How a Student Started the Rochester Air Quality Network

Air Quality in Rochester

No one is too small or young to do something about the air they’re breathing.  

In fact, PurpleAir’s mission is to empower everyone—no matter their age—to take data-driven actions to improve their air quality. And one student in Rochester just proved that anyone can create change in their community’s air quality.  

In 2017, Matthew Spiten was a student at the University of Rochester. While he was there studying, he wanted to learn more about the air quality in Rochester. So, he started an air quality project with the help of multiple organizations.  

Today, we’re excited to share how Matthew built an air quality network and started data-driven initiatives because of it.  

What is the Air Quality in Rochester?  

Rochester City is surrounded by forest, farmland, and bodies of water. Generally, Rochester City has good air quality that meets the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. Despite this, the citizens of Rochester are still getting sick due to air pollution 

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) contributes to 10% of deaths yearly and 20 hospitalizations. Additionally, they found that about 11% of these deaths are preventable by improving air quality.  

So, what is causing the poor air quality in Rochester?  

One major source of air pollution in Rochester is wildfires from nearby regions. In the first half of 2023 alone, Southeast Minnesota experienced 23 bad air days due to Canadian wildfires. This is further aggravated by temperature inversion 

Temperature inversion traps air pollutants at the ground level, exposing more people to dangerous levels of air pollution for longer periods. One of these air pollutants is PM2.5, which is so microscopic that it can get past your body’s defenses and damage your health.  

How an Air Quality Project Led to a City-Wide Network  

Curious about the impact of air quality on Rochester, Matthew Spiten started an air quality project in 2017 while he was a student at the University of Rochester.  

He wanted to find out:  

  1. If a single federal air quality monitoring station can accurately represent the entire Rochester City air quality.
  2. How air quality changes throughout the day and over the course of the week. 
  3. How vulnerable communities in Rochester are affected by air quality.  
  4. The different factors affect the air quality in Rochester.   

To do this, Matthew collaborated with the City of Rochester, Destination Medical Center, Zumbro Valley Health Center, Olmsted County Public Health, the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Mayo Clinic's Precision Population Science Lab to develop an air quality network.   

Then, he placed 13 low-cost air quality monitors across vulnerable communities in the city. A select number of which were PurpleAir air quality monitors. Since PurpleAir’s air quality monitors go through rigorous processes, they are highly precise when it comes to measuring PM2.5.

They’re also evaluated by organizations like AQ-SPEC. Also, because PurpleAir air quality monitors connect to WiFi, everyone has access to the data through the PurpleAir Map 

How PurpleAir Air Quality Monitors Shed Light in Rochester  

After three years of air quality monitoring, Matthew discovered that air quality varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. As such, a single air quality monitoring station can’t accurately represent the air quality of an entire city.  

He also found that air quality changes depending on activity levels and time of day. For example, he noticed that rush hour traffic significantly contributes to air pollution and can serve as an air quality benchmark.  

Through this community project, Matthew and the city of Rochester have come to better understand how the city and air quality interact. More importantly, it has given them a launching point for data-driven solutions to improve their air quality.   

As Matthew remarked in his interview with the Post-Bulletin, “With data, you have a stronger case to make recommendations or changes at a policy level.” Already, he’s working with communities and city officials to implement changes that raise air quality in Rochester. These changes include creating urban forests and making the city more walkable. 

Matthew Spiten’s air quality project proves that anyone at any age has the power to uplift the air quality of their city. And with the help of PurpleAir air quality monitors, they can do it affordably. By making air quality data more accessible, we hope to empower more people to drive data-based solutions for their community’s air quality. 

Get Involved Yourself 

At PurpleAir, there are tons of community projects going on around the world. We’re thrilled to see these kinds of collaborative efforts, and we look forward to seeing plenty more in the future. Are you working on a community project with PurpleAir’s air quality monitors? 

We would love to hear about it. Share a post in the Community Project forum, so we can highlight your work. Together, we can make air quality accessible for everyone.