Having tried to get local air quality data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) online databases before, I was very curious to check out http://www.epa.gov/radiation/ and explore the data from radiation air monitoring stations along the California coast.

The web site provides a high-profile link to the RadNet Monitoring System information and instructions on how to access near real-time data. My previous experiences with trying to pull local air quality data to share with neighbors had been frustrating, and the databases were clearly intended for experts who already knew their way around. I was not surprised that the interface for accessing the radiation data was not user friendly, even for an environmental scientist and and environmental policy expert (admittedly neither of us are air quality experts). However, this was disappointing given the reasonable expectation of high-level public real-time interest in these data.

So, I was very pleased today to see that the USEPA has been working quickly to provide easy-to-access visualizations of the data. For my own interest, I was able to find San Francisco radiation monitoring station data quickly. Following clearly labeled links

Radiation > Summary of Data from Air Monitoring Stations > California > San Francisco

brought me to a page that immediately did two things:

  • It provided USEPA’s interpretation of the associated health risk: “These levels are thousands of times below any conservative level of concern.”
  • It presented a summary visualization of the data in the format of a graph of beta gross count and a graph of gamma gross count over the month of March. Presenting the data in this format allows the user to see current measurements but also to compare them to recent levels prior to the incident in Japan.
Graph of beta gross count over time, March 2011

Beta Gross Count Rate, San Francisco, CA (Source: USEPA)

Graph of Gamma Gross Count Rate over time, March 2011

Gamma Gross Count Rate, San Francisco, CA (Source: USEPA)

I’m not going to get into debates here over the data or whether this is sufficient or appropriate air quality monitoring. What I do see, though, is that the USEPA is responding quickly to public interest and need to access data. It’s a very good first step. Additional improvements could include:

  • Linking the graphs to downloadable data.
  • Linking technical terms to a glossary or definition pop-ups to explain terms like beta and gamma. (USEPA already has good info online, it just needs to be interlinked.)
  • Connecting these data visualizations into the RadNet Map View and providing instructions on how to embed the map and associated data displays into web sites.
  • Providing technical background information — how are the data collected, how often, etc.

These are great first steps at making these government radiation monitoring data more easily accessible and understandable for the public.

3/21/2011 Update: USEPA links were updated to http://epa.gov/japan2011/