Gustavo "Gus" Aguirre Jr. calls them tools for "the democratization of data."
Air quality official Sayed Sadredin worries that using them without recognizing their limits could result in residents receiving "erroneous information."
The objects in question? Six air monitors operated not by government regulators, but by a private environmental advocacy group in the small farm town of Arvin, a city that often has the distinction of suffering some of the worst air quality in the nation.
"The people of Arvin said, 'We're tired.' Politicians are on the side of industry, not on the side of public health," said Aguirre, project coordinator for the Arvin Air Quality Project, which last year installed the six electronic air quality monitors in various locations around Arvin.
Administered by Fresno-based Central California Environmental Justice Network, the air monitoring project came about through a community grassroots effort, Aguirre said.
Previously, there was only one monitor in Arvin, shared by the California Air Resources Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. And it only measures ozone, the precursor to summertime smog.
There is no government agency-sponsored monitor in Arvin for PM-2.5, those dangerous microscopic particles that can get trapped in human lungs and may even migrate into the bloodstream. In fact, the closest PM-2.5 monitor is in southwest Bakersfield, 20 miles away.
"The air district has focused its efforts on developing a modeling system to predict neighborhood level data, rather than install more monitors," said Dolores Barajas-Weller, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.
"Besides the perceived gap in Arvin, Barajas-Weller said there's a "huge air monitoring gap between Tulare and Kern counties, especially for PM2.5 — the type of pollutant we are in serious non-attainment for, and is the most dangerous to public health."
Sadredin, the longtime director of the air district — who will retire from his position July 5 — does not dismiss the private monitoring project outright. He understands why residents in pollution-impacted neighborhoods would want to be able to monitor their own air quality.
But the monitors used by the Arvin project, he said, are less accurate, and sometimes become grossly inaccurate as they get older.
"The monitors we use are $25,000 to $50,000 and by the time we put up a functioning monitoring station, the cost is $250,000 to $500,000," Sadredin said. "The staffing to calibrate and analyze the data is $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
"I don't want to diminish the value of the personal monitors," he said. "They're good for showing trends."
But they cannot be depended upon, he said, to the point of influencing public policy.
Indeed, over the past six years, the air district has gone in the direction of using computer models to predict real-time air quality in neighborhoods up and down the valley.
Rather than setting up thousands more expensive monitoring stations in the eight-county district, air officials broke up the valley into a grid of 3,600 16-square-kilometer "neighborhoods." Using data from existing monitors, coupled with an "emissions inventory" in each section and weather data including wind direction, temperature and humidity, the district uses modeling to predict pollutant levels in any "neighborhood."
"You can go to myraan.com, plug in your address and get real-time air quality data for your neighborhood," said Jaime Holt, the valley air district's chief communications officer. "Any neighborhood in the valley."
"It's not 100 percent accurate," Sadredin said. "But it's close."
For Aguirre and others in Arvin and elsewhere, there's a trust issue that underlies everything. Arvin does not have the political clout more wealthy cities have. Government agencies aren't always viewed as being as responsive as they might be in a Seven Oaks, a northwest Bakersfield, or a country club neighborhood.
During a Tuesday tour of air monitors in Arvin, Aguirre pointed to a storage tank owned by an oil company. Emissions leaks in years past yielded no changes in operational requirements, he said, despite the fact that the tank is less than 150 feet from residential housing.
Empowering those traditionally without power, that's the answer, he said.
"There's nothing sweeter than civic engagement. You put data in people's hands and watch what happens."