Can Crowdfunded Citizen Science Improve Urban Air Quality?


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By Adam Oxford at Green Futures

Can citizen science clean up the air? Maybe, if it’s using Air Quality Egg: a small internet-enabled sensor designed to help crowdsource pollution maps.

Final designs for the Egg are still being tested, but it has already raised $120,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, and the first production run is planned for the late summer. It’s envisaged that an individual Egg will sell for around $100, with DIY kits from $40.

The hardware is described as ‘open source’, and uses off-the-shelf components to keep costs down and encourage owners to customise and improve upon it. Initial designs suggest it will be, as its name implies, a smooth egg shape, able to sit in the hand or be placed on a shelf or desk.

When complete, a series of passive sensors inside the Egg will analyse air as it passes through the device. These will use a variety of electromagnetic, chemical and optical techniques to detect concentrations of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, temperature and humidity, with optional extra sensors for ozone, particulates and radiation. Results are uploaded directly to data clearing house Cosm (formerly known as Pachube), where they can be viewed as an individual reading or as part of an area map.

Project lead Ed Borden explains that the Egg evolved during work with volunteers in Japan, who mapped realtime radiation levels following the Fukushima disaster. It’s been criticised by some academics, who say that the uncalibrated sensors won’t be meaningfully accurate for serious scientific research.

Borden acknowledges this, but is confident that the volume of data generated by many users over time will be accurate enough to identify patterns in air quality, and so help communities to challenge local polluters.

“The point is that it’s exponentially cheaper than scientific gear”, Borden says. “Even [the average] non-internet connected handheld sensor is six to seven times the cost. Anything in the scientific range is tens of thousands of dollars.”

Nick Hewitt, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the Lancaster Environment Centre, agrees that the Egg should uncover areas for further research. He also thinks it could provide valuable data about our homes.

“There are a lot of outdoor sensors,” Hewitt says, “but most people spend a lot of time indoors – a third of their lives in the bedroom. We have very little data about that to study.”

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future. Image courtesy of jepoirrier on flickr


    The question is not “Can citizen science clean up the air?” but if there are open tools that allow citizens to understand their surroundings without 3rd parties involved (public administration or private companies doing it for yourself).