On bad days, a vaporous brown cloud settles like a tablecloth over Pittsburgh. I’m an asthmatic, and just looking at it is enough to make my throat tighten and lungs burn. My view of the skyline doesn’t come out of a highrise window, but via Breathe Cam, a website launched this month that displays live video and high-resolution pictures of the atmosphere from vantage points across The ‘Burgh. A brown cloud could signal a bad air day–meaning the concentration of fine particulates is high. To those of us with asthma, it’s a reminder to carry an inhaler and remind our friends with respiratory problems to avoid lingering outside.
The idea behind Breathe Cam–and other clean air efforts in Pittsburgh, collectively known as The Breathe Project–is to visualize what the air looks like on different days. But the bigger mission is to build a community of people passionate about better air in Pittsburgh. At a time when politicians in cities like Paris and Madrid are banning diesel fuel, imposing pollution-based parking fines and creating semi-pedestrian zones, the goal is to use user-friendly tools like Breathe Cam to mobilize political action.
The Breathe Project–organized and funded by the Heinz Endowments–was also behind a public art installation called “Particle Falls,” erected in November on the side of a downtown theater and concert hall. A cascading waterfall of lights that flows down the building at night–beautiful and blue when the air clear, but overwhelmed by yellow specks when the air is filled with particles–the installation is, by design, a conversation piece. Andrea Polli, who designed “Particle Falls,” has described the sight on a bad air day as “a fireball.”
While cities like New York City and Boston already use haze cameras for visibility monitoring, Breathe Cam is a technological step up. Built by the CREATE Lab team at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the tools use a sophisticated imaging technology called GigaPan that stitches multiple photographs together to create high-resolution panoramas made up of billions of pixels. It’s a technology that’s been used to map archeological digs, to give TV viewers a birds-eye view of pro golf courses, and as the cover of a March 2014 cover of Time magazine (shot atop 1 World Trade Center.)
Today’s Pittsburgh is a thriving university town replete with tech startups, research centers, and ongoing waterfront development. At the same time, the region remains among the worst 10% of U.S. cities for particulate pollution, a sooty byproduct of its industrial past when coal-fired power plants and steelmaking proliferated. While many of the plants are long gone, several remain including a steelmaking plant in Braddock and several coke–the fuel derived from coal, not the soda–production plants.
Geography is also an enemy of clean air in the city. Pittsburgh sits along three rivers, in a valley surrounded by highway and train traffic. Diesel fumes and industry pollution contributes to inversion, an atmospheric effect caused on days when the air gets hotter as it rises instead of cooler, trapping smog close to the ground.
In mounting a public campaign about the present-day realities of Pittsburgh’s air quality, Breathe Project Director Phil Johnson invited scientists, environmentalists and staff together last July for an IRL exhortation. Sitting in the Heinz Endowment’s downtown conference room on the 30th floor with an expansive view, they watched as a brown stain moved across the sky.
“This is why we need pollution cameras for Pittsburgh,” Johnson told the assembled group as they watched.
CREATE Lab quickly went to work: Cameras were placed in four different locations across the city (one among them points to Heinz field, the Steelers’ stadium). Along with the camera feed, air-quality data and interactive controls are included.
“Breathe Cam is very user friendly for first-time users,” says Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, a director of Women for a Healthy Environment whose 10-year-old daughter suffers from asthma.
“This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, but for the sake of community empowerment,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor at CMU and a member of the CREATE Lab team. “The only way to get leaders to take remarkable steps is through political pressure. We have had horribly dirty air for over 100 years. It’s our pollution. We can stop this.”