July 7, 2016

WNYC and its partners will deploy an army of volunteers equipped with sensors this summer to investigate how heat affects the health of Harlem residents of New York.

The Harlem Heat Project will capture air conditions in hard-to-access indoor spaces with the help of these community-based “ambassadors.” The volunteers will also collect updates about the residents with a mobile app. Reporters will document the process in multiple installments over the summer.

More people die of extreme heat in the United States every year than in hurricanes and other natural disasters combined, according to the National Weather Service.. Many of these victims are elderly and poor, and their deaths occur behind closed doors, out of the view of public agencies and the media.

“The Harlem Heat Project will be one important way to get into those hot stuffy rooms where the Harlem population lives, document the dangers they face through crowd-sourced data and identify ways to reduce the risks,” said WNYC Senior Editor Matthew Schuerman, one of the team’s leaders.

Collaborating on the project are WNYC’s health podcast “Only Human,” climate news service AdaptNY, and community climate and weather journal ISeeChange. Partners from Harlem include community radio station WHCR-FM90.3, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, active in Northern Manhattan for nearly 30 years.

Beginning in July, the team will place the first of what will ultimately be up to 60 inexpensive sensors in Harlem residences that lack air conditioning in order to continuously monitor indoor conditions during the hottest part of summer.

Volunteers in the community will be trained how to use the sensors to capture and upload data from smartphones and watch for and respond to signs of heat stress as they talk to vulnerable neighbors during regular sensor site visits.

The heat and humidity sensor is being developed and prototyped by WNYC’s Data News Editor John Keefe. “We’re using do-it-yourself hobby electronics, and documenting our process along the way, so that anyone could replicate this project in their own community,” Keefe said.

The project will also provide a window into the lives of community members, offering stories and profiles of residents. Additional reporting is planned on related topics, such as the dangers of heat, ways to keep cool, and options to strengthen community resilience to heat.

The project expects to gather insights directly from the citizen science ambassadors and participating community members through a new phone app developed by iSeeChange and NASA. The app allows community members to contribute directly to the Harlem Heat Project’s urban heat investigation.

“Stories and data are two sides of the same coin, and we need both to guide adaptation and decisions,” says iSeeChange founder Julia Kumari Drapkin. “The tracker empowers communities to tell their own stories alongside the temperature, carbon dioxide, and weather data each season and to keep their own records of heat impacts.”

The project will run from July through September with the intention of fostering a community dialogue on the risks of global warming and climate change in New York.

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