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Improving Public Health and Safety With Satellites
March 2017

Tracey Holloway leads a group of 13 researchers drawn together as NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) who are trying to step outside their community of atmospheric scientists and satellite experts to provide space-based tools to relative laypeople – and to put those new users in a position to shape the way satellite data is collected and used.

Photo of Tracey Holloway courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

“We have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of data from satellites that have been up in space for over 10 years,” says Holloway, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And we know people have problems they want to solve. And we want to know how we can help.”

Holloway recently presented HAQAST’s brand of public engagement at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The traditional model of science outreach moves in one direction: scientists disseminating information,” says Holloway. “What’s unusual about our experience with HAQAST is that we’re building a two-way dialogue to move the research along and to make sure that the research is addressing questions of social value.”

The newest Earth-observing satellites deployed by NASA and other agencies around the world are streaming back information about the air we breathe in nearly real time, and with coverage that dwarfs ground-based sensors. They can see atmospheric pollutants like nitrogen dioxide – NO2, a lung irritant that also forms the problematic greenhouse gas ozone – and dust and smoke from storms and fires.

“A big question is how air quality is changing in areas where we don’t have ground monitors,” says Holloway. “States in the Western U.S. may only have one or two monitors, and only in major cities. But there are two instruments in space that can see NO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and they see the whole world once a day.”

That could be a boon for lawyers, urban planners and doctors tasked with air pollution management and public health decisions trying to track air quality shifts in rural and even suburban areas. But while the satellites take in all the Earth in 24 hours, it can be tough for potential data customers to keep track of cutting-edge science.

“The mission for these folks is to do their job – to keep the air clean, to develop good policies, to protect public health, to understand the problem so they can solve it,” says Holloway. “We don’t want to expect them to read our scientific journals, trying to figure out how to use novel data sources in new ways.”

HAQAST is. And their brand of public outreach involves special issues of industry magazines, visits to meetings of professional organizations and state consortiums, social media, and visits with individual agencies and small groups in an effort to remove any and all barriers.

“A lot of people have no idea where the front door is: ‘Can you just call up a scientist?’” says Holloway. “And they really don’t know if you can ask a scientist to get something you need. We want those questions.”

This article reprinted from materials provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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