Social Disparities in Air Pollution

The air pollution in Salt Lake County, Utah, varies over the year, and at times it is the worst in the United States. The geography traps winter inversions and summertime smog throughout the Salt Lake Valley, but underserved neighborhoods—and their schools—experience the highest concentrations. Previous research has shown pollution disparities using annual averages of PM 2.5 levels, the tiny breathable particles that can damage lungs just hours after exposure. Children are especially at risk and experience more than just health effects; exposure to PM 2.5 affects school attendance and academic success.

A new study utilized a community-university partnership of nearly 200 PM 2.5 sensors through the University of Utah’s Air Quality and U (AQ&U) network. U researchers explored social disparities in air pollution in greater detail than ever before, and their findings reveal persistent social inequalities in Salt Lake County. The paper posted online ahead of publication in the journal Environmental Research. College of Engineering faculty from the School of Computing, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute were involved in the study.

Locations of the 174 public schools included in the study and the PM2.5 sensors.

The researchers analyzed PM 2.5 levels at 174 public schools in Salt Lake County under three different scenarios: relatively clean, moderate inversion and major inversion days. Schools with predominately minority students were disproportionally exposed to worse air quality under all scenarios. Charter schools and schools serving students from low-income households were disproportionally exposed when PM 2.5 was relatively good or moderate. The findings speak to the need for policies that protect school-aged children from environmental harm.

“The persistence of these injustices—from the pretty clean, but health-harming levels all the way up to the horrific air days—at schools serving racial/ethnic minority kids is unacceptable,” said Sara Grineski, U professor of sociology and environmental studies and senior author of the paper.

The authors expected social disparities on bad air days but were surprised that they persisted on clean air days when PM 2.5 levels are still higher than recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“What makes this project so novel is the community-U partnership that gave us access to this larger network of sensors and helped provide a detailed study. If we had relied on the Utah Department of Air Quality, we’d only have had two monitors and would have missed the nuanced variability,” said Casey Mullen, a doctoral student at the U and lead author of the study.

A higher-resolution snapshot

The evolution of PM2.5 concentrations throughout Salt Lake County during a pollution event (not included in the study). The west side of the county has persistently higher concentrations under all scenarios.

The worst PM2.5 episodes occur during the winter when cold air settles into the Salt Lake Valley and high-pressure weather systems act as a lid that seals in particulate matter from vehicle exhaust, wood-burning fires and emission from industrial facilities. Locals refer to these periods as inversions, which can last from a few days to a few weeks. The lowest elevations experience high concentrations of PM 2.5 for the longest time, impacting the residential communities disproportionately. The study compared the PM 2.5 levels at 174 public schools in 10-minute increments over two-day periods during each of three events: a major winter inversion (poor air quality), a moderate winter inversion (moderate air quality) and a relatively clean, fall day (good air quality). The extensive AQ&U network made up of 190 PM 2.5 sensors is extremely sensitive—each sensor collects PM 2.5 concentrations every second, then uploads the 60-second to a database that the public can access through the U’s AQ&U website.

The researchers broke down 174 Salt Lake County public schools with respect to race/ethnicity, economic status and student age. They also distinguished among school types: Title I Status (schools serving majority low-income households), charter school and alternative or special education school. The average student body was 31% Hispanic, 15% non-Hispanic minority and 54% white and about 45% of the schools were Title I eligible. Just over half of the schools were primary schools, about 16% were charter schools and about 5% were alternative or special education schools.

During relatively clean air days, racial/ethnic minority students were disproportionally exposed to high concentrations. At the school level, a 21% increase in the proportion of Hispanic students was associated with a 12% increase in concentration of PM 2.5. Charter schools were exposed to 20% higher concentrations of PM 2.5 than non-charter schools. During a moderate air quality day, charter, Title I schools and schools with greater proportions of minority students were exposed to higher concentrations of PM 2.5. During bad air quality days, exposure concentrations were higher for schools with larger proportions of minority students.

“No one has yet looked at school type in terms of environmental justice. Charter schools are a new variable that intrigued us,” said Mullen. “It’s starting to build on some other story that—why did we find these inequities in charter and Title I schools?”

Mean 10-min PM2.5 levels for each 48-hour scenario at the Salt Lake County schools during a clean, moderate winter persistent air pool (PCAP, inversion) and major PCAP event. The bigger the blue dot, the higher the concentration of PM2.5 particles. In all three scenarios, the lowest PM2.5 concentrations were on the south and east side of the study area along the bench where elevation ascends from the valley floor.

Looking forward

This paper is one of many collaborations using the newly established AQ&U network.

“This is the first publication from such a diverse cross-disciplinary partnership arising from AQ&U, although we anticipate this is the first of many,” said Kerry Kelly, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and co-author of the study. “We are enthusiastic about ongoing partnerships—to understand the effect of pollution microclimates on asthma exacerbations; to predict the severity of wildfire smoke plumes; and to engage student researchers and community partners in understanding the effect of sound walls on air quality.”

The air quality sensors and the network were built by Kelly; Wei Xing of the U’s School of Computing; Ross Whitaker and Miriah Meyer of the U’s School of Computing and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI); Tofigh Sayahi of the U’s Department of Chemical Engineering; Tom Becnel and Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon of the U’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Pascal Goffin of SCI, all of whom also co-authored the study.

In future studies, the researchers hope to fill in even more gaps in the sensors to get a better picture of the social inequalities in Salt Lake County and in other areas, especially with regards to school-aged children.

“I see research like this continuing to build a wall of evidence that we have to do better in the way in which we regulate pollution exposure in the U.S. and worldwide,” said Grineski. “Evidence on top of evidence points to us having to do a better job of protecting people, especially kids, from pollution.”

Timothy Collins of the U’s Department of Geography also co-authored the study.

R&D 100 Award Recipients

A team of researchers from the University of Utah’s School of Computing and Idaho National Laboratory received the prestigious 2019 “R&D 100 Award” from R&D World magazine for their development of a system for Wireless radio Frequency signal Identification and protocol Reverse Engineering, or WiFIRE.

The team comprises of U School of Computing professor Sneha Kumar Kasera and his doctoral students, Christopher Becker and Aniqua Baset, along with Kurt Derr and Sam Ramirez from the Idaho National Laboratory.

WiFIRE involves the use of software-defined radios as well as new software that can continuously monitor wireless spectrum. In real-time, it can identify multiple types of signals, trace them and report if any are from authorized or unauthorized wireless users.

This technology can help industries prevent data theft by detecting unlawful data movement or the presence of devices on the network that do not belong. It can then alert system operators, block unwanted data transmission, even start data or video recordings that can later be used in an investigation.

“WiFIRE meets the long-coveted ability of monitoring and understanding the surrounding wireless environment in defense/military settings as well as modern infrastructures and industrial facilities,” Kasera said. “For example, nuclear power plants could use the technology to monitor wireless transmissions in real-time to prevent illegal data theft or disruption of service.”

The R&D 100 Awards are given to 100 products in six categories: Analytical/Test, IT/Electrical, Mechanical/Materials, Other, Process/Prototyping, and Software/Services.

“This awards program is so well recognized across the R&D community. Being named as one of the R&D 100 is an incredible honor,” said Paul J. Heney, vice president and editorial director for R&D World. “These 100 winning products and technologies are the disruptors that will change industries and make the world a better place in the coming years.”

The R&D 100 Awards will be presented during a banquet December 5 at the San Mateo Marriott near San Francisco.

Wi-Fi with Longer Range

Former University of Utah School of Computing graduate student, Phil Lundrigan, has created a software-based protocol that greatly extends the range of Wi-Fi signals. With it, devices such as Wi-Fi routers could extend their range by as much as 67 meters.

Lundrigan’s research, advised and co-authored by U School of Computing professor Sneha Kasera and electrical and computer engineering adjunct professor Neal Patwari (now at Washington University in St. Louis), was presented Oct. 22 at the ACM MobiCom Conference 2019, the 25th International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking.

Lundrigan is currently an assistant professor of computer engineering at Brigham Young University.

Here is a BYU press release about the research.

A group of researchers led by a Brigham Young University computer engineering professor has created a protocol that significantly extends the distance a Wi-Fi-enabled device can send and receive signals.

The engineering innovation requires no new hardware to enhance the signal range for “internet of things” devices, like a door sensor or motion detector, but can extend the distance these devices can be installed from a Wi-Fi access point by more than 60 meters, according to test results.

“That’s the really cool thing about this technology: it’s all done in software,” said Phil Lundrigan, assistant professor of computer engineering at BYU. “In theory, we could install this on almost any Wi-Fi-enabled device with a simple software update.”

The new protocol is called On-Off Noise Power Communication and is programmed right on top of the existing Wi-Fi protocol using the same hardware. While Wi-Fi requires speeds of at least one megabit per second (1 Mbps) to maintain a signal, the “ONPC” protocol Lundrigan and his co-authors created can maintain a signal on as low as 1 bit per second — one millionth of the data speed required by Wi-Fi.

To do so, Lundrigan, Neal Patwari of Washington University (in St. Louis) and Sneha Kasera of the University of Utah adjusted the transmitter in a Wi-Fi-enabled device to send wireless noise in addition to data. They programmed into the Wi-Fi sensor a series of 1s and 0s, essentially turning the signal on and off in a specific pattern. The Wi-Fi router was able to distinguish this pattern from the surrounding wireless noise (from computers, televisions and cell phones) and therefore know that the sensor was still transmitting something, even if the data wasn’t being received.

“If the access point (router) hears this code, it says, ‘OK, I know the sensor is still alive and trying to reach me, it’s just out of range,'” Patwari said. “It’s basically sending one bit of information that says it’s alive.”

But according to Lundrigran, one bit of information is sufficient for many Wi-Fi enabled devices that simply need an on/off message, such as a garage door sensor, an air quality monitor or even a sprinkler system. During their research, the authors successfully implemented their ONPC protocol, along with a cleverly named application to manage the protocol (“Stayin’ Alive”), ultimately extending the range of an off-the-shelf device 67 meters beyond the range of standard Wi-Fi.

The researchers made clear to point out that their ONPC protocol is not meant to replace Wi-Fi or even long-range wireless protocols like LoRa, but is meant to supplement Wi-Fi. Specifically, only when Stayin’ Alive detects that the Wi-Fi device has lost its connection, it starts transmitting data using ONPC.

That being said, authors believe the innovation could make LoRa even longer range or be used on top of other wireless technologies. “We can send and receive data regardless of what Wi-Fi is doing; all we need is the ability to transmit energy and then receive noise measurements,” Lundrigan said. “We could apply this to cellular or Bluetooth as well.

The research was presented on October 22 at the International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking in Los Cabos, Mexico.


Birth of the Internet

In 1968, the nation’s top computer scientists and members of the U.S. government gathered inside the Rustler Lodge atop the Alta Ski Resort in Salt Lake County, Utah. They were about to change the world.

It was during that meeting this group talked about the novel idea of connecting computers together into the world’s first far-reaching communications network.

An early sketch describing the first four nodes of the ARPANET

A year later, four institutions — UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Utah — became the first “nodes” to that network, then known as ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network.

It was the precursor to what we now call the internet.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this revolutionary milestone in communications, the University of Utah’s School of Computing is hosting a celebration to commemorate the U’s involvement in the birth of the internet and to look forward at the future technological advancements in store for the university and the state of Utah.

The event will be held Monday, Oct. 7, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Robert H. and Katharine B. Garff Building, 1731 E. Campus Center Drive, in the Kahlert Hall and auditorium. Register Here

Scheduled speakers include Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox; Damien Patton, CEO of Park City-based social media company Banjo; and University of Utah School of Computing associate professor Kobus Van der Merwe, who leads the POWDER wireless communications testbed recently launched in Salt Lake City. Opening remarks will be given by University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins, SVP of Academic Affairs Daniel A. Reed and College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown.

A New Network

In the 1960s, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and its Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) were funding computer projects and looking for a way to network computers together. IPTO director Robert Taylor and program manager Larry Roberts proceeded with a new idea of packet-switching as a form of transferring data from one computer to another. They set out looking for the top universities in the field to research it.

David Evans, right, the University of Utah’s first chair of the computer science department, was leading some of the nation’s top computer scientists when his department was chosen as one of four nodes of the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet.

Meanwhile, David Evans, who was the U’s first chair of its computer science department (now known as the School of Computing), had been building the department’s reputation as an international center for computer science research. He brought in the finest faculty and researchers in computer science, including graphics legend Ivan Sutherland (who also led the IPTO at one time), and graduate students John Warnock (who later founded Adobe) and Steve Carr, to name just a few. It was partly because of the U’s growing reputation for graphics that it became one of the first four nodes for ARPANET.

The architecture for the ARPANET utilized an Internet message processor (IMP) at each of the four institutions. On Oct. 29, 1969 — when UCLA and Stanford were the only ones connected at the time — UCLA student Charles Kline was supposed to send the first message over the network with the word “login.” He got the “l” and the “o” through successfully before the computers crashed. It was half a message, but they were the first letters to be transmitted long distance between two networked computers.

The U was added as the fourth node in December 1969 using a DEC PDP-10 computer and the TENEX operating system. By 1981, there were 213 nodes connected to ARPANET. In 1990, ARPNET was retired, and most university computers migrated to a newer network. But those first four nodes will be remembered for being the launching point for a new technological revolution. The internet today is now the foundation for nearly all electronic communications in the world, from websites to email.

“The University of Utah College of Engineering is pleased to have as part of its legacy the role it played in the establishment of the internet, which has had a profound effect on every aspect of modern life,” said U College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown. “It is not a stretch to say that the ARPANET led to our ability to access information instantly, to our ability to communicate for free, and to the tech boom in Utah’s economy known as Silicon Slopes.”

“You’ve got to have more engineers”

“You want tech jobs in Utah, you’ve got to have more engineers.”

That’s what Adobe co-founder and University of Utah College of Engineering graduate John Warnock once said to then-Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, according to a May 11 story on Forbes about Utah’s rising tech sector.

In the last 20 years, the number of tech jobs in Utah rose 347%, and the state is now third in the country in venture capital activity per capita, according to the story.

Read below from Forbes about Utah’s success story as a rising tech center, thanks in no small part to our ability to feed new engineers into the workforce.

A few weeks ago, Former Utah Governor and Health & Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt spoke at a technology summit here in the state. He talked about where Utah’s tech sector was 25 years ago, where it is now and what needs to happen to keep the momentum going.

“Leadership is a generational relay,” Leavitt said. “Each generation builds on the generations before.” A quarter of a century ago, Leavitt’s administration laid the foundation for the state’s business growth with an objective to become a tech capital.

Click here to read the rest of the story.