Way Back When (3): Adoption Catches Fire (or, “A Little Too Literal”)
As I Live and Breathe
It’s said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. It’s hard to classify the devastation of the Rim Fire and the American Fire as “opportunity” and yet they were pivotal in the early days of this project.
The summer of 2013 was a challenging one for people who breathe in northern Nevada. The smoke from the Rim Fire in California drove an unusually bad situation for everyone, not just those with pre-existing respiratory issues. News reports such as this from KTVN in Reno describing unhealthy conditions were regular occurrences. The little app that could started getting notice from the news media since for the first time in a while, the air quality situation made an impact on the everyday population. At the same time, a flaw in the approach became apparent; if you look at the smoke pattern from the Rim Fire and if you know Nevada geography, something stands out: Carson City would get hit with the smoke before Reno/Washoe County, and often, even worse. So what was the problem?
Everything’s the Same Until It’s Different
In came the questions from the residents “earlier” in the smoke path. The Twitter feed for Carson City (which was using the EPA’s data, just like other locations) didn’t seem to match conditions on the ground. For a “public service” in it’s first trial by fire (still a terrible phrasing, I know), this was not great. Unreliable (or worse, flat wrong) data is worse than no data at all and in the middle of a genuine incident, why was this failing? As most learning experiences are, this was an enlightening turning point. When I researched and asked my contacts in Washoe County why the EPA data might not reflect reality, I discovered the true nature of the available numbers; local agencies collect data, deploy sensors, and are responsible for making that data more broadly available. The EPA’s site is only one of multiple options for that publication to occur and Washoe Air wasn’t aware of the more local, accurate source of data. Once the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) data source was included, the Carson City/Douglas County residents were more properly informed about just how hazardous their air was as well. The lesson learned here reached far beyond the 29 miles from Reno to Carson City though. It really started highlighting the need to publish more data, more locations (such as Fallon, NV and Fernley, NV, also in the NDEP data), and generally be more cognizant of how, why, where, and by whom the data is collected in the first place.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The smoke did eventually clear and most people went back to their daily lives; fortunately, a small percentage did so more curious, more intent, more aware that the poor air quality conditions that often plague the Truckee Meadows in the winter (inversions) could actually be caused from other sources and happen at other times. Awareness is good; for many though, the lack of a current emergency relegated the topic to back-of-mind (or out of mind altogether). Given the actual and projected increases in wildfires (and their footprints) due to drought and other factors, something similar was likely to happen again (cue foreshadowing).
What it meant for the “Washoe Air” platform though was more profound; it might not be getting any publicity but expanding the footprint was essential. It was around this time that several new regions were added to the Twitter account family and the seeds for AQeye were sown.