech campus and Midtown Atlanta intersect.
“People could be out and about in Atlanta and explore this information through a kiosk while they wait for the bus or if they’re just passing by,” Roberts said. “The kiosk is meant to provide that sort of informal data interaction opportunity.”
Training the next generation
Roberts and Endert wanted to expand the scope of their work to bring air quality and climate awareness to middle school students.
“That’s when students start to dig into environmental science,” she said. “They’re doing more with graphs, creating graphs and visualizations, and data literacy and data science are becoming more of the curriculum.”
Roberts contacted Koval, a research associate in the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC), to work with metro Atlanta public schools in designing a summer camp.
“By focusing on air quality and air pollution during the summer camp, students will have the opportunity to explore these interdisciplinary topics that are of grave importance.
“Through this experience, we hope to empower students to communicate to audiences why these environmental science topics are critical to society and effectively present this information using their enhanced data literacy skills,” Koval said.
The camp will be held at Georgia Tech next summer, with slots open for about 20 students. Roberts said there are also plans to implement an afterschool program in the fall semester.
For information about the kiosk and to register for the camp, visit the AQI Data Literacy site at sites.gatech.edu/contaqt.
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