The story of Kuukibot and air quality in Houston

Poor air quality is a problem for Houston, and it’s been that way for decades. The region accounts for 42% of the country’s base petrochemical capacity.

Refining oil is a dirty business. It involves processing chemicals and generating toxic byproducts. A lot of this work takes place around the Houston Ship Channel, which is the man-made pathway that connects the City of Houston with Galveston Bay.

All along the ship channel, these refineries intertwine with communities like Galena Park, Channelview, and Pasadena. Taken together, there are about 250,000 people living around the largest petrochemical complex in the United States.

homes near the houston ship channel have worse air quality
Photo Credit: Melissa Philip, Houston Chronicle

It’s clear that this pollution harms people. Over the years, the effects of toxic byproducts have been studied closely.

But in a region of almost seven million people beyond the ship channel, it’s easy for many of them to forget just how much air pollution occurs each day.

Yet air pollution affects everyone. When the wind blows, Houston knows. In March 2019, a fire at a facility in Deer Park burned for three days. All of a sudden, air pollution was in the news again.

This is part of a cycle. After each disaster, there is a lot of media coverage and renewed commitment from public officials. But people living around the ship channel have suffered the effects of these toxins for generations. This is a legacy steeped in racism, and events in Houston were some of the catalysts for the modern environmental justice movement.

In addition to racism, part of the reason for today’s pollution is the complicated relationship between state and local governments in Texas. Most of the power for enforcing air pollution laws and levying penalties comes from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ). But those penalties are rare. The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board described TCEQ as “so vested in favoring the petrochemical industry that it is reluctant to even slap its wrist.”

When the City of Houston tried to enact its own air quality standards and pollution penalties through a local ordinance, they were rebuffed by the Texas Supreme Court. Locally, Harris County Pollution Control can review permits, investigate complaints, and inspect facilities. But enforcement is up to the state.

Every day, there is a tug of war between commerce and safety. The Deer Park Fire is the most recent reminder of how danger lurks just a few miles from downtown Houston. But after a few news cycles, it’s forgotten.

That’s why we built Kuukibot (@kuukihouston). It is a bot that gathers air quality data from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) throughout the day. Whenever a reading is high enough to be in the top 0.5% of all readings for that compound for the year, Kuukibot sends a tweet.

A brief overview of Kuukibot

Whenever I encounter hefty topics like this one, I turn to the data for perspective. Luckily, the TCEQ operates several air quality monitors around the state. These monitors collect samples continuously, and report data back to the TCEQ throughout the day.

Sample report of data available on the TCEQ AutoGC website. This information is reported by day and by location, and it provides the source data for Kuukibot.

That’s a lot of data. This report doesn’t make sense unless you are an expert in the field.

But Kuukibot does the hard work for you. Specifically, it tweets the top 0.5% of readings for Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and p- and o-Xylene (the BTEX chemicals), as well as 1,3 Butadiene and Styrene. The top 0.5% threshold is calculated by compound, using all readings above zero recorded in 2020.

We developed Kuukibot with a modest goal to bring awareness to Houston’s air quality in unexpected ways. By only tweeting the top 0.5% of readings, it doesn’t overwhelm your feed with trace readings.

For me, it’s a reminder that ship channel pollution affects people every day.

Air quality data comes from the TCEQ AutoGC program

The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) operates a network of automated gas chromatographs throughout the state. Known as AutoGC for short, these scientific instruments collect air samples and report back to TCEQ throughout the day. Kuukibot’s data originates on TCEQ’s AutoGC reporting page.

For people already familiar with the science behind air quality, TCEQ’s page contains a lot of good information. But for everyone else, it can be a little daunting. This video provides more information about the scientific instruments behind TCEQ’s AutoGC system, and how the data gets collected and reported.

It’s important to note that this is a scientific operation. The TCEQ is partly responsible for enforcing environmental regulations, and they need high quality data to do it.

Of course, the operation isn’t perfect, and neither is the data. During weather events, the governor often suspends environmental rules (at the request of TCEQ), so data during those events is not made public until it has been reviewed in depth.

After the Arkema explosion during Hurricane Harvey, this data was not immediately available. Less than a week later, national media outlets declared that there was “little health impact beyond the 21 emergency workers who were treated for smoke exposure.” That’s probably not true.

Anecdotally, environmental activists say that the placement of these AutoGC units is often upwind from the plants, resulting in lower readings of chemicals in the air.

Kuukibot only tweets the highest 0.5% readings for each compound

Kuukibot tweets whenever there is a reading that is higher than 99.5% of all other readings for that compound in 2020. This helps alert followers about the date, time, and location of the highest emissions readings in Harris County.

Kuukibot is not a warning system!

There are heated debates among scientists and activists about what constitutes a dangerous air quality event. Kukkibot is not an official warning system. It does not interpret the data. It doesn’t provide shelter-in-place guidance. Do not taunt Kuukibot.

Kuukibot is simply an easier way to sort and view data provided by TCEQ. The goal is to help make people more aware of the everyday air emissions throughout the Houston area, and especially by the ship channel.

Who developed Kuukibot and what’s with the name?

Every year, we partner with Rice Center for Civic Leadership to provide paid summer internships. In 2016, Neethi Nayak joined us and built the initial prototype for Kuukibot. She worked with Air Alliance Houston and other community stakeholders to define the project.

Following Neethi’s internship, I teamed up with James Van Dyne (who runs Sugoi Software) to design and build a production-ready application. James developed a backend architecture that included frequent data collection, a data warehouse, error handling, and noting when previously published values had been updated, among many other features.

When I picked the name Kuukibot, I wanted something that tied into Japanese culture, considering James lives in Japan. I came across the Japanese slang “kuuki o yomu,” which roughly translates to “reading the air.”

In the United States, we might say “reading the room” instead. It refers to knowing the unspoken rules of social life.

The AutoGCs literally read the air. Kuukibot tweets the readings.

And I learned one of the unspoken rules of Houston: pollution is good for business.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.