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Not Blowing Smoke: Howard University Researchers Highlight Earth Science Data Inequalities Amidst Canadian Wildfires

Professor Amy Quarkume and her research team are conducting their investigations across eight different cities.

students with a purple air monitor

Since 2021, Amy Y. Quarkume, PhD, has investigated the impacts of environmental data bias on eight Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities across the United States.

Quarkume is an Africana Studies professor and the graduate director of Howard University's inaugural Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics program.

Through in-depth interviews with community members, modeling, and mapping, her team of college, high school, and middle school researchers have already identified significant disparities in environmental data representation.

“What happens when your local news station, state Department of Environmental Quality or the federal Environmental Protection Agency can’t disclose what is in the colored skyline and funny odor you smell in the morning—not because they don’t want to give you the information, but because they don’t know how to give you data that is specific to your community and situation?” Quarkume said.

In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced its strategy to “dramatically expand the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in every NOAA mission area.” However, as algorithms provided incredibly powerful solutions, they simultaneously disenfranchised marginalized populations.

Quarkume and her team’s findings highlight various challenges: inadequate environmental data collection sites, uneven dissemination of environmental information, delays in installing data collection instruments, and a lack of inclusive community voices on environmental concerns. The team argues that implementing AI in this domain will “dramatically expand” historical and chronic problems.

Imagine a world where there is clean air for all. In order to make that happen, we would need to collect enough data on some of our most at-risk communities to begin to model such a reality.

The multi-year “What’s Up with All the Bias” project, funded by the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Innovator Program, connects questions of climate change, race, AI, culture, and environmental justice in hopes of emphasizing the true lived realities of communities of color in data. Black and Hispanic communities are exposed to more air pollution than their white counterparts and left to deal with the effects of environmental racism as the new Jim Crow. The project’s intersectional approach skillfully magnifies the negative effects of climate change.

Community organizer and lifelong D.C. resident Sebrena Rhodes thinks about air quality often.

The environmental activist has been outspoken about inequalities in air pollution, urban heat, and other environmental justice issues in the Ivy City and Brentwood neighborhoods for years, even prior to a nationwide increase in air quality app usage. In the wake of this summer’s ongoing Canadian wildfires, Rhodes is especially vigilant.

“Because of the wildfires in Canada, our poor air quality was further exacerbated,” said Rhodes. “Our air quality, per the Purple Air monitor placed at the Ivy City Clubhouse, went up to 403 which was one of Ivy City's worst AQ days ever!”

Purple Air monitors provide community stakeholders with hyperlocal air quality readings that can help them shape their day-to-day experiences.

“We check the air quality in the morning, during the lunch hour, and around 2 p.m. Purple Air gives us results of our air quality in real time, every 10 minutes. The data [updates] throughout the day,” Rhodes said.

Caption: Image taken by Raquel Friedmanof the Fort Myer Construction Corporation during a tour of Brentwood

A photo of a factory that spills pollution in the Brentwood neighborhood area. Courtesy of Raquel Friedman (B.A.'22)

Studies consistently reveal that populations of color bear an unequal burden when it comes to exposure to air pollution. This inequality is evident in fence-line communities, where African Americans are 75% more likely than their white counterparts to reside near commercial facilities that generate noise, odor, traffic, or emissions.

Further, asthma rates are significantly higher among people of color compared to white communities, with Black Americans being nearly one and a half times more likely to suffer from asthma and three times more likely to die from the condition.

According to What’s Up with All the Bias’ principal investigator, Dr. Quarkume says matters of air quality, heat, racism, policing, and housing often go hand-in-hand, like in her hometown of the Bronx.

“Whether it's Asthma Alley in the Bronx, or Cancer Alley in Louisiana, some communities have been dealing with these issues for decades,” said Quarkume. “They still deserve to know what is in the air. They deserve quality data to make their own decisions and push for change.

Curtis Bay, a working-class Baltimore neighborhood, currently faces “disproportionately high amounts of dangerous air pollution​​” and has a long history of “industrial accidents and toxic exposures.” Activists, residents, and community members alike have fought for these local air quality issues to be addressed.

Accessing quality data has also presented an additional hurdle for frontline communities. In Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, there are sizable differences between the reported temperature from the National Weather Service and local temperature readings.

These stories have motivated Quarkume and her team to deploy additional air quality monitors, heat sensors, and water quality monitors to communities during the next phase of their project. By supporting local organizations already invested in their communities, she hopes to support community-centered data, data openness, community-centered research, and data equity, principles of the CORE Futures Lab, which she also leads.

“Imagine a world where there is clean air for all. In order to make that happen, we would need to collect enough data on some of our most at-risk communities to begin to model such a reality. The data world has yet to substantially invest in such projects … Progress is in our ability to translate and empower communities to own and imagine those data points and future for themselves, said Quarkume.

Jessica Moulite and Mikah Jones are PhD research assistants and members of the NCAR Early Career Faculty Innovator Program.