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Air Quality DNA Data Visualization
By Michael Bisaga, LICA Airshed Zone

Colourful nucleotides interlock with one another as they form a mesmerizing twisting staircase. Vibrant dashes fill a lengthy sequence, varying in brightness and intensity. We’ve all seen these captivating images in science textbooks, on crime-scene dramas. It’s DNA—the fundamental ingredient of life.

Most of us are familiar with human DNA. But, how about the DNA of the air we breathe? Lakeland Industry and Community Association Airshed Zone (LICA) is creating a tool that visualizes just that. Inspired by Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency’s (AEMERA) recent work, we are sequencing Alberta’s air quality DNA. Our approach presents large, multi-year environmental monitoring datasets in a similar way to DNA sequencing gel. It’s a new approach to presenting data, tailored to the needs of our stakeholder group.

Using specialized statistical software and powerful desktop computing, LICA’s DNA data visualization tool incorporates upwards of 100,000 hours of air quality monitoring data in each sequence. As monitoring in the LICA network continues, we will incorporate even more air quality data in the future.

Initially, LICA used this new approach to present data from our Cold Lake continuous monitoring station. This station had the longest history of monitoring key pollutants. We chose particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide datasets dating back to 2006 as the first air quality parameters to test the DNA visualization.

LICA Article 2 F - Cold Lake AQ DNA Visualization

Click here to take a closer look at our unique data visualization.

Fascinating seasonal patterns began to emerge in the sequences. We detected springtime “pulses” of ozone, and found elevated wintertime nitrogen dioxide concentrations. During summer season forest fires, the thick smoke that often blankets the region also emerged as a pattern in the new data visualization. LICA is now in the process of developing similar visualizations for the other stations in our network. Just like each human being’s DNA has both similarities and differences from person to person, we’re fine-tuning the presentation so that each site’s nuances can be compared in the visualization.

With environmental data, it’s common to compare results against measured values and existing standards. While this comparison is important, there’s also value in understanding year-over-year, long-term seasonal patterns and trends. Our DNA visualization tool helps Albertans understand their province’s air quality in an approachable and engaging way.

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