Citizen Air Quality Sensors Cover The Places Governments Can’t Reach

Projects like Smart Citizen and Air Quality Egg promise a future of cheap, open-source air quality sensors–and a world where we know what’s happening everywhere.

It’s the government’s job to measure air quality, but the government can’t be everywhere at the same time (not that we’re aware of, at least). The Environmental Protection Agency’s official monitoring machines cost $15,000 a pop, so rolling them out to all neighborhoods would be extremely expensive. At the moment, there are only about 3,000 fixed stations across the whole country.


Can citizen science fill in the gaps? Perhaps. It’s early days, but projects like the Smart Citizen, in Spain, show the potential of cheap sensors linked to the Internet. Citizens can participate in data collection and even collaborate with cities. Amsterdam has bought and given away 100 Smart Citizen units, and is now testing whether home-sensors could be useful sources of information.

The Air Quality Egg is another open-source project (which we first covered here). It’s a unit that you place on an outdoor window and link to a egg-shaped base station indoors, which in turn relays information to a server and website. The project raised about $145,000 on Kickstarter in 2012, and there are now roughly 800 kits deployed in homes and community centers worldwide, including several clusters in the U.S.

Mike Barnett, a professor of science of education at Boston College, is leading an effort to distribute Eggs in Massachusetts, in an effort to improve understanding about air pollution and its causes. “We want to get science in places where people wouldn’t normally see it, and get people talking about it,” he says.

Barnett’s group has sent out about 50 devices in the Waltham area, working with local stores and community centers, and he’s about to set up another 35 in Boston and Worcester. The kits are linked to ultra-thin “touchfoil” displays that stick to a window and turn it into an interactive screen. When people pass by, they can immediately see air quality levels for their area, and investigate possible causes using educational tools.

Barnett also plans to roll the project out in Kansas City and Los Angeles. If he wins another National Science Foundation grant, he’ll add 800 Eggs and set up even more screens. “Our big premise is to try and get the data to be useful. There’s a lot of data there, but most of it is invisible,” he says.

Barnett doesn’t see the Air Quality Eggs (which cost about $350) as replacements for EPA machines. They’re often inaccurate, he says, and occasionally break down. Where they’re most useful is in showing relative air quality–which places have the worst or best air. “You can’t look up a particular monitor and see what the particulate matter level is. But they’re fantastic for comparative analysis,” he says. The touch-screens show heat-maps of pollution, rather than actual levels.


Meanwhile, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, is also using the Eggs to improve pollution monitoring. A local philanthropist has paid for 100 units, which the city is distributing now. Louisville has some the worst air pollution in the country, and a high asthma rate as a result. Last year, it also distributed GPS-linked inhalers, so it could identify hotspots of asthma sufferers.

It’ll be interesting to see how governments work with citizen-sensor technology–whether they embrace it, or see as a threat. At the moment, projects like Air Quality Egg don’t offer great accuracy or great coverage. But the potential is surely there. One day, citizens may be able to do without official readings altogether.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.