Open, Accountable Government
E-Gov Spotlight: Informing the Public about Air Quality
by Leeann Sinpatanasakul, 1/28/2014
During the week of Jan. 20, the air quality in Utah's Salt Lake City region and parts of California hit red-alert status – meaning that the air was unhealthy for everyone and was especially harmful to sensitive groups like children, the elderly, and those with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forecasts and posts air quality levels in an easy, color-coded format on a website called AIRNow. The site offers users a means to explore air quality levels in their area and ways to protect their health against the impacts of air pollution.
What is AIRNow?
The AIRNow website uses the Air Quality Index (AQI) to provide local and regional air quality information in the United States and southern portions of Canada. The AQI compiles real-time data on five major air pollutants (ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter) into a simple indicator of overall air quality. The index has six color-coded categories indicating increasing levels of health concern, ranging from green for "good" to brown for "hazardous."
Developed by the EPA, the color-coded categories allow the public to easily understand what health impacts they may expect in their communities. Excess levels of these air pollutants can have a multitude of adverse health effects including coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks, and bronchitis. Children and the elderly represent two "sensitive" groups that are more easily affected by air pollution. Those with chronic heart and lung diseases are also at risk, as increased levels of air pollution can aggravate these conditions.
Currently, AIRNow uses data from more than 2,000 monitoring stations to track real-time air quality conditions in over 300 cities across the country. Although EPA is the leading agency running the site, a wide range of federal, state, and local agencies and tribal groups support the site.
Using the Site
The AIRNow homepage presents users with a color-coded map of air quality across the United States. The map also acts as an interface allowing visitors to drill down to state and local level data. Clicking on any state provides the air quality level for all of the reporting locations within that state. Users who want local air quality information for their home, school, or place of business can type in their zip code in the upper right-hand corner and get a results page for the reporting location nearest to the zip code they provided.
The results page offers users several maps of their local area with the real-time air quality data and forecasted conditions for the current and next day. If available, users can get details for specific pollutants and a visibility camera. Each page also provides links for more state and local information regarding air quality and public health, which typically links to state and city websites.
For example, if a resident of Salt Lake City checked their location on the site on Jan. 24, they would have found an orange air quality forecast, which is "unhealthy for sensitive groups." This means that people with heart or lung disease, seniors, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion. On these days, the forecast recommends that people reduce vehicle use by consolidating trips, not use solid fuel-burning devices, and avoid open burning, such as fire pits, fire rings, and campfires. Furthermore, nearby industries should minimize any air pollution emissions.
Many different audiences should find the AIRNow website useful. For instance, the general public, especially those with chronic conditions, can use this information to plan outdoor activities and avoid staying outside for too long on days with poor air quality. Parents and school administrators can use the tool to check conditions in their local neighborhoods before letting children out to play. Teachers can use the publications and other materials on the website to supplement lesson plans and educate students about air pollution. The media and meteorologists can use the information to better inform the public about air quality in their area. The Weather Channel, listed as a media partner on AIRNow, incorporates the air quality forecasts into national maps provided on its website and its television broadcasts. The Weather Channel website also allows users to select a state and receive a listing of air quality forecasts for major cities in that state and neighboring states.
The site retains air quality data from the past three years, giving the public a quick window on air quality of previous specific days. After looking up any location, users can obtain archives for AQI map data. However, the website advises that the stored data should not be used for research or regulatory purposes, as it is automated and not constantly monitored. For those purposes, the site directs users to the Air Quality System Data Mart. There is an AIRNow API site for developers who wish to use AIRNow data for applications and programs.
Other key features of AIRNow include: downloadable publications, a data feed for developers, publications in Spanish, e-mail alerts of daily air quality levels, mobile applications (or apps) for users on the go, RSS feeds, Twitter, and Facebook.
A major strength of the website is the extensive real-time air quality data from around the country. This data allows the site to forecast air quality for over 300 cities. The real-time information also gives users, especially vulnerable populations, timely tools needed to make important health decisions and plan their day accordingly.
Another strength is the intuitive presentation of the air quality data, from the simple color-coded air quality levels to the interactive map. Even if an individual is unfamiliar with specific pollutants, the site quickly conveys the most important information – how bad is the air quality and who should be concerned?
The website also deserves credit for using a variety of tools to allow greater dispersal of information. Users can access AIRNow data through free Android and iPhone apps, sign up to receive e-mail notifications, or follow AIRNow on Twitter or Facebook. This diversity of communications methods means that more people will get and use this important data.
Weaknesses and Recommendations
Although AIRNow has much to offer the public, the website has a few limitations, as well. One shortcoming is that only 46 states have real-time data for ozone and particulate matter. These two pollutants can have the biggest immediate effects on human health. Agencies should work with tribal, state, and local agencies to fill this data gap. The real-time air quality conditions and forecast would greatly benefit the health of citizens in these areas.
Another notable limitation is that although some of the air quality publications are available in Spanish, the site as a whole and the alerts (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) do not have bilingual options. Adding a second language to the site would expand the audience that could use the site. Those who do not speak English are just as likely to face deteriorating air quality, if not more so, and should not be left in the dark about potential air quality risks.
Lastly, while the air quality data is presented very simply and is easy to understand, the organization of the rest of the site could be improved to help users more easily navigate the related information. For example, it was cumbersome to find information on the sources of pollutants, industry sectors that cause pollution, types of activities that produce air pollution, and how to reduce pollution for communities. The alphabetical links section (located on the bottom of the homepage) should be reorganized into issue categories, such as pollutants or educational resources.
Every day, air quality impacts people around the country, often threatening the health and lives of millions of Americans. For this reason, it is critical to have proper and real-time air quality information.
Overall, AIRNow is a transparent, user-friendly, and educational government website for air quality information. The intuitive presentation, real-time data, and diverse means to receive updates speaks well of the efforts made to build a useful tool for everyone. However, there are some improvements that could be made to better reach out to Spanish speakers and to further expand the data.
Sofia Plagakis contributed to this article.