In an effort to find and combat urban heat islands affecting marginalized communities in metro Atlanta in the U.S. state of Georgia, a collaborative research project titled UrbanHeatATL recruited community members to help map rising temperatures.
Problems and Purpose
Urban heat islands affect underserved communities the most, but the people leading the charge to resolve these issues are often not a part of these communities. Many community development projects make decisions based on their findings with no input from said communities. The purpose of UrbanHeatATL’s participatory approach is to map the urban heat islands within the underserved communities of Atlanta while engaging members of those communities to participate in community science . Researchers conducting studies can be, but often are not a part of the communities themselves.
Background History and Context
UrbanHeatATL was launched in March 2021 as part of the Atlanta Science Festival. The project’s main focus is to map Atlanta’s urban heat islands. Urban heat islands are “urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas” . Urban heat islands have been an issue in Atlanta for nearly 20 years. However, this is the first documented effort in Atlanta to include community members with no training or experience in conducting research. Research projects are often led and conducted by experts who are not a part of the community they intend to study or affect with the outcomes of their research, and community members have expressed disappointment with both researchers and city officials.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The main organizing, supporting, and funding entity is the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Urban Climate Lab Self-Learn-Sustain Global Change Program. Other entities include Spelman College’s Environmental & Health Sciences Program, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), the Atlanta Office of Resilience, The Harambe House: Citizens for Environmental Justice, and the Partnership for Southern Equity. The different organizations that supported and funded the project interacted to determine research methods.  From its inception, UrbanHeatATL’s initiatives involved including community members in the scientific process, which was part of the reason for having so many separate organizations partnering together. The Georgia Institute of Technology Urban Climate Lab funded the summer internship program. Leaders of UrbanHeatATL were a part of one or more supporting entities. The project is led by Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, a co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) and an assistant professor of the Environmental & Health Sciences Department at Spelman College; Dr. Kim Cobb, Director of the Georgia Tech Global Change Program and professor of Earth & Atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech; Darryl Haddock, the Education Director of WAWA; Dr. Jairo Garcia, lecturer at the Georgia Tech School of City & Regional Planning; Dr. Rebecca Watts Hull, Partnerships Specialist at the Georgia Tech Self-Learn-Sustain Program; and Dr. Russell Clark, Senior Research Scientist at the Georgia Tech School of Computer Science.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants are recruited in a variety of ways, although there were no criteria for participation. An effort was made to recruit members from the identified marginalized and/or underserved communities. Because UrbanHeatATL is a collaborative effort, many students were recruited from both Georgia Tech and Spelman College. At Spelman College, students in the Environmental & Health Sciences program were offered the opportunity to gain volunteer hours through participation with UrbanHeatATL or were required to participate for class credit. Many Spelman College students voluntarily participated, as the opportunity was sent out to all students, not just those in the Environmental & Health Sciences program. The official Self-Learn-Sustain summer internship was opened to both undergraduate and graduate students at Spelman College and Georgia Institute of Technology. It is unclear whether this internship opportunity was open to students of other institutions.
Many citizens of Atlanta were recruited through the use of social media: YouTube videos, Instagram posts, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts. Some participants were recruited due to their affiliation with Harambe House, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, or the Partnership for Southern Equity. There were no requirements to participate in the project; however, to use the PocketLab sensors, a mobile cellular phone is required to be able to collect data. Access to email to upload and submit temperature data was also required.
As part of its launch, UrbanHeatATL held a panel discussion at the Atlanta Science Festival; its recording was shared on YouTube. Several YouTube videos detailing the project were available to watch. UrbanHeatATL relied heavily on email communications, digital media, and social media posts to spread information on the project.
Methods and Tools Used
A participatory approach was taken to combat the issue of overlooking community input when it comes to scientific research. The approach undertaken by this project is called community science: a “collaboratively-led scientific investigation, exploration, and engagement in the entirety of the scientific process”. Community members were given the opportunity to provide input in a facilitated conversation that opened with an educative presentation, with assistance from a survey at the end.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Community-led scientific research is the major process used in this project. Participants were recruited through their educational institutions, word of mouth, news coverage, social media posts, and educational outreach. There were no criteria for participation, although there was a push for members of underrepresented and underserved communities to participate. As of today volunteers have collected over 1.5 million data points.  The data that was and is being collected is being used to create a map of urban heat islands in Atlanta. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Through volunteer community scientists, over 1.5 million data points were collected. Three interns also conducted a community conversation at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. This conversation was hybrid: community members had the choice of joining in person or joining a recorded Zoom meeting. Eight participants joined the conversation, however, none of these participants had any prior knowledge or experience with urban heat islands and their effects. A brief anonymous survey was provided to the participants, 50% of the survey respondents strongly agreed that they knew what urban heat was, while 50% somewhat agreed. One outcome was surprising, 75% of participants somewhat disagreed with the statement “My neighborhood is hotter than other neighborhoods in Atlanta”. Overall, most of the participants stated that they would like to see more collaboration with the city of Atlanta, and many expressed disappointment with the lack of communication between outside stakeholders and community members. Because two of the major funding organizations are educational institutions, many students were exposed to the project, and regardless of majors or career interests, volunteered to help collect temperature data. Many of the students had no prior knowledge of urban heat islands.
The UrbanHeatATL project is ongoing, and the outcomes of the project so far are mainly an increase in knowledge and awareness of the urban heat project. The West Atlanta Watershed Alliance may use some of the collected data to determine the next location for tree plantings. WAWA had planted trees in the West End community prior to the inception of UrbanHeatATL.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While there were many participants, of first few volunteers, while some were community members, most were not a part of the marginalized communities this research project intends to help. The first few participants were primarily Georgia Tech students and some Spelman College students. Some participants were involved in the Self-Learn-Sustain paid internship program, which unfortunately had limited spaces.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the internship was nearly fully remote. This limited the amount of contact between community members and interns and prevented potential participants from learning about the project through word of mouth. Due to the limited potential for interaction, the community conversation that the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance hosted only had eight participants. While interns of UrbanHeatATL gained critical insight, this number is not an accurate representation of the communities UrbanHeatATL wishes to engage.
Additionally, due to the higher volume of participants from Spelman College and the Georgia Institute of Technology, many of the routes taken to collect temperature data were the same, resulting in duplicate data. Despite the large number of participants gathering data, many critical areas were going unmapped. Many participants were affiliated with one or more of the funding organizations, resulting in a lack of representation.
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NASA. (n.d.). SVS archived story: /SVS/db/stories/landsat/Atlanta heat background.html. NASA. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/stories/Landsat/atlanta_heat_background.html
YouTube. (2021). #ATLSciFest It’s Getting Hot In Here. March 23, 2021. YouTube. Retrieved October 23, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkn5eRdXfdg&t=29s.
PocketLab. (2021, September 24). Georgia Tech is mapping urban heat islands in Atlanta with pocketlabs. The PocketLab Blog. https://blog.thepocketlab.com/georgia-tech-is-mapping-heat-islands-in-atlanta-with-pocketlabs
Samuel, M. (2021). UrbanHeatATL is mapping Atlanta’s temperatures to help those in danger of the heat. WABE. Retrieved 2023, from https://www.wabe.org/mapping-atlantas-heat-to-help-the-citys-most-vulnerable/.
Vibrant Cities Lab. (2021). Georgia Tech: Understanding urban heat islands at the site scale. Vibrant Cities Lab. https://www.vibrantcitieslab.com/case-studies/understanding-urban-heat-islands-at-the-site-scale/
The original submission of this case entry was written by Sabrina Johnson, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The views expressed in the current version are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.