Clear the Air: How to Make an Impact with Environmental Data

June 5, 2017 10:30 am PST | Data as a Service

If you want to reduce crime rates, try asking yourself this question: How is the air quality? While crime rates are typically associated with community instability and other factors, researchers in Chicago found a surprising link between air quality and crime. In a 2015 study, researchers studied data from more than two million crimes over the course of 11 years in order to determine the impact of environmental factors on crime. They found that communities exposed to higher levels of pollution saw a 2.2 percent increase in violent crimes on average.

“Leading edge cities take a holistic approach when it comes to data,” says Conor Riffle, Director of Cities and Data Product Innovation at the CDP. “Instead of viewing data as vertical — crime, health, etc. — innovative leaders know data is horizontal. They seek to understand how one might impact the other.”

For leaders who want to reduce crime rate, improve the quality of life for citizens, and keep their cities clean, environmental data might be one of the most important datasets to examine. See how three Socrata customers have used environmental data to innovate and meet their goals.


From Worst to Best: City of Chattanooga, Tennessee

In 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared Chattanooga had the worst air quality of any city in the United States. More than three decades later, the pollution was so extreme that drivers were forced to use their headlights 24 hours a day. So, how did the factory town clean up its act to become the two-time winner of Outside Magazine’s Best Towns award?

In 2009, Chattanooga received a federal grant that helped pave the way to outfitting the City with a fiber-optic network, which offers citizens a one-gigabit Internet connection and gave Chattanooga the new nickname Gig City. In other technological advances, city officials in Chattanooga have embraced open data as part of how they set, track, and measure Gig City goals. Officials understand how air quality and outside perception of the cleanliness of their city impacts everything from tourism and attracting millennial workers to safe streets and improved public transportation.


As ChattaData, their open data portal, boasts, “Chattanooga is moving forward into a new era of government that is responsive to the needs of all citizens.” To that end, citizens of Gig City can see how government is performing against goals like making streets safer, improving the economy, and increasing access to public transportation, which directly aligns with keeping Chattanooga a clean place to live. And, hotel tax revenue shows that Chattanooga is staying a beautiful place to visit.


A Hackathon, High Schoolers, and Healthier Lungs: State of Montana

In 2014, Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued the Governor’s Mobile App Challenge, saying, “Not only do our children need an advanced education, they also need an understanding of their state government and how it relates to their everyday lives. I know that the future of our state is in the hands and fingertips of our younger generations.” The app challenge allowed schools all across the state to encourage students to form teams and build mobile apps that would address six possible issues, including air quality. Montana has always had difficulties with air quality, largely due to the significant wildfires that cause the vast majority of air pollution every year. Bullock challenged participants to figure out a better way to communicate current air conditions to citizens so they could make smarter choices about when to limit their exposure to dangerous pollution levels.

Montana Map

health effects categoriesA group of Helena high school students rose to the challenge, using Socrata’s API to create the basis for an app called Today’s Air. Users can check the app to find out how air quality looks across the state. Today’s Air has six categories for describing air quality, including hazardous, unhealthy, and unhealthy for sensitive groups (active children and adults with respiratory diseases like asthma). The state of Montana runs Today’s Air, keeping it up to date with timely information about air quality across 18 air monitoring stations around the state, better serving citizens and encouraging more engagement with environmental data.


Plastic Bags and Rising Revenues: Montgomery County, Maryland

One of the most familiar culprits of environmental pollution is the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag. Governments all across America have addressed local pollution by creating policy around these disposable bags. Some, like Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have gone so far as to ban the use of plastic grocery bags completely, while others have instituted a bag tax. Montgomery County, Maryland, joined cities like Dallas and Washington D.C. in establishing a bag tax. In 2012, Montgomery County imposed a 5-cent levy on disposable shopping bags. At that time, plastic bags accounted for a third of the waste clogging streams and stormwater ponds throughout the county.

Montgomery County officials tracked the impact of the bag tax on the County’s open data portal. The results have been interesting. Although bag sales have decreased at local convenience stores, pharmacies, and department stores, bigger chain grocery stores (such as Giant and Safeway) have actually issued more plastic bags since the tax went into effect. Still, the County has seen a decline in plastic bag pollution in stream traps, from 856 in 2011 to 281 in 2016.

bag distribution


Fiscally, the tax has been a boon to the County. By 2016, the tax generated $10.4 million for pollution and stormwater control programs. Still, government officials hope to spur citizens to decrease reliance on plastic bags. According to the Washington Post, “County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) announced a renewed advertising and outreach effort, including a poster campaign (“Bring Your Bag”), bus and digital ads, and free bag distribution at County libraries. ‘It’s not something a lot of people will do naturally,’ Leggett said of the transition to reusable bags. ‘The public needs to be reminded.’”


How Can You Make an Impact? 

As leading edge governments look ahead to the future, sustainability will continue to be a top issue. When setting goals around transparency and community improvement, smart leaders understand how environmental issues impact all parts of life.

If you’re interested in making your environment data more accessible and useful to both your internal teams and the public, our data team at Socrata is available to help you create a plan of your own. Email us at