U of T researchers develop app to track environmental health of neighbourhoods

Researchers at the University of Toronto are developing an app that allows users to learn about air quality, greenery, walkability and other factors contributing to the environmental health of their neighbourhoods.

Tentatively named “Good Score,” the app promises to lay bare environmental inequities among communities across Canada and, for the first time, enable public health agencies tracking small-area chronic disease patterns to explore connections with standard environmental indicators.

The web-enabled app will also allow all Canadians to easily access, share and contribute to Canadian environmental data, and to understand how factors like poor air quality are linked to diseases like asthma in their communities.

head shot of Jeffrey Brook
Dr. Jeffrey Brook

“We’re really able to provide a nationally consistent window of environmental factors and take this information to a whole other level in terms of packaging the data to support chronic disease surveillance and the role environment plays,” says project lead Jeffrey Brook, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“We’ll see much more closely how risk factors or beneficial factors in environment overlay with geographic distribution of socio-economic factors.”

Brook, who is working with Associate Professor Laura Rosella on the project, recently co-authored a paper using data from the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium, or CANUE, to show that lack of greenery and walkability are more common in lower income neighbourhoods than among higher-income communities within the same Canadian cities.

“I think being able to identify those inequities is a key step in guiding decision-making around urban planning and other infrastructure decisions,” says Brook, who is cross-appointed to the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “This project is taking a big step forward into the modern age in terms of how much one can get on this topic from their smartphone.”

Earlier this year, Brook and his team partnered with a small group of students in U of T’s Faculty of Information to evaluate a prototype of the app. The students conducted testing and a design review. The plan is to make it possible for anyone to use the app to learn how their postal code ranks on factors that go well beyond the standard environmental measures.

“We’re working on factors related to heat – is there a greater propensity for urban heat to build up in your area?” Brook says. “Ultimately, the app should be able help you choose travel routes that maximize good air quality, shade-giving trees and a crowd-sourced score on the feeling of safety.

“We will be using artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify important features in photos uploaded by users when they are in a location they like. Over time, this could lead to an image library that will be complementary to common sources such Google Street View because it gets deeper into people’s lived experiences.”

In the meantime, as the information and the app are tested and improved, Brook expects that program and CANUE will enable the development of new environmental equity reports that can inform stakeholders of conditions in their communities and how they compare across Canada.

Brook received $1 million from the federal government to build the app, along with his collaborators: Associate Professor Gillian Booth of Dalla Lana’s Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME) and the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital; and CANUE Managing Director Eleanor Setton at the University of Victoria. The project, dubbed E-Best (Equity in the Built Environment Surveillance Tool), involves a multi-university team and will be rolled out in stages over the next four years.

Brook expects that it will be used by population health researchers who are exploring how environmental problems, geographical location and disease incidence intersect. But he is equally excited about its ability to empower residents of cities to help each other make healthier choices about how to work, play and live in Canadian cities and to advocate for change.

“This could become the Facebook of environmental information,” he says.

This story by Heidi Singer was originally published February 3, 2021 by U of T News.

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