Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution

My Air, My Health Challenge Winner Announced!

My Air, My Health Banner

Today, EPA and the National Institutes of Health announced the winner of the My Air, My Health Challenge. The Challenge called upon innovators nationwide to design a small, low-cost sensor that integrates air quality measurements with related health data, such as heart rate and breathing.

From a collection of proposals, four finalists were selected in November 2012 to move to the second phase of the competition that involved the development of working prototypes. Three finalists successfully designed prototypes, and the winner was announced this morning at Health Datapalooza IV.

Check out the press release or the @EPAresearch Twitter feed using #MyAir. Please also share any thoughts or comments you have in the comments section below.

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.

Making it Better – Reflections on the Maker Faire Event

By Vasu Kilaru

Read Vasu’s 1st blog about Maker Faire.

EPA crew at the Maker Faire in New York City.

In September, I was one of several EPA scientists sharing our research and technologies at the World’s Maker Faire held at the New York Hall of Science, a gathering of the Do-It-Yourself, maker community. Despite the weather (cool and rainy) the size of the event was purportedly a lot larger this year. 

We had tremendous interest in the cutting-edge technologies we shared at our booth, especially the remote-controlled helicopter EPA researcher Scott Moore uses to investigate smoke from wildfires.  You might think that interest in helicopters might be limited to a narrow demographic, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Curiosity about the miniature helicopter and what EPA was doing with it spanned all ages and genders.

Many also expressed interest in the sensors at our booth, both the ones that EPA brought as well as the Project Tricorder unit that Ohio State students Lujack Prater and Grace Crumrine developed with EPA mentors in a summer program at the Wright Brothers Institute.  They built their “Tricorder” in just 10 weeks, thanks to rapid prototyping platforms such as Arduino that make it possible for users to utilize microelectronics to “make” new and innovative “things” in a way never before possible. In fact, there was a whole tent dedicated to Arduino, one of the most popular platforms.    

Attending Maker Faire was an opportunity for us to see what others are doing with environmental sensors and monitors.

What did we see?

  • One of the big highlights was a device called Raspberry Pi.  Essentially, a computer the size of a credit card with inputs for a keyboard and mouse, and outputs to a monitor.  It uses a SD card for memory, runs a modified Linux stack for the operating system and is capable of doing the basic things that all computers do (word processing, spreadsheet, web browsing…etc).  Best thing is the cost…..$35! And of course it is open and therefore can be legally hacked.
  • Leif Percifield, a student from the Parsons School of Design, has developed a technology called Visualight, an open source, wifi-enabled light bulb that can be programmed to visualize data as colored light, a simple application with tremendous potential for environmental benefits.  So, for example, a light bulb in a home can provide alerts that a storm may overload the combined sewer system, so putting off water use (dishes or flushing) can help avoid potential raw sewage overflows. A very simple application with tremendous potential for environmental benefits. 
  • A Parsons School graduate created an Air Quality Egg with air quality sensors that can transmit the data to an online system to share with others. 
  • Another big draw this year was 3-D printing.  It has been around for a few years now but now seems to be really taking off. 

That is what Maker Faire is all about:  connecting folks with great ideas.

While it was a lot of fun, it was also hard work to stand for hours and talk loudly so people can hear you.  But the chance to participate in an event where everyone is excited about learning and sharing makes Maker Faire a unique experience, and one we are proud to have been part of.

About the Author: Vasu Kilaru works in EPA’s Office of Research and Development where 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.

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.

Catching the Citizen Science Curve

By Dustin Renwick

Baseball is notorious for overloaded statistics.

Data doesn’t equate to knowledge, but data does set the stage for better interpretations of a given scenario.

Low-cost environmental sensors represent the next step in air quality monitoring statistics. The hardware revolution that will make these sensors widely available to citizen scientists— volunteers who might work with scientists to collect data—stands squarely on the horizon. But what will happen with all the new data remains unclear.

Ensuring that citizen-recorded measurements are interpreted correctly remains an important point, said Nick Masson, an engineering research assistant at the University of Colorado. Masson attended the September EPA Air Pollution Sensor Evaluation and Collaboration event in Research Triangle Park, NC (see my previous blog post, Sensing the Future).

Tim Dye, senior vice president at Sonoma Technology, said events like the September collaboration engage EPA researchers and sensor developers in conversations about how these devices fit into the larger framework for improving the environment.

For example, problems with data could arise depending on the quality of the sensors located in backyards and porches across the country. For instance, the sensors might not always produce statistically useful results. EPA researchers and their partners need to understand these challenges in order to harness the appropriate data, so policy makers and the public can enjoy the benefits of such information.

With the right type of calibrations, low-cost monitors might fill gaps and supplement federally-regulated data gathered by permanent, high-tech (and expensive) government air quality monitoring stations located across the country, said Michael Heimbinder, executive director of HabitatMap, who attended the September event.

“Inevitably there is going to be a deluge of information collected by citizen scientists,” Heimbinder said. “This information is coming. The question is: How do we grapple with it?”

Scientists and researchers will have to explore questions such as how data collected by non-scientists can help inform health policies, health messaging, or even daily weather forecasts. Through initiatives like the external collaboration event and the March 2013 workshop for sensor developers, academics, DIYers, community groups, and federal, state and local officials, EPA won’t play benchwarmer in the era of citizen science.

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.

Sensing the Future

By Dustin Renwick

The air quality monitor mounted on your backyard bird feeder sends your laptop an instant message as you eat lunch: “Ozone alert.”

You decide to run later in the evening without having to consult The Weather Channel or a local radio station.

As a runner, this type of updated information would be useful to me. Yet this warning would be even more important for people with asthma or other respiratory problems that prevent them from exercising safely outdoors when air quality remains less than stellar.

People developing just that kind of backyard environmental sensor met with EPA researchers on Sept. 11 and 12 at the Air Pollution Sensor Evaluation and Collaboration event. The workshop allowed companies and individuals developing environmental sensors to better understand the rigorous processes EPA uses to gather high-quality data for environmental research.

Ron Williams, an EPA research chemist in Research Triangle Park, led the workshop as part of the EPA Innovation Team’s Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution (ASAP). ASAP is an initiative to promote the development and use of customized, real-time information for communities and to empower residents to connect environmental protection with human health.

“One of the needs we saw was that the people developing low-cost environmental air pollution monitors and other sensors lacked the technical resources to fully evaluate their new technologies,” he said.

To that end, nine teams from the U.S., France and Germany were invited to have their sensors evaluated by EPA. 

Williams and his team will spend the next several months testing and calibrating the nine sensors under a variety of conditions. The team will share the findings in a final report next summer. (Note: the collaboration is not a contest and EPA will not endorse any device.)

Those reports might lay the groundwork for a near-term future where anyone who spends time outside—runners, cyclists, gardeners, hammock enthusiasts—will benefit from the added knowledge of their home air quality monitors.

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.

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.

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.