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  4. Can Citizen Science and Low-Cost Sensors Help Improve Earth System Data?

Can Citizen Science and Low-Cost Sensors Help Improve Earth System Data?

Map showing particulate matter (PM) levels at 3 pilot project cities.

Image credit: Air Quality Citizen Science.

Prakash Doraiswamy, Research Triangle Institute

Particulate matter is a term used for particles of solids and liquids that are suspended in air. Scientists and health officials are especially interested in particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers because these particles reduce air quality and can be harmful to human health.

Satellites provide an economical way to estimate particulate matter in the atmosphere. However, satellites measure aerosol optical depth (AOD) which is the number of aerosols in an air column. While this is correlated to the amount of particulate matter near the surface, it is not a surface measurement. Surface measurements are needed to understand how AOD measurements correlate to low air quality and health risk.

The objective of Air Quality Citizen Science is to add value to AOD measurements obtained by NASA's Aqua and Terra satellites. Citizen scientists are helping to create a network of high quality, "low-cost" sensors in Los Angeles, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Delhi, India. The citizen scientists deploy and maintain the sensors and transmit the data that is collected to a central database. The data will help NASA validate and interpret the current state of satellite-derived AOD estimates.

The citizen scientists also have the opportunity to use the data to understand local air quality. Participants attend workshops where they learn to analyze the data and gain an understanding of how the data they collect is helping NASA improve the value of satellite datasets. With the participation of local citizen scientists, such sensor networks can provide a cost-effective and sustainable method of data collection, while enhancing NASA's mission to develop the next generation of scientists.

Visit the Air Quality Citizen Science site for more information.

Read more about NASA's Citizen Science for Earth Systems Program (CSESP).


Gupta, P., Doraiswamy, P., Levy, R., Pikelnaya, O., Maibach, J., Feenstra, B., Polidori, A., Kiros, F., & Mills, K.C. (2018). Impact of California Fires on Local and Regional Air Quality: The Role of a Low-Cost Sensor Network and Satellite Observations. Geohealth, 2(6): 172-181. doi: 10.1029/2018GH000136

Last Updated: Jun 11, 2019 at 1:21 PM EDT