Pittsburghers have long complained about air pollution, for good reason. See: the former steel town’s “F” rating from the American Lung Association.
Rather than just complain about foul outdoor odors and poisoned air, the region’s residents can now trace the likely origin, predict its path, and provide real-time reporting that could lead to improved air quality enforcement.
These are all examples of how the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab at Carnegie Mellon University is helping Pittsburghers understand their city a little better through technology.
“Environmental impact in Pittsburgh is far-reaching and has localized hotspots where peoples’ health is being impacted,” said Ana Hoffman, project director for air quality engagement at CREATE Lab. “We’re able to take their experience and turn it into evidence they can use for advocacy or enforcement, or even just make an informed decision about when it’s safe to exercise outside.”
Air Tracker, the Lab’s newest online interactive tool, launched in June and combines real-time, trusted scientific models with air pollution and weather forecasting data to inform users about the quality of the air they’re breathing.
Part of CMU’s Robotics Institute, CREATE Lab worked with the University of Utah and the Environmental Defense Fund to create Air Tracker, which is also available in Salt Lake City and Houston.
Air tracker expands the capabilities of the Smell Pittsburgh mobile phone app, another Lab product that since its 2016 launch has used crowdsourcing to track where odors are frequently concentrated, and link those smells to poor air quality in or upwind from those areas.
“Smell PGH is easy to use, data is recorded in the moment without delay, and there’s also a transparency aspect,” said Paul Dille, senior research programmer at CREATE Lab. “You can even download data and smell reports and do your own analysis on archival data.”
CREATE Lab has also developed the Plume Pittsburgh website to integrate Smell Pittsburgh data with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather models and air quality monitoring data.
“Air Tracker shows the source area, whereas Plume shows … where that pollution is going to travel and move forward in time,” said Amy Gottsegen, a CREATE Lab research developer.
Beyond environmental justice issues, the Lab uses technology to promote other community efforts.
Its Message from Me program, for example, serves as a platform for elementary school students to send short messages and photos that update parents on what they’re doing in school, fostering communication and greater parental involvement. Another program, RentHelpPGH, provides housing and eviction risk resources to vulnerable individuals. And EarthTime, a data visualization tool, uses census data and RentHelpPGH input to produce visuals that reflect changes in demographics, housing, and housing costs throughout the Pittsburgh area.
“We have different groups and focuses within the Lab, but we share a philosophy of building partnerships outside of the university, especially in trying to respond to local needs,” Hoffman said.
“At the end of the day our lab is about empowering citizens through technology,” Dille said. “I often feel like citizens come to us with ideas to work on because they feel like they’re in isolation or there’s a problem and they’re not being heard.”
Now, Hoffman said, the Lab and its approximately 15 full-time staff, researchers and software developers are fielding requests from other cities that want to use similar approaches to develop things like 24-hour surveillance systems that can monitor industrial polluters for fugitive emissions and other violations.
“I think the US Environmental Protection Agency has really tried to take note of community-led efforts like these that have been crashing over the air quality world these days,” she said. “It’s an easy, inexpensive and innovative way for people to get involved in community science.”