Tell me about January Advisors and the work that it does. How have you been involved with organizations in the environmental sector?
January Advisors is a data science consulting firm. We work with nonprofits, governments, and private companies to help them analyze and understand the data they are collecting, as well as advocate for change and influence policy.
For example, we are about to release the BREATHE dashboard with Air Alliance Houston. It uses data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and puts it on a map so you can see what’s going on in your neighborhood.
What inspired the BREATHE tool, and what are your goals for this project?
TCEQ makes data very difficult to obtain. You have to click through a lot of screens to get a little bit of information. We built scrapers to do that automatically, collect a lot of data, and put it into a database. Then we built an application programming interface (API) that is available to anyone to be able to query that database. The BREATHE tool uses that API, but any other program can use that API to get real-time information about what TCEQ has reported.
The BREATHE dashboard shows environment hazards on a map, such as emissions events, concrete batch plants, and metal recycling plants. You can zoom in and look at the environmental issues in your neighborhood, and determine how close they are to homes and schools.
Once Air Alliance Houston releases the BREATHE tool and this API is out there in the wild, we would like to convene a hackathon or a data jam across the state to show what can be done with this information. We want to put it in the hands of researchers, academics, and technologists who can make good use of it.
What inspired you to use your experience and expertise in technology on the environment?
It is particularly egregious how polluted the Ship Channel and surrounding neighborhoods are, and more people should be aware of the environmental toxins in their neighborhood. These things last a long time.
I think fighting for better environmental regulations and less environmental pollutants is a worthwhile fight. Houston is a place ruled by the oil and gas industry, so there are lots of forces to make it more business friendly. I want to use my skills to make it more people friendly.
What more can we do to bring about environmental change through technological innovation?
There are a lot of ideas out there about how data can be used to make people more informed. For example, it would be very interesting if more people protested air permit applications. What if you could let your community know about an air permit application right away, and mobilize them to submit individual comments to TCEQ? Would it make a difference? I think we can use technology to find out.
Also, it would be great if more non-environmental scientists became familiar with environmental data and worked side-by-side with environmental scientists to develop their skills. We have a huge data science community here in Houston, but when you layer in knowledge about environmental science, that number shrinks.
One of the ways we can unlock some of the innovation and creativity in this community is by pairing the experts who really understand what “four parts per billion of benzene” means with data scientists who can build really interesting tools that are accessible to the public.
Interview has been condensed and edited.