Twitter feed alerts people to pollution problems

A Twitter page alerted some neighbors to a pollution problem, but not all government agencies are on board
A Twitter page alerted some neighbors to a pollution problem, but not all government agencies are on board

HOUSTON – How would you describe the smell of the air here in Houston?

The refineries are big business for our region. But, if you’re concerned about the dangers of pollution, there is a way you can track air pollution right on your phone.

However, the closer we looked, the more we found that some pollution concerns might not be reported on that platform or readily available at all during an environmental emergency.

ITC Fire: March 17, 2019

Two years ago, in Deer Park there was chaos and confusion.

There was a massive fire at a chemical storage company named ITC (Intercontinental Terminals Company) and initially, nobody had a handle on what was leaking into the air.

There were state-run air quality monitors in the area.

However, KPRC 2 Investigates uncovered that the monitor near Deer Park was not registering data early that morning, during the beginning of the fire.

“It seemed like the county was grossly unprepared to deal with that emergency. Would you agree or disagree with that?” asked KPRC 2 reporter Joel Eisenbaum.

“We were lacking some resources, yes,” said Dr. Latrice Babin, director of the Harris County Pollution Control Services.

After the ITC fire, in nearby communities, neighbors were acutely aware of a problem with air monitoring problems.

“We have all kinds of odors in our neighborhood, ranging from fuels, rotten onions, (and) burning, all of what some people have told me as benzene it runs the gamut,” said Carolyn Stone, a Channelview resident.

Kuukibot: Pronounced “Cookie bot”

Now, citizens are learning about a Twitter feed named Kuukibot, pronounced like cookie-bot, that robotically broadcasts air quality issues in short digestible burst via Twitter.

The feed identifies the chemical that’s a potential problem, where the problem is, and why you don’t want to breathe it.

“Kuukibot takes air quality readings from the government from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality and every time there are more pollutants in the air, it tweets out a warning to the public,” said Jeff Reichman with January Advisors, a data science consulting firm in Houston that is partially responsible for creating Kuukibot.

“This was originally an internship project for January Advisors,” said Reichman.

New initiative with Harris County Precinct 2

January Advisors is also working with Harris County Precinct 2 on a similar initiative. The program offers Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s team an early warning on what’s in the air, takes public air pollution data from the TCEQ, and converts it into a dashboard and map.

“January Advisors’ work for Precinct 2 helps us have a better sense of what is in the air our constituents breathe. The tools they’ve designed for us take complicated data that are publicly available and synthesizes it in a package that is much easier to digest. We’re are continually trying to better understand the air quality in Precinct 2. To that end, we’ve worked hard to collect data from various sources that can help inform decisions the County makes about health, the environment, and even economic development. Their work provides useful tools in helping us make those data-based decisions,” Garcia said:

Currently, the commissioner’s office uses the dashboard and map internally. Future plans on whether and how to make it a public-facing tool are being discussed.

Harris County Precinct 2 dashboard (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

For now, though, Harris County Pollution Control does not appear to be onboard with January Advisor’s publicly facing Kuukibot.

“I think it just needs a little bit more context added to it,” said Babin.

Babin does see potential in Kuukibot. But for now, she’s concerned that a flood of pseudo-warnings about harmful chemicals in the air may not be the public service it intends to be.

Babin admits Harris County’s own efforts to make pollution information easy to access and easy to understand is still a work in progress.

At the state level, TCEQ offers the State Interactive Air Quality Map. But there is a lag in when the data is reported. It is not reported in real-time.

Reichman sees the greater benefit in Kuukibot.

“It’s not a warning, it doesn’t mean that you should shut your windows, you should listen to any official warning systems, but Kuukibot can help you stay aware of air pollution that’s happening every day in Houston,” said Reichman.