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Big Data Makes Invisible Air Pollution Visible

Sensors Placed in a Portland Neighborhood Are Sharing Air Quality Data and Helping People Understand Real-time Pollution Risks

Accidental Air Quality Activist Mary Peveto Uses Big Data
“This technology gives the community a chance to have power and resources to get at issues that may seem intractable,” said Mary Peveto, founder of Neighbors for Clean Air.

As the mother of an asthmatic, Mary Peveto has long been concerned about air pollution, but not until she stumbled across a USA Today report did she fully understand the threat to her daughter’s health. Discovering data that revealed air quality around her child’s elementary school in Portland, Ore. ranked among the worst in the nation transformed her into an activist. Now, Peveto is part of an experiment that is putting technology into the hands of individual residents so they help improve air quality monitoring.

Peveto and 16 other Portlanders are participating in a research experiment led by Intel Labs that uses common, low-cost sensors to gather air quality data. Data from the sensors feeds directly to websites that analyze and present visualizations of the data that are readily understandable.

Peveto’s involvement with air quality issues dates back to 2009. That’s when she first discovered the high pollution levels in her neighborhood on the USA Today website.

“We were astounded to find out that our neighborhood school ranked among the worst in the country,” she said.

That realization prompted the mother of three to found Neighbors for Clean Air, a public health advocacy group focused on air quality in Oregon, and ultimately forge an agreement with a local metal foundry to cut emissions. The experience also made her recognize the importance of technology in understanding air quality.

“The problem with air pollution today in America is that most of it is no longer visible,” said Peveto. “In the 1970s we were dealing with smog and envisioning L.A. and these basins of yellow smog. Today the insidious air pollution problem is largely invisible to the naked eye, so having the technology that can make the invisible visible through data and numbers is important to realizing change because we need awareness before we have change.”

Plug-and-Play Sensor Technology

Sensors are the technology that provide air quality data in the Portland pilot project. The ostrich egg-sized sensors will share minute-by-minute air quality measurements that could provide a better understanding of toxic exposure risks in their area, and eventually identify patterns for any given day, week, month or year.

“They couldn’t be simpler to use,” said Richard Beckwith, a research psychologist at Intel Labs. “You plug in the power and Ethernet and it starts sending data automatically.”

The sensors weigh less than a pound and are built using an open-source Arduino microcontroller that is available on Amazon and at many electronics stores. The sensors measure carbon and nitrogen dioxide emissions, temperature and humidity, and can be upgraded to measure particulate matter, ozone conditions and volatile organic compounds.

In addition to the 17 in Northwest Portland, there are more than 200 other “egg” sensors around the world now feeding real-time air quality data for anyone to see. Once a sensor is installed and registered at the Air Quality Egg website, its live data can be seen online at Xively, a public cloud service for the Internet of things.

Air Quality Sensor Provides Big Data for Visualization
Ostrich egg-sized air quality sensors that can be mounted to a window were provided to 17 northwest Portland residents by Intel Labs to measure CO and NO2 emissions, temperature and humidity, allowing individuals to stream real-time data to the Internet, where people can see visualizations of toxicity levels the air around them.

If the experiment works, Beckwith says it could expand to other at-risk neighborhoods. If demand for this technology grows, it could drive individual sensor prices down below $100, which is about 100 times cheaper than the sensors used today by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Oregon, air quality data is collected by a sensor network operated by the state Department of Environment Quality and combined with data from the EPA. Though Beckwith contends that air quality data currently available from government agencies doesn’t provide detailed enough measurements within particular neighborhoods, he does acknowledge the limitations of cheaper sensors.

“The downside is that these low-cost devices are not high-precision sensors,” he said. “We need good correlation for interpolation to work, but we don’t really know how densely these should be deployed. We will probably install one every other block and adjust as needed.”

Although this experiment is about collecting, sharing and assessing air quality data, Beckwith says it’s “more about the small data that really matter for you.” New data economies could emerge if more people contribute to and benefit from this type of information, he said.

Air Quality Sensors Feed the Big Data Economy

Individuals equipped with sensors can improve accuracy of real-time data about pollution in a particular area. Researchers, such as Ken Anderson, anthropologist and senior researcher at Intel Labs, believe that could lead to new applications. These would be even more robust than the Environmental Protection Agency’s AIRNow and for people to better manage their health and wellness using personal computing devices.

Anderson also wants to see if the air quality pilot project in Northwest Portland will raise awareness of how people spend or use their data. “People think of the data as inalienable, but it is not,” he said. When people control their own data and can blend it with other openly accessible data from government entities or businesses, “it’s going to be a game changer,” according to Anderson.

Peveto, a former Nike and Adidas marketing manager, is continuing her work to help communities make a case for reducing levels of toxic emissions and believes that data can be an empowerment tool.

“This technology gives the community a chance to have power and resources to get at issues that may seem intractable,” she said. “If I can assess the risk, I can adapt, and having good data allows people to do that. This technology is a personal empowerment tool that puts information in the hands of individuals, and that knowledge can help motivate or otherwise give people tools to advocate for change.”

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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