air sensor

Visualizing the Invisible with the My Air, My Health Challenge Winners

By Dustin Renwick

My Air, My Health BannerWhen you win an award, it’s easy to lose sight of the small victories that brought you to a successful finish.

Members of the Conscious Clothing team – winner of the EPA/HHS My Air, My Health Challenge – almost didn’t apply for the challenge.

A friend told team leader Gabrielle Dockterman about the InnoCentive website, a crowdsourcing and open innovation platform. Dockterman said she felt there might be a challenge that would tap into the talents of people she knew. She emailed her friend Dot Kelly, a chemist, and inventor David Kuller, her boss from a previous job.

They stumbled on the My Air, My Health Challenge eight days before the deadline for proposals.

Kuller says that fortunately, all three team members were between projects and at stages in their lives when they could commit to the opportunity.

Eight days later, they submitted their entry just before midnight.

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Savage

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Dockterman

Using Skype to stay connected across the country and the world, the team explored options for building a prototype that could account for both air pollution and related health metrics, such heart rate or breathing.

On top of that, they had to create a system that could be easily worn or carried.

“It was like being a little kid with Legos,” Kuller said.

The team’s design incorporates an open-source Arduino platform microcomputer that lies against the chest and a particulate matter air sensor that hangs near the neck. The system takes advantage of the common place where men and women typically wear ties, necklaces or other fashion accessories.

Stretchy strips of silver-knitted yarn wrap around the wearer’s ribcage to measure breathing. The integrated system gives wearers an estimate of their pollution exposure by comparing the air quality to how deeply the person breathes.

The data are streamed to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cellphone, and LED lights transform the sensor measurements into visual cues, what the team calls “making the invisible visible.”

Dockterman says the group will next focus on tailoring prototypes for several different applications: consumer athletics, sleep apnea research and children’s asthma research.

Built in large batches, the Conscious Clothing sensor system could cost as little as $20 and could be sewn directly into clothing. The design represents the continuing shift to next-generation sensors that cost less, are easier to use, and can be applied to many different fields.

“I’d like to think we’re going to bridge what could have been a 20-year development gap,” Kelly said.

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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EPA Innovation: Sensing a Trend for Citizen Science and Involvement

By Dustin Renwick

Hand holds smartphone with the words "data collection" on the screenAmong the ways the Internet has affected scientific endeavors, creating more scientists stands as an interesting result. Thanks to the budding “citizen science” movement, you don’t need a doctorate to take part in high-quality research.

Citizen science refers to projects where non-specialists – maybe you, your neighbor, your child – can add their energies to the pursuit of specialized knowledge. Examples include efforts to:

EPA has tapped volunteer water monitors for decades. Now, developments in low-cost, portable air sensor technologies have created the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to air monitoring.

“It’s an opportunity for these groups to leverage some kind of response to poor air quality,” said EPA’s Patricia Sheridan, who coordinates citizen science for the Agency’s regional office that serves New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight Tribal Nations (EPA Region 2). She has helped the Region lead several efforts to educate and engage citizens and community groups who are interested in assisting researchers by collecting air quality data.

EPA scientist Marie O’Shea, the Region 2 science liaison, said even low-tech methods, such as counting the number of diesel trucks driving past a neighborhood playground, can empower citizens and give them quantitative evidence to share with community leaders.

But the biggest challenges for EPA citizen science projects involve the data those projects generate, from volume to accuracy to relevancy for different applications.

“The monitoring itself has become easier,” said Thomas Baugh, science liaison for EPA’s southeast regional office (Region 4). “The other steps that are always surrounding the use of data – what it means, how to assess it, who needs to be involved with it – become more important when it’s coming from many different people and many different sources.”

For example, a network of only 10 sensors that report readings each minute for one year will yield more than 5.25 million data points in that time. With additional factors like device calibration or end uses of the data, the sensor picture starts to take the form of a Jackson Pollack painting.

“The need is for EPA to have some way to make meaningful use of that data, to evaluate it and assess it,” Baugh said.

First steps toward clarifying the role of citizen science at EPA include defining what a good data set looks like for different EPA needs and sharing how citizens can meet those standards.

Another Agency scientist, Patti Tyler, who serves as the science liaison in the regional office for the mountain and plains states (Region 8), points out that communication about data collection, standards and use remains important. She distilled the citizen science process into three C’s: coordinate, collaborate, communicate.

Air sensor technologies continue to progress toward smaller, cheaper designs, and with EPA’s guidance, citizens themselves can potentially research their own air quality.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.