Science for All and All for Air Quality

Science for All and All for Air Quality

23.5.2016
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A cold March wind is bringing dark clouds to London. The menace of bad weather does not discourage Tina. It’s 10 am and she comes out with a ladder, a bag full of diffusion tubes to measure nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air, a notebook, and a map of the neighborhood of Somers Town. Other neighbors join her. Tina stops by the road in front of a school. She goes up the ladder and fixes one diffusion tube with a cable tie around a lamppost.

Citizen Science is a research approach characterized by the active involvement of non-professionals in a scientific project

Thanks to the expert advice of Mapping for Change, these neighbors can go out to measure air quality in the locations of their choice, mainly in front of schools and busy road crossings. Also, they have financed the necessary tools and lab analysis through a crowdfunding campaign coordinated by Mapping for Change.

Diffusion tube placed by citizens in a street lamp of London to measure air pollution.

After 4 weeks, Tina will go out again with her neighbors to take the diffusion tubes back and send them to the lab. The lab will provide the readings of NO2 for that period in each location. They will receive the data and will input it in the map of Mapping for Change for everyone to see.

NO2 is an air pollutant originating mainly from emissions of diesel vehicles in cities and can affect health. Will they discover that they are surpassing the European Union legal limits or the World Health Organization recommended limits?

Thanks to the expert advice of Mapping for Change, neighbors can go out to measure air quality in the locations of their choice

This is citizen science in action. Citizen Science is a research approach characterized by the active involvement of non-professionals in a scientific project. Two years ago, the Barbican neighborhood also used these tools to measure air quality. Based on their findings, they made suggestions for improvements to the local authorities: improve the ventilation of the tunnel, green up the area with more trees, change traffic lights phasing to reduce congestion, etc.

CITI-SENSE sensor in a balcony of Barcelona.

In Barcelona, CREAL, an allied ISGlobal centre, is trying something similar with the project CITI-SENSE. They are using air pollution sensors that people can carry or hang from their balconies and cellphones that transmit the data instantly to an Internet platform. Their long-term vision is to enroll an army of volunteers that can provide detailed data of air pollution in diverse parts of the city, complementing the sparse official data that we have today. However, the success of this vision depends on motivating participants: they want something useful for their life in return, and much faster and tangible than an academic journal publication.

It’s almost 5 pm and Tania, the technician of the project CITI-SENSE in Barcelona, is setting up the chairs of a spacious room at the Biomedical Research Park of Barcelona (PRBB). Raül, the communications expert in CREAL, arrives with the camera and drinks. In the middle of this hustle and bustle, the first participants of the workshop start to arrive, and I welcome them one by one. I know the majority of them, after ten months of intense networking.

CITI-SENSE long-term vision is to enroll an army of volunteers that can provide detailed data of air pollution in diverse parts of the city

Among the attendants, I welcome Eva Pérez Gabucio, representing the Generalitat de Catalunya, Sergi Lopez-Grado i Padreny and other members of Plataforma per la Qualitat de l’Aire, María García of Ecologistes en Acció de Catalunya, representatives of the Public Health Agency of  Barcelona, representatives of the Barcelona City Council, Maria Teresa Pay of Barcelona Supercomputing Center, the leaders of the project Smart Citizen Kit of the Fab Lab, educators, and other citizens interested in air quality.

We all have gathered this day with one objective: present air quality data to the public on the Internet and cellphones in an understandable and useful way. We examined real examples, like the official data of Barcelona in the application Aire.cat and the European project CALIOPE.

Carry-on CITY-SENSE sensor.

During the discussion, there was certain surprise and diverse preferences about the different existing references: the European Union legal limits for air pollution and the stricter World Health Organization limits. This showed the need for explanation in the cellphone applications and Internet platforms. Also, attendants suggested possible uses for these cellphone applications: recommending cleaner paths in the city, discouraging people to take their cars when air pollution is high, etc.

In the next participatory workshop, on the 20th of June, 2016, at PRBB, we will continue addressing questions such as: how many colors are enough to present air quality data? Do we prefer a general air quality index or see pollutant levels one by one?

If we want to change how cities are organized to reduce air pollution, we need to embark everybody

If we want to change how cities are organized to reduce air pollution, we need to embark everybody in this quest for awareness, monitoring and action. Whether we fully embrace citizen science or just take some bits of it, like participatory workshops with stakeholders, any form of public engagement in Science helps to pave the way for positive change supported by society.

More information

CITY-SENSE