smartphone apps

My Air, My Health, My Future

The best innovations rely on disruption, a catalyst for change in a world of status quo.

Disruptive innovation is the theory behind the My Air, My Health Challenge, sponsored by EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The challenge encouraged Americans to consider the future of air quality and human health by developing small, wearable air quality sensors that also detect how our bodies respond to the air we breathe.

Two major ideas drive the effort to combine air sensor technologies and health data. First, sensors mirror the rise of computers and smartphones – more power in less space at lower prices. Second, the air we breathe affects our health, but that data changes constantly as we move.

All four finalist teams in the challenge received $15,000, and the teams continue to transform their designs into portable sensor systems that measure air quality and corresponding physiological responses to that air quality.

Below, leaders of the four teams talk about how they’re pursuing the priorities of sensor portability, data accuracy, and low cost for the final design.

  • Aaron Hechmer and his team chose to focus their challenge efforts on the aspects of air sensor data and cost.  “This project, it really is sharing health information. To make [sensors] statistically robust, they’ve got to be in a lot of hands. To be in a lot of hands they’ve got to be cheap, particularly if you’re trying to serve communities. People don’t want to pay $5,000.”
  • Michael Heimbinder leads a team designing an air sensor that measures fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. The team uses a chest strap sensor to look for connections between air pollutant exposure and heart rate variability, the interval between heart beats.  The team completed a first prototype air monitor and will build five more for volunteers to wear and collect data. Heimbinder says the next hurdle is visualizing the data by “displaying thousands and thousands of measurement points as dots on a map.”
  • Guy Shechter and his team view the long-term scientific prospects of the challenge. The team’s sensor will tease out links between ultrafine particulate pollution and obstructive respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma. “The exciting thing for us is this lack of science in this area and our belief that with the technology we have, with the scientific minds we have thinking about this, that we can actually do something interesting and new.”
  • David Kuller’s team has created T-shirts sewn with sensors. Owners can wash the shirts as long as they remove the battery and the air sensor, about the size of a matchbox, prior to washing.  To measure health indicators, the shirts use an elastic strip of silver yarn that was originally designed for monitoring newborn babies. “We knew about the existence of these stretch sensors but hadn’t put them to test in any laboratory way.”

Stay tuned for an update this summer. The challenge winner will receive an award of $100,000 to be announced in June 2013 at Health Datapalooza IV.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Sensors and Sensibility

By Vasu Kilaru

Around us every day are technologies that give us access to more information at our fingertips than any generation has ever had.  As an EPA scientist, I’m pretty thrilled about these innovations and what they mean for environmental protection.

One exciting new initiative in that realm here at EPA is called Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution or ASAP. This new aspect of our research came out of the recognition that the advances in sensor technologies are unfolding at the same amazing pace that we all see with new cellphone and smartphone technologies.

Cellphones already have a variety of sensors built in:  light sensors and proximity sensors to manage display brightness, accelerometers used as switches or to characterize motion, GPS to provide mapping and locational services, compass and gyroscope to provide direction and orientation, microphones for audio, and a camera for video/photography.

These capabilities have led to the logical coupling of other sensors, such as for air pollution monitoring or biometric measurements, with smartphones.

Traditionally, air monitoring technologies were costly to setup and maintain, and therefore were put under the purview of governments (federal and state). Now, new miniature sensor technologies are more affordable and have the advantage of being highly portable. These developments in sensor technology present an exciting new frontier where monitoring will be more democratic and available much more widely. Parallel to these developments are sensors that measure physiological conditions such as heart rate or blood oxygen levels.

Pairing environmental sensors with ones that measure biological conditions could herald a new era for both environmental protection as well as healthcare. Future developments in these sensor technologies ultimately have the capacity to help people make better decisions regarding their environment and their own health.

So we are excited to do our part in bringing new technologies to you.  If you’re going to the World Maker Faire in New York this weekend (September 29-30), stop by our EPA booth, we’d love to talk about how DIYers, makers, inventors can help make a greener future.

About the Author: Vasu Kilaru works in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is currently working on the apps and sensors for air pollution initiative (ASAP) helping the Agency develop its strategic role and response to new sensor technology developments.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Got a Smartphone? EPA Has Launched an App to Keep You Safe in the Sun

Growing up outside of Baltimore in the late 70s, I spent the summers at the pool, cutting lawns in the neighborhood without a shirt, and riding my bike for hours. I’m paying for it now. I’ve had seven basal cell carcinomas (the least dangerous skin cancer) removed in the past five years, including three from my forehead. I’ll be going to a dermatologist twice a year for the rest of my life. You know that young men like to compare scars – well, add my childhood scars to my skin cancer scars, and I can top anyone.

After spending many years working on waste reduction issues, I came over to a part of EPA that works on healing the ozone layer and teaching kids how to be SunWise. The ozone layer acts as a kind of sunscreen for the Earth, so while it’s healing, we want to prevent skin cancer by teaching kids, their teachers and parents how to be safe in the sun.

We’ve been using the UV Index for years to forecast the strength of the sun’s UV rays—the higher the Index, the more important it is to be sun safe. Just this year, we developed a UV Index widget and put the Index on Facebook. So, you can check your friends’ status and the sun’s, and plan for a SunWise day.

Now we’re making it even easier for you to check the UV Index when you’re on the go with EPA’s smartphone applications. Of course, we’re hoping people download these free applications on their mobile phones.

I still enjoy the outdoor activities I did as a kid – especially biking – and am proud of my small collection of really nice Italian bikes. What has changed is that I am now SunWise and take better care of my skin. A lot of people are SunWise nowadays, too – including my kids. With tools like the smartphone applications, we are making it easier for folks to be smart in the sun.

About the author: Robert Burchard is a program analyst for EPA’s Stratospheric Protection Division in the Office of Air and Radiation. Robert is known for wearing his bike jerseys around the office and for speeding full-force ahead with anything technology-related, particularly when it’s about sun safety.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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