Sensors for Air Pollution – There’s an App for That

Two views of the maps displaying noise data collected.

By Kevin Kubik

This week, I had the pleasure of attending a webinar on Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution sponsored by EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and EPA’s Office of Resarch and Development.  The webinar was designed to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas for those involved in the cutting edge research surrounding air pollution sensors and applications (Apps) that use those sensors.

I found it fascinating to hear about all of the research going on related to sensors and smartphones.  The nerd in me loved hearing presenters (other nerds) speaking about the Beer-Lambert Law, micro gas chromatographs, nanotechnology being used in sensor technology, laser-based, particulate matter sensors and so much more.  But the one presentation that stuck out was about a Brooklyn-based organization called Habitat Map.  I belong to my own community volunteer monitoring group in Monmouth County, NJ.  But we are not nearly as organized or advanced as Habitat Map.  I’m sure the fact that they were local to the Region attracted my attention, but so did their organization and sophistication.

To quote from Habitat Map’s webpage:

“HabitatMap is a non-profit environmental health justice organization whose goal is to raise awareness about the impact the environment has on human health. Our online mapping and social networking platform is designed to maximize the impact of community voices on city planning and strengthen ties between organizations and activists working to build greener, greater cities. Utilizing our shared advocacy platform participants can:

–          Alert the public to environmental health hazards

–          Hold polluters accountable for their environmental impacts

–          Highlight urban infrastructures that promote healthy living

–          Identify future opportunities for sustainable urban development

–          Promote policies that enhance equitable access to urban resources”

If you are affiliated with a community-based organization or you are a high school or college educator, you might want to contact Habitat Map.  They conduct community mapping workshops and teach and develop curricula for high school and college students.

But the coolest part of the Habitat Map presentation was Aircasting!!! AirCasting is a platform for recording, mapping, and sharing environmental data using smartphones. Currently, AirCasters can upload sound level data recorded by their phone’s microphone and is intended for measuring outdoor noise. Habitat map members began using Aircasting by measuring sound levels in NYC for three reasons.  The first reason is that they care about noise in their neighborhoods (it’s the number 1 complaint filed on NYC’s 311 hotline).  The second reason is that unwanted noise affects people’s health.  And lastly, smartphones already have microphones.

If you check out HabitatMap’s Aircasting website, www.aircasting.org, and click on the “Maps” tab, you’ll be able to see the environmental data collected with Aircasting displayed on maps inseveral different types of displays (some examples provided below).  Habitatmap’s future plans include adding pollution sensors to smartphones to strengthen their already impressive goal of raising awareness about the impacts of the environment on human health.  Check them out!!!

About the Author: Kevin Kubik serves as the region’s Deputy Director for the Division of Environmental Science and Assessment out of EPA’s Edison Environmental Center.  He has worked as a chemist for the Region for more than 29 years in the laboratory and in the quality assurance program.

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