US Ignite Sponsored Project Designed to Probe Air Quality Impact on COVID-19 Deaths in Cuyahoga County


DigitalC collaborated with the IoT Collaborative, a partnership between Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Cleveland State University (CSU), the City of Cleveland, Division of Air Quality (CDAQ), and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) on this project with US Ignite. This brought together community-driven organizations (DigitalC and CNP), the region’s anchor academic institutions (CWRU and CSU), and the local air agency for Ohio EPA for Cuyahoga County (CDAQ). In addition to deep insight into the region’s airshed, CDAQ also brought extensive PM2.5 metrology experience. The collaborators agreed on the following goals for the project:

  1. Investigate the correlation of PM2.5 air pollution on the incidence of COVID-19. Share the resulting data and insights to improve public health outcomes and policies.

  2. Understand the characteristics of low-cost monitors and how they can add additional information to existing data sources (e.g., EPA monitors) to gain a more detailed understanding of temporal and spatial aspects of the Greater Cleveland airshed.

  3. Develop a platform for the air quality data to support researchers and organizations in their efforts to improve the region’s health (e.g., air quality correlation to other social determinants of health, environmental exposure impact on cardiovascular health, and maternal and infant mortality).

These goals motivated the monitor deployment methodology, database and web site creation and design, and future work as explained below.

Monitor Deployment Methodology

A comprehensive investigation of PM2.5 air pollution required distributing the Tetrad AirU monitors across sites within the City of Cleveland and surrounding suburbs within Cuyahoga County. COVID-19 made it impractical to recruit residential homes to host monitors, so the strategy developed was to recruit primarily public organizations in three phases:

  1. Learning (5 monitors) - develop familiarity with installing the monitors

  2. Scaling (35 monitors) - broadly cover the Cuyahoga County airshed

  3. Targeting (10 monitors) - target neighborhoods with suspected high PM2.5

The first phase of monitor deployments involved the collaborators (CDAQ, DigitalC, CWRU, and CSU) and close partners, including the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC), enabling the team to develop hands-on experience. The second phase involved our two excellent public library systems - Cleveland Public Library (CPL) and Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL). This provided appropriate siting across the urban core and surrounding suburbs. An additional benefit was a centralized deployment process, with two institutions hosting the majority of devices. The third phase allows for PM2.5 levels to be compared at a very fine scale, neighborhood to neighborhood, in targeted urban areas in the core city of Cleveland.

A system was developed to support monitor tracking, installation, and management. This included a Siting Checklist to be completed for each installation, including date and location of installation, contact information, guidelines on monitor installation (preferred orientation, height, etc.), and photos of the installation. A database to track monitors and a repository to hold the completed siting checklists and installation photos were also developed. Additional print and video collateral was created to support our partners in installing and provisioning their monitors.

Monitor Deployment Status

Recruiting, installing, provisioning, and resolving IT issues has taken longer than anticipated. This would have been complicated, even pre-pandemic, but the day-to-day realities of COVID- 19 have slowed the process. Thirty-eight monitors are currently deployed and measuring air quality across Cuyahoga County. We expect all the remaining monitors to be deployed by the end of Q1 2022.

PM2.5 and COVID-19 Case Database and Website

A custom time-series cloud database (AWS Timestream) has been developed with a companion website for visualization (Figure 1). The cloud database houses the PM2.5, Temperature, Humidity, and location data provided by the Tetrad API along with the COVID-19 case counts by ZIP code provided by the Ohio Department of Health. AWS Lambda tasks periodically query the Tetrad AirU and Ohio Department of Health systems for updated data, which is then inserted into the database. This allows for the long-term storage and visualization of PM2.5 and COVID-19 data and trends.

Example of visualization showing monitor locations (circles), PM2.5 pollution (color gradients) and COVID- 19 case count for the last 14 days by ZIP Code (grayscale)
Figure 1: Example of visualization showing monitor locations (circles), PM2.5 pollution (color gradients) and COVID- 19 case count for the last 14 days by ZIP Code (grayscale)


Hands-On LEGO STEM Workshop

To support broader community understanding and engagement related to air quality, a hands- on STEM LEGO Air Quality Monitor workshop was developed for middle school students based on previously NSF-funded work at the University of Utah. 15 kits were built, including custom 3D printed LEGOs to hold the LEDs and photoresistors, and Raspberry Pi Picos. The workshop was piloted at the Great Lakes Science Center in August 2021 (Figure 2), in partnership with CWRU, DigitalC, and CDAQ. CDAQ’s community engagement staff is using the workshop to educate students in the community at schools and libraries, and with youth organizations..

Photos of students in LEGO Air Quality workshop
Figure 2: Photos of students in LEGO Air Quality workshop



The majority of monitors have been deployed and are actively collecting air quality data. A time- series database and data ingestion infrastructure have been developed for both the Tetrad AirU data as well as COVID-19 case count by ZIP code, along with a basic visualization tool. The environmental monitoring for health impact system will serve as a foundation for future research efforts.

Future Work

The focus of the project so far has been on deploying the monitors. With the majority of the monitors deployed now, the focus can turn to analyzing the data, both for understanding the correlation of PM2.5 and COVID-19 and more broadly for researching the impact of PM2.5 on public health. The team is considering several proposals to federal agencies and national philanthropy that would leverage this monitoring network.