In a few recent blog posts I’ve laid out an air quality monitoring project that has materialized in my spare time. If you want to start from the beginning the first and second posts about the project lay out the inspiration and goals, and the hardware that takes the measurements. A few people have asked “OK, so you have this sensor package capturing decent quality data, now what are you going to do with it?”. Good question, and it has several answers.
The genesis of this project was the desire to test some assumptions that we have had for a long time about air quality in Birmingham, where the pollution comes from and how that has affected where people choose to live. Hopefully the data captured will be sufficient to do relative comparisons of different parts of the Birmingham metro area. If so, it should be possible to test these assumptions and determine if the pollution in the Jones Valley is actually worse than it is over the mountain, if elevation up in the mountain area itself has an effect, and how far out from the city you have to go before the effects of industry aren’t as apparent. I’d like to know before we move!
One of the most obvious uses for a system like this and the data it generates is community awareness. How bad is the problem? What can we do to fix it? What communities are the most impacted? Do the pollution measurements correlate with other data such as demographics or proximity to specific types of industry? There is a lot of geo data out there that shows income, education, economic activity, etc. It will be interesting to overlay the air quality measurements with this other data to see if there are any correlations. Information is empowering.
Citizen science projects are great for engaging with the community, and can help drive change. One particularly inspiring example is a project in the Netherlands that is providing free Wifi when air quality goals are met. In phase II, this project will adopt a similar direction with a few tweaks. The current plan is to tie the sensor array to a system that will provide free Wifi for people in range when the air quality is good, or at least use a captive portal system to show people the current readings as a part of a free Wifi system that is running at all times. That same captive portal page will also contain links to make strategic donations or renewable energy credit purchases so users can take direct action.
In recent years there has been a huge emphasis on early STEM education. Whether or not we have a shortage of skilled technical workers is up for debate, but regardless of the truth of it a lot of attention is being paid these days to giving kids the foundation skills. This little project could be a great introductory program for basic electronics and air chemistry. Since it is all being developed in the open, using open software and open hardware, there are few barriers to using a project like this in an educational setting. It could be especially fun to use this sort of project in a cross disciplinary educational approach. For example, running the ozone sensor over a long period of time alongside plants that are known to be sensitive to ozone could be an interesting way to tie together electronics / software and life sciences in a way that is easy for students to understand.
While these uses for the project and its data are interesting, what will be the most fun is watching what else shakes out as we move ahead. Discussing interesting ideas in public is probably the #1 reason why I rebooted my blog, and I can’t wait to hear what else people come up with!