Understory gives city leaders tools to improve air quality, weather

The Madison-based company is using its weather and air quality network to help urban areas reduce air pollution through Project Atmosphere.

In Greater Madison, we don’t often think about air quality. Extreme weather, yes, but rarely air pollution.

That hasn’t stopped Understory, the Madison-based weather and air quality network and analytics company, from launching Project Atmosphere, the company’s endeavor to bring its Atmosphere technology to 10 new urban centers worldwide. Around the globe, city leaders are invited to apply to host Atmosphere technology in their community to monitor air quality and improvement strategies in real-time.

“We have created new technology in air quality monitoring at a time when the world needs it the most,” says Alex Kubicek, Understory’s CEO. “Project Atmosphere can truly move the needle for improving air quality and slowing climate change. With Atmosphere, city leaders can understand the dynamics of major air pollutants in their city in real time, and then take informed, measurable actions to create cleaner, more livable cities.”

A real-time map of winds in Dallas, Texas using Understory's Atmosphere sensors.

According to Kubicek, many people don’t realize that air quality and weather go hand in hand. “In fact, weather drives atmospheric chemistry that has a direct effect on a city's air quality, so we saw it as the perfect fusion,” he explains. “We were already analyzing weather with our ground-level weather stations, so we realized there was an opportunity to add Atmosphere’s air quality monitoring capabilities so we could help pursue slowing climate change and improve the lives of millions. For us, Atmosphere is the joining of weather and air quality on one network, which allows it to be seen as it truly is — dynamic and intertwined. To make Atmosphere a reality, we had to make a few changes to our software and hardware, but have now enabled real-time measurement and understanding of air quality in a cost-effective and accurate manner.”

Atmosphere uses Understory’s network of hyper local weather stations and air quality sensors deployed across urban centers to aggregate and analyze atmospheric information to create a comprehensive understanding of air health. City leaders have 24/7 visibility into the worst pollutant sources in their city, and are able to triage resources to mitigate unhealthy levels of pollutants, while monitoring the progress of larger air quality strategies. Accurate, up-to-the minute data offers a fiscally feasible and politically viable method for changing air quality for the better.

Understory’s weather network in Dallas-Fort Worth has been live for four years and the Atmosphere network went online three months ago. By being the first city have a Project Atmosphere network installation, Dallas leaders have the ability to pinpoint the most significant sources of pollution, like ozone and nitrous oxide, and tailor air quality improvement strategies to ensure their reduction.

“Our team choose this specific region in Texas because we already had a robust sensor network in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex offering a complete and ongoing weather picture in real time,” notes Kubicek. “All city officials endeavor to promote healthy outdoor air for their citizens and improve the economic well-being of businesses in the region. In addition, as a growing urban center that is experiencing a wide array of weather conditions increasing air pollution, we thought it would be a great city that could lead to beneficial results for Texas citizens, communities, and businesses.”

An Understory weather sensor in Argentina.

Understory plans to place sensor networks in 10 cities around the world in 2019 to allow civic leaders the ability to assesses the impact of weather and air quality conditions on the citizens in their communities. The company is currently accepting applications from civic leaders interested in working with Understory and deploying sensors in their communities.

Although Understory does have weather sensors in Madison, the company has not rolled out Atmosphere capabilities to the network yet. “We see ourselves as part of the fabric here in Madison, so we will most certainly consider deploying here in the future,” says Kubicek. Understory has also not ruled out expanding the technology to rural areas, though for now Project Atmosphere is specifically geared toward urban centers.

“Since Understory’s sensors are cost effective to build, solar powered, and come with their own cellular connection, we have no restrictions to the location, size of the area, or prior presence of Understory sensors,” says Kubicek. “Although we are looking to expand to urban centers right now, our network aggregates and analyzes weather and air quality data to pinpoint pollutants anywhere that it is installed, so use in rural areas that have a large industrial presence is definitely possible down the road.”

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Breath of fresh air

Kubicek says Understory’s goal with Atmosphere from the start has been to provide air quality data that helps cities allocate resources and make better decisions for the health of their citizens and businesses.

“We hope that with our hyper local, real-time data, civic leaders will pinpoint the sources of pollution and initiate air quality improvement strategies, which can range from regulating traffic, enabling tolls, and HOV lanes to administering health warnings for residents,” Kubicek explains. “When these policies are guided by data, you can strike the balance of economic and environmental benefits. For example, tolls can be used to smooth out the morning commute, incentivizing traffic to not all come into a downtown area at the same time.”

For citizens living in cities with frequent smog warning, Kubicek says the effect of bad air quality can result in the exacerbation of respiratory health conditions, such as asthma or even a decline in workplace productivity.

“Although the economy and air quality don’t appear to go hand in hand on the surface, they absolutely do,” Kubicek notes. “The result of civic leaders enacting improvement strategies and passing policies that directly impact what goes into the air we breathe has the potential to not only improve the quality of life for everyone, but can also curb air-pollution’s negative effect on health. With Atmosphere, city leaders can for the first time understand the dynamics of major air pollutants in their city in real time, and then take informed, measurable actions to improve the quality of the air we breathe and create cleaner, more livable cities.”

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