CUNY at Center of Experimental News Partnership

  • By Newmark J-School Staff
Heat/humidity sensor (Source: AdaptNY)
Heat/humidity sensor (Source: AdaptNY)

A pioneering news initiative with CUNY journalism resources at its core will investigate how summer heat affects the health of Harlem residents and explore ways to build community resilience.

The Harlem Heat Project will use heat and humidity sensors to capture hard-to-access indoor air conditions with the help of a crew of community-based citizen scientists.

These “ambassadors” will also gather updates about residents via a mobile app. Reporters will document the process and the results in multiple installments over the summer.

The unique team of non-profit journalism and community partners include AdaptNY, a climate news service founded with support from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and CUNY grants. CUNY J-School Prof. Adam Glenn is AdaptNY’s editor, and its staffers include 2013 graduate Kathleen Culliton and City College journalism student Saif Choudhury.

Other partners on the project include New York’s flagship public radio station WNYC and its health podcast Only Human, and community climate and weather journal ISeeChange.

City College-operated community radio station WHCR-FM90.3 is partnering from Harlem, along with community organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

City College researchers Brian Vant-Hull and Prathap Ramamurthy are acting as informal scientific advisers to the Harlem Heat Project. Vant-Hull, who has conducted city sidewalk heat studies, said the project’s findings would be “very valuable” to the health community because of how little research is available gauging indoor temperatures, such as inside public housing.

“Our main aim is to cast light on the health risks of urban heat, and show how it’s affecting residents, while involving the community in the journalistic process,” said Glenn, who is overseeing the project.

More people die of extreme heat in this country every year than in hurricanes and other natural disasters combined. Many heat-death victims are elderly and poor, and their deaths occur behind closed doors, out of the view of public agencies and the media.

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

Project partners hope the summer project may serve as a model solution for one of the most vexing public health threats of our time: how to monitor the heat that vulnerable residents are experiencing inside their homes, and when to intervene to save their lives.

Beginning in July, the team will place the first of up to 60 inexpensive sensors in Harlem residences that lack air conditioning. Some of the sensors will even have the ability to send text alerts when the indoor temperature reaches a dangerous level.

Citizen-scientists will be trained in how to use the sensors to capture and upload data from smartphones, as well as how to watch for and respond to signs of heat stress as they talk to vulnerable neighbors during regular 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.

Real-time data from the sensors will be charted and shared online by the partner sites, along with explanations of the dangers posed at various thresholds. The team will also analyze whether temperatures indoors are warmer or cooler than outdoor temperatures to better understand the heat island effect, in which cities are often significantly warmer than surrounding areas.

From July through September, the news partners will present reports on the project’s findings. One of the key questions is just how hot it gets inside typical Harlem apartments that lack air conditioning.

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 iSeeChange Tracker app newly released on iTunes, as well as the mobile website, allow community members to contribute directly to the Harlem Heat Project’s urban heat investigation.

The partners are undertaking the Harlem Heat project at a time when the dangers of global warming are becoming increasingly clear. A recent paper by researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute projects that as many as 3,331 New Yorkers could die every summer due to heat exposure in the 2080s,depending on the severity of global warming and our ability to adapt.

Harlem Heat Project Partners

AdaptNY launched in 2013 to foster community dialogue in New York about how to adapt to the risks of climate change. Support for AdaptNY is provided by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Its work on the Harlem Heat Project is supported by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by The Professional Staff Congress and The City University of New York.

WNYC is reshaping audio for a new generation of listeners, with groundbreaking, innovative radio programs and podcasts that include Radiolab; Freakonomics Radio; On the Media; Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin; Death, Sex & Money; and New Tech City, among others. With an urban vibrancy and a global perspective, WNYC is America’s most listened-to public radio station and the home to an award-winning newsroom of 70 journalists. WNYC’s resilience reporting is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

ISeeChange is empowering communities to observe how weather and climate affect their environment. With support from the Association for Independents in Radio, the Wyncote Foundation, and NASA and NOAA, ISeeChange is working nationwide to connects the public with national media and scientists.

WE ACT for Environmental Justice is a Northern Manhattan community-based organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by assuring that low-income and/or people of color participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.

WHCR-FM90.3 is a community radio station broadcasting from the campus of the City College of New York, providing informative, educational and cultural programming to the diverse populations of Harlem, upper Manhattan, and sections of the Bronx, Queens, and New Jersey.