Using Data and Tech to Improve Our Environment
There is growing evidence that the environment a person lives in has more of an impact on their health than their genetics.
A recent study by the University of California — San Francisco found that among older Americans with cognitive impairment, the greater the air pollution in their neighborhood, the higher the likelihood of amyloid plaques — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. And here in Baltimore, life expectancy varies greatly depending on a person’s zip code due to economic and environmental factors.
The quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink are some of the environmental factors that impact health — and often low-income communities and communities of color do not have equal access to clean air and water that wealthier zip codes enjoy.
By utilizing open data, more environmental justice can be achieved and environmental inequity can be exposed and addressed. From a policy perspective, combining environment data from multiple government agencies through tech and viewing it through the lens of public health and the environment will lead to improvements in our communities.
Available open data is already being used to build complex location-based applications.
At Fearless we utilized geospatial data and mapping to build Geo&. The real-time geospatial search engine allows users to find quick answers to complex, location-based questions and personalize, save, and share results. While it’s pretty easy to get a simple question answered using most search engines, things become more complicated when introducing multiple variables to a location-based question.
To map their specific data sets, organizations and government agencies have had to build costly, unique solutions from scratch. Geo&’s intuitive, multi-query search platform allows users to pose multiple questions at once and results on a sleek map.
The technology behind Geo& and other applications can be utilized for environmental health purposes depending on the available open data.
History of Data and the Environment at the Federal government level
The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, the same year President Nixon signed the Clear Air Act. Pollution standards were set to mitigate the risk to our public health and welfare. The level of pollution in the air we breathe trended downwards after the Act’s implementation. Cleaner air led to a healthier US population. The EPA attributes the Clean Air Act in preventing more than 200,000 premature deaths, and almost 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis were avoided in the first 20 years of the Clean Air Act’s implementation.
Fast forward a few decades and the EPA is continuing to utilize geospatial and environmental data to make policy decisions and actions. The CERCLA Act addresses Superfund sites, contaminated sites that exist due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed. These sites include manufacturing facilities, processing plants, landfills and mining sites. Cleaning up these sites not only improves and protects the environment but the health of people living nearing the sites. The tracking and management of Superfund sites is possible because the EPA is able to analyze reams of data across multiple organizations and agencies.
More Americans would be healthier if we fully utilized environmental data
By overlaying socio-demographic information with geospatial information, researchers, policymakers, and analysts can better target communities who are most at risk for environmental health factors.
At every single level of government, decisions can be made to support local community health and environmental agencies and maximize their efforts and impact.
Fearless worked with the Baltimore City Health Department to create a dashboard that allowed the department to analyze the huge amount of data they receive to better serve the city’s residents. By giving the Health Department the ability to map key public health indicators both geographically and over time, changes in trends are detectable by BCHD analysts as soon as the data is received.
The mapping of public health data and correlating it with key demographic, socioeconomic, and environmental data, allows health professionals to better understand how, where, when, and why a crisis is occurring so they can target resources to the communities that need them most.
By making it easier for researchers and policymakers to both use and contribute to Environmental Justice datasets to make real-time decisions about, for example, where to push funding for environmental cleanups or public health outreach, or decisions about zoning regulations based on climate change data, we are widening the types of actions that can be taken to improve our environment and health of our communities.
What Fearless would like to see next to improve environmental health
There is a staggering amount of data related to the environment and potential health impacts but data sources are not easily shared or accessible between the public and private sector, or within government agencies.
Fearless urges the incoming administration to facilitate and encourage better data sharing practices and invest in expanding data collection.
For example, the Environmental Defense Fund points out how air quality can vary in a city from block-to-block, but there are often only a handle of air quality sensors in a given city. The EDF piloted a mobile air quality sensor program in a couple of cities, allowing researchers to collect data at a more focused level, uncovering the disparities over short distances.
Like open-source software, a uniform framework of open data and sharing will better utilize the data that has been collected. Projects won’t be repeated and resources can be allotted to more efforts and available data can be analyzed by more people, hopefully leading to more discoveries and better health for all. The EPA’s EJSCREEN (Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool) already provides the EPA with a nationally consistent dataset and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators. By building upon the work already being done through EJSCREEN, data quality would be enhanced and further analysis can be done to influence policy and people’s lives.