Crowd Sourcing (and funding) of Mobile Air Quality Monitoring

I’m having a deja vu moment when it comes to watching how advancements in mobile monitoring of air quality are coming to fruition around the world.

Two years ago I spoke at the US EPA’s AIRNOW conference on social marketing about air quality and health. It was 2011 and I suggested the day would come, and soon, when people would have a personal Air Quality monitor, perhaps built into their mobile phone.

The shift from data provided by government monitoring stations only, to data gathered and uploaded for open access to and by ‘the crowd,’ is well underway. And it’s thanks to academic centres, entrepreneurs, do-it-yourselfers and hackers.

Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, when citizens near and far questioned radiation levels published by government, entrepreneurs at Safecast spurred the creation of mobile Geiger counters. Not long after, volunteers uploaded radiation measurements that exceeded millions of data points, which in turn created the level of public trust in the data on the spread of radiation needed at that time.

Those same entrepreneurs turned their sights to SafeCast Air – a citizen-run network of air quality monitors composed of small sensing devices that measure air quality in the immediate environment and share it, in real-time,  with an expanding on-line community. With $400,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation awarded in September 2012, Safecast has moved closer to its goal of measuring and sharing data on air quality in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

Also in 2012, the Air Quality Egg, another air quality sensor crowd-funded through Kick Starter, rolled off the production line and data started to be uploaded by egg owners around the world.  I only found a few egg owners in Canada but hundreds across North America, Europe and Asia have started measuring and uploading local CO and NO2 readings.

In China, two U.S. masters students launched FLOAT Beijing – a grassroots project of citizen sensors , this time monitoring air quality from kites floating in the Beijing sky. Once again, this ‘crowd sourced’ air quality sensor project has been funded ‘by the crowd’ through Kick Starter.

All these efforts make for easier access to data. Data quality is another issue, altogether, and there are lots of opinions on that, too.

But here’s what we take from all this activity. While there’s nothing new about citizen science – it’s been active for decades around the globe – the introduction of crowd funding has created new opportunities for individuals and organizations to participate in air quality monitoring solutions.

From our perspective as social marketers, these opportunities are encouraging civic, environmental participation. They are harnessing the wisdom of the crowd and a radical openness to air quality data. In turn, the spread of awareness and knowledge about air quality and its impacts on health will grow.

These community-developed, open source projects are happening through, or perhaps because of, people who care about the air they breathe. Their technology, and the data offered, gives other citizens a way, and perhaps another reason, to participate in the conversation about air quality.

Whether it’s citizen science, the efforts of opposition or advocacy groups or entrepreneurs who see an opportunity – it’s the people who care about air quality and health who are figuratively, and literally, driving advances in mobile monitoring.

About Sharon Stevens

Sharon Stevens is the owner and CEO of Airshift Group. Email Sharon Stevens

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