Smart City Air Challenge: Frequently Asked Questions

This page is for reference only because the winners of the Smart City Air Challenge have been announced. You can see the complete rules, terms and conditions at Exit.


1. What is the Smart City Air Challenge?
EPA is conducting the Smart City Air Challenge Exitto encourage communities to deploy hundreds of air quality sensors and manage the resulting data. Most sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use, but they’re developing rapidly, and EPA needs to be ready to deal with the tremendous amount of data they’ll provide. Communities will create innovative strategies for collecting and managing data. Based on these strategies, EPA will award up to $40,000 each to two communities. The awards are intended to be seed money, so the communities are encouraged to leverage opportunities with sensor manufacturers, data management companies and others. After a year, EPA will evaluate the accomplishments and collaboration of the two communities and award up to an additional $10,000 to each community. The challenge is open until October 28, 2016 and winners will be announced in late 2016.

2. Why is EPA sponsoring this challenge?
Inexpensive sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use, but they’re developing rapidly. EPA needs to be ready to deal with the tremendous amount of data they’ll provide. The main purpose of the challenge is to learn how communities will manage large volumes of environmental data. A secondary objective is to help people be more aware of air quality levels in their community. As part of their applications, communities will propose which sensors they will use and how they will manage the resulting data. EPA can learn how communities manage the data – from collecting it, to storing it, to making it available to the public. The challenge will provide EPA with real-world lessons about data management that EPA could not learn using other approaches.

3. Hasn’t something like this been done before?
Several communities have used sensors to measure air quality, but the purpose of this project is to understand how they manage the really large volumes of data likely to occur from the deployment of numerous sensors that could occur in the next few years. For instance, in the Array of Things project, Chicago plans to deploy 500 sensor boxes by the end of 2017 using a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. New York City measures air pollution and releases an annual air quality report.

4. What pollutants may citizens monitor as part of the challenge?
Communities are free to choose the pollutant or pollutants they want to measure. Sensor technology is more advanced for some pollutants. Whatever pollutants the community selects, they need to describe the level of accuracy, precision and reliability of the sensors they want to use and how they will ensure these attributes are being met.


5. How many sensors are needed to understand the air quality in a single community?
Local air quality levels can vary based on the time of day and a sensor’s proximity to pollution sources. By deploying hundreds of sensors, communities can understand how pollution levels change by location.

6. Where can I learn more about EPA’s involvement with air quality sensors?
EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists provides information and guidance on new, low-cost, compact technologies for measuring air quality. Learn more at The challenge provides links to independent sensor testing reports by EPA and others.


7. Is a data format required?
No. Communities must describe data formats that allow for interoperability and should address variations in attributes such as sensor type, level of pollution, data quality, etc.

8. How will EPA ensure that the data is of high quality and that communities interpret the data correctly?
In their submissions, communities will describe their data quality practices. EPA will evaluate the submissions to ensure that communities have appropriate data quality practices. Winning communities are required to share their data and provide context about it so others can learn from their practices. The challenge provides EPA with the opportunity to reach many communities proactively about how to interpret data appropriately. For more information, please see the Air Sensor Guidebook at

Applying to the challenge

9. Who can submit applications to the challenge?
Any group can enter as long as it includes a U.S. local governmental party as a partner and all members of the team are over 15. We’re defining community as anything from neighborhoods to counties and tribes.
Applicants may not be a federal entity or federal employee acting within the scope of their employment. Employees of EPA, and/or any other individual or entity associated with the development, evaluation, or administration of the challenge as well as members of such persons’ immediate families (spouses, children, siblings, parents), and persons living in the same household as such persons, whether or not related, are not eligible to participate in the challenge.

10. What should the submission include?
Successful projects will address big data management, sensor procurement and deployment, and the sustainability of the project, all while ensuring data quality. Submissions for the challenge should include the following:

  • Written strategy using the submission template on the challenge website;
  • Background information that shows evidence to support the strategy;
  • A description of the methods and technologies needed to implement the project; and
  • Commitments from parties that will partner with communities, including contact information for the partners

See the rules at Exit for more details.


11. What are the judging criteria?

EPA will evaluate the submissions based on plans to deploy the sensors, collect and use the data, and sustain the project with partners.

12. How will the winners be selected?
The challenge will use judges who are knowledgeable in the fields of data management and air quality measurement. Judges will include subject matter experts from the Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Environmental Information and the Office of Research and Development. EPA reserves the right to select the final winners.

Next Steps

13. How will the lessons learned be used?
EPA hopes that the challenge will yield a set of best practices that communities will use to manage high volumes of environmental data. We encourage communities to share their practices with each other.

14. Will these sensors be used for regulatory purposes?
Sensors currently do not meet the requirements for comparing air quality to EPA requirements. However, EPA understands that sensor technology is developing rapidly. By learning how communities are managing sensor data, EPA can help identify best practices for managing large amounts of data that will be available from air quality sensors. If a community discovers elevated air pollution levels, it can ask their state, local or tribal agencies – or, if necessary, EPA, to evaluate the sensor data and determine what actions, if any, need to be taken.

15. Why is EPA spending money on this challenge?
Communities and people are already purchasing all kinds of sensors, but there are no nationally recognized best practices for managing these sensors and the data they provide. The challenge will help EPA learn from communities how they manage large volumes of environmental data. Communities are encouraged to select sensors that produce high quality data and share their methods with others.


Return to the Smart City Air Challenge home page.