June 14, 2017

Satellite Data, Street-Level Realities:
Using ‘Stories on Air’ to Create Environmental Justice

By Lauren Atkins, Noa Bartfeld, and Haijing Zhang

The effects of air pollution have become increasingly apparent and have raised intense public concern both locally and globally. Air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide exacerbate serious respiratory and heart diseases – the kind of chronic conditions that are the leading causes of death and disability in New York and around the world. Greenhouse gas pollutants, including carbon dioxide, contribute to global climate change.
Our “Stories on Air” project is intended to provide a platform for local community residents to share their individual experiences of air pollution’s direct effects on their lives, and empower them to take action. Using a transdisciplinary design approach, it will bring technology and data together with the human component of storytelling, with the goal of achieving sustainable change.
A new NASA satellite, TEMPO, which will be able to capture an unprecedented amount of North American air pollution data, was the inspiration for this project. (Although most people associate NASA with space exploration, monitoring the Earth’s atmospheric conditions, including air pollution, is also a significant part of its mission. NASA is expected to launch TEMPO in 2019.)  Through a “data-telling” platform that will link TEMPO’s findings to individual stories about air pollution, this project will engage communities in collective activism to spur environmental policy change.
We teamed up with WE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action), an organization with a respected decades-long track record in fighting for environmental and climate justice in communities long plagued by poor air quality. One of WE ACT’s hallmark strategies is to gather individual people’s stories to drive policy change. Working together, we hope to sync such stories to an online “geotagging map” linked to the TEMPO satellite data. The Stories on Air platform will also serve as a story collection toolkit, involving educational videos and other data visualization components.  
To develop this project, we have conducted interviews, design-led research, field research, and attended community meetings and participatory community- based workshops with WE ACT. As of now, the data-telling platform is still a conceptual tool – one that has been prototyped, with various modifications, over the past year in West Harlem.  Its development is continuing. We presented Stories on Air at Great Britain’s Oxford University at the Oxford Futures Forum in early June. We’ll continue to make further refinements to Stories on Air with WE ACT this summer. We’re also seeking grant support for the technology needed to make Stories on Air operational.

Here’s a video that we created that describes how Stories on Air could work:

Lauren Atkins, Noa Bartfeld and Haijing Zhang are students in the Master of Fine Arts Transdisciplinary Design program at The New School. Their “Stories on Air” project was among the winners of this year’s Prized Solutions competition sponsored by the Center for New York City Affairs, which highlighted exemplary research and ideas from New School students focused on issues impacting New York City.

Images provided by the Stories on Air project