Citizens As Sensors: A Solution To Pollution?

Pollotion zones map

Scotland's Air Pollution Zones 2016

Much of geography’s traditional role has been on air quality monitoring – enabling sensors with location information to help build up the map visualising the spatial variability of the usual pollutants: carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter (both PM25/PM10) – as well as air quality modelling – whereby we utilise various factors to forecast accurate(ish) predictions. is currently the go to place to see historic and current forecasts of air quality, with summaries provided from 95 monitoring sites across the country.  A quick explore through the maps will highlight that the distribution of these sensors is limited, in turn creating more coarse outputs.  The issue of forecasting air quality is based on both our ability to effectively monitor the air as well as understand the way in which air pollutants move within city spaces.  How we simulate the latter through computer models – or Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) – is a challenge currently being addressed at the Scottish Government-backed CivTech tech accelerator (perhaps another cause for more 3D geospatial data?)

Tech is seemingly everywhere these days and the Future / Smart Cities agenda is no different and with it, a new lease of life for Citizens as Sensors; empowering local residents with the tools to plug the gaps on data, particularly where environmental monitoring is concerned.  For Geographers in the room who’ve read Michael Goodchild know this as Volunteered Geographic Information, or VGI (an essential read all the same!).


Mapping air quality as you travel

With citizen science however comes the age old argument over data quality and relying on ‘the crowd’.  Recent publications about citizen science from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and an EC Science for Environment Report highlight that fears over data quality can be mitigated by robust tools and can strengthen citizens’ data to inform policy and practice.

When it comes to creating a smarter community-led air quality sensing network, there’s not been any short supply recently…DISCLAIMER: what follows is a run down of some efforts but there’s no favouritism intended here!

One of the first kickstarter successes in this field was the Air Quality Egg, which enabled you to user connect an egg to your wifi (queue first ‘internet of things’ hint), collecting information on all the usual suspects using the fixed egg and sharing this ‘live’ to their platform.

Another fixed solution which has impressed has been UCL’s ExCiteS department spin-off NGO, Mapping For Change, and their Air Quality Monitoring Project.  Although seemingly exclusive to London and silent for a couple of years now, the project deployed fixed tubes around the city to provided hourly readings and uses a very nice map interface to help you explore these monitoring sites (NB: ExCiteS team, if you’re listening, we’d love to see that gorgeous custom Leaflet clustering method open sourced!).

Air casting luminescent accessories

Show the world how clean the air is around you!

Since then the list of initiatives has grown rapidly, of course including wearable devices that hook into your phone as well as more and more internet-enabled devices.  Aircasting is a notable offering; allowing users to acquire a wearable air quality device that tracks, shares and even visualises the air around you.  Visual displays of air quality is a fantastic awarenesss raiser, and many illuminating vests have followed however where AirCasting stands out from the crowd is that it has open sourced much of it’s app, making it possible to create your own custom-designed sense Arduino device!

Cleanspace Freevolt

Freevolt: devices without batteries? yes please!

Another favourite is CleanSpace, which is a free app for users but requires you to purchase an air quality monitoring tag if you want to contribute.  The CleanSpace Tag is also a personal air pollution sensor but comes with some pretty high tech features, as it’s (supposedly the first device) powered by Freevolt, which uses wasted energy in wireless signals to power itself…undoubtedly something every smart watch owner wishes was true for their device.

Whilst the plethora of new apps to get citizens involved with monitoring our environment can be seen as further engaging the masses to think more about issues like air quality, there remains an argument that this diversity of offering can in fact dilute citizens’ contributions, particularly where apps and agencies continue to operate in silos and not as ‘one geography’.  With the rise of citizens’ digital presence (or digizens), perhaps now is the time to look at how we hone and align this vast knowledge and encourage a new era of environmental action.

About the author

Paul Georgie is the Founder and Principal Technologist of Geo.Geo, which is a Scottish geospatial technology company formed in 2011 in Glasgow with the mission of lowering the barriers of access for governments, organisations and communities to adopt and benefit from the latest mapping tools.

As a small, dynamic team of devoted geographers, they bring together expertise in geographic information sciences (GIS), remote sensing and social sciences to drive mapping technologies for a variety of global sectors including international development, smart cities and the low carbon economy.

Geo.Geo currently operates under three interlinking branches including: (i) capacity building, (ii) geo-solutions development, and (iii) UAS-based earth observation. In its short history, this disruptive organisation has already attained several key awards.