How Your Smartphone Can Tell You Whether You’re Breathing Dirty Air

Takepart.comJune 10, 2013

Have you ever wondered about the air quality in your neighborhood? How about in the block where you live? Well, guess what? There’s an app for that.

AirCasting, a platform for recording, mapping, and sharing health and environmental data using your smartphone, was launched by the nonprofit Habitat Map with money it received through the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grants program.

Michael Heimbinder, the founder and executive director of Habitat Map, tells TakePart that the organization’s intent was to deliver environmental information to people via their smartphones about the areas they were currently in at that moment in time.

The group was started in 2006, and Heimbinder says its original impetus —and the organization’s mission still today—was to build tools that support grassroots environmental organizing.

“We live in these cities that are so dense and the infrastructure that services people is largely invisible. So we asked, how can we provide people with environmental insight that would allow them to understand all the things that are happening in their urban environment and were having a big impact on their quality of life, but aren’t necessarily apparent?”

“It became clear early on that doing it via smartphone in an era before those phones were widely available and had nice operating systems was going to be kind of a challenge,” says Heimbinder. “So we switched gears and looked to the web, where we set out to do something called the household utilities tracker.”

“The idea behind it was that you’d punch in your address and zip code and it would tell you where your sewage went, and where you water, natural gas, and electricity come from. As I got started on that I realized that the best way to find out a lot of this information was to talk to people who live in the neighborhood who were local sources of information, and in addition I decided to find out where my apartment connected to the rest of the city.”

In the process, Heimbinder ended up at Newton Creek, which is the dividing line between northern Brooklyn and western Queens and is the largest industrially zoned area in New York City.

“What we found was a community that had a lot environmental health issues, but they weren’t very well publicized,” says Heimbinder. “I decided to create a tool for the community, and that’s kind of the model we’ve used since then. We create tools with a specific community in mind.”

He adds that, “Anybody can add a marker and anybody else can come in and edit that marker, and you can add text, photos, and videos to markers and aggregate them in thematic maps. We have hundreds of different organizations, most of them in New York City but also across the country and even some internationally. All sorts of things have been mapped that have an effect on community health and quality of life.”

Habitat Map has also developed LED accessories like a luminescent vest that lights up in response to the AirCasting app’s sensor measurements. “With that technology, not only could you be recording the data and mapping and sharing the data over the internet, you could be sharing it with the people in your immediate vicinity,” says Heimbinder. “You’re taking something like air quality, which is largely invisible, and visualizing it on your LED vest.”

Heimbinder has been surprised to find how different the air quality can be in areas that are in close proximity to one another. “I’ve been shocked at how steep the gradients are in carbon monoxide going from one block to the next and how dramatically it changes.”

He notes that this data is quite different from the data that’s being reported by the state, whose sensors are on top of buildings, not near roadways, and are therefore not representative of actual human exposure. “It’s surprising to see how different the readings are when you’re out on the street walking around than they are when you check what the air quality readings are for the day,” says Heimbinder.

“Not to denigrate the state’s reading and monitoring, because they have a very different use in mind. They’re looking at collecting data to see whether the city, or state, or different areas are in compliance with the Clean Air Act,” adds Heimbinder. “We’re much more focused on personal exposure so the app has a different purpose and a different design.”

“But we’re excited about further developing our technology so we can report it in a way that is respected by the state regulators and provides the quality of data they can use. I ultimately see them as complimentary systems.”

It’s a great goal and one that could help to create real change in communities throughout the country.

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