Citizen Science: Tracking The Air We Breathe

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Smartphone apps and portable gadgets have made it possible for individuals to get up-to-the-minute information on their own vital signs and activity levels. What if we could just as easily monitor environmental impacts on our health, tracking real-time data on pollution exposures? Development of portable sensing devices is making this individualized approach to air quality monitoring a possibility for people worldwide, and is fueling citizen science initiatives to more comprehensively track pollution on a global scale.

The Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen Kit, and the DustDuino are just a few examples of this new type of gadget, which can measure levels of particulate matter and other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Nature has dubbed these devices “Sensors for the People.”  Data from these devices may be able to fill in the gaps left by official monitoring networks, whose sensors are, according to Nature, “sophisticated but sparsely distributed.”

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Graphic from Nature.com

While data from official monitoring networks is important from a regulatory standpoint, it holds little relevance for individuals’ health. In fact, fixed sensors are generally inadequate for predicting environmental exposures, because people pass through so many different microenvironments throughout their days. A study at Columbia University fitted students with portable sensors and found that the majority of their exposure to airborne metals came from riding on the subway, rather than from breathing the air in their homes. Data from portable sensors can provide more pertinent information on individual exposures in the home, in transit, and in the workplace than the values obtained at the nearest monitoring station.

According to Nature, these approaches are “part of an effort to democratize air-quality monitoring so that it no longer remains solely in the domain of governments and academic researchers.” This may be a powerful shift in monitoring, particularly for areas facing both air pollution and a lack of readily-available data . Wired recently reported on David Lu, a UC Berkeley student from Shanghai who has collaborated with other students to develop a sensor and launch a startup for monitoring air quality in China, where reports have surfaced that some governments are blocking pollution data from being publicly available.

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Clarity Sensor (Image from Wired)

These portable sensors allow people to collect air quality data on their own personal environments, but data can also be aggregated to create more accurate pollution maps. That is the next phase of Lu and his fellow students’ project; essentially, they will be crowdsourcing data from China and other highly polluted areas to make air pollution mapping easier.

While research is taking off at some institutions and public enthusiasm is growing, the atmospheric science community has had a more tempered response to these devices. “Monitoring air-pollution levels is far more involved than the manufacturers and suppliers of cheap sensors suggest,” Ben Barratt, a British Air Quality Scientist said to Nature, citing differences in temperature and humidity as some of the complicating factors that make it difficult to cross-compare results between devices. Part of the reason why there are few official monitoring sites is because they take a lot of maintenance and care to ensure the data is accurate.

Though the data generated from these sensors does not currently hold up under sufficient scientific scrutiny for use in a regulatory context, citizen sensing projects are still in their early stages, and future technical developments may give crowdsourced pollution readings more clout. In the meantime, citizen scientists are developing the frameworks necessary for widespread monitoring of one of the biggest environmental health threats of our time.

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