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Downtown Orlando is growing, but the area’s constant construction and heavy traffic can hurt the quality of air there.

That’s why the University of Central Florida is working with the City of Orlando to inform the area’s residents about their air quality as part of a recently announced nearly $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant will fund the installation of more than 100 air sensors throughout the downtown region that will provide near-real-time data about air quality to residents via smart devices.

The project will focus on downtown areas including Parramore, Carter Street, Lake Dot, and Lake Eola, as well as potentially other areas outside downtown to be chosen in consultation with Orlando and Orange County officials and neighborhood residents.

“We’re trying to help enable residents to advocate for themselves by providing them with data,” says Kelly A. Stevens, an assistant professor in UCF’s School of Public Administration and co-principal investigator on the project. “We’re hoping that this improves their relationships with the government, that there’s more transparency about the quality of their air, and that we can help set up some more partnerships with local government for addressing these air-quality needs.”

Specifically, the air sensors will monitor fine particulate matter, a complex mixture of liquids and particles smaller than the eye can see, and carbon dioxide levels.

Fine particulate matter can form when gasses from cars and industry combine in the air and are a threat to health because of their ability to enter deep into the lungs, potentially causing asthma, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and more. Carbon dioxide will be measured to help monitor Orlando’s goals to increase sustainability and reduce carbon emissions.

The group is developing a prototype air sensor and beginning community-outreach efforts. The next steps will be installing the sensors and working with residents to interpret and understand the data.

In addition to informing and empowering residents, a major goal of the project is to create affordable air sensors that are accurate and secure from hacking, says Haofei Yu, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and the project’s principal investigator.

“Traditional air-quality-measurement devices cost around $20,000,” Yu says. “They are pretty accurate, but they are really expensive. So, what we are doing is actually developing a low-cost sensor that we estimate should cost under $500 each.”

To keep the cost down, the researchers plan to use commercially available sensor parts and algorithms they developed to make them as close in accuracy to the expensive models as possible.

Thomas Bryer, a professor in UCF’s School of Public Administration and co-principal investigator, says the project could also affect residents’ trust in science and in governmental processes.

“What we have is an opportunity to demonstrate that if we can translate data and science in a way that is usable and understandable and accessible to diverse groups of citizens within our communities, then we can increase trust in the governing process and trust in our democratic institutions,” Bryer says.

“Residents can have confidence that they know about what they are talking when they communicate with elected officials,” he says. “They are not only coming to the table with complaints about not being able to breathe or having some medical issues related to air quality, but they have the ability to use data and science to advocate for themselves and for their neighborhoods.”

The research team also includes Xinwen Fu, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Deliang Fan, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University.

Yu received his doctorate in environmental health from the University of South Florida and joined UCF in 2017. Stevens received her doctorate in public administration from Syracuse University and joined UCF in 2017. She’s a member of UCF’s Resilient, Intelligent and Sustainable Energy Systems Cluster. Bryer received his doctorate in public administration from the University of Southern California and joined UCF in 2007.