The EU has launched the AirProbe system that uses a small sensor box and an app to help the public track how much ozone, black carbon and other pollutants they are being exposed to.
Partners from Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK have developed this system to increase people’s awareness of their environment. More than 300 people in Antwerp, Kassel, Turin and London participated in the first tests.
A similar app related to noise pollution – WideNoise – has already been used by more than 10,000 people and was at the centre of a study around Heathrow airport. Data collected is available to all, citizens, authorities and scientists so that they get a better picture of the environment.
“The EVERYAWARE project really aimed to empower people, to give them easy but accurate tools to measure air quality and noise. And then we analysed their use of the system as well as the data they had collected,” explains project coordinator Vittorio Loreto, a research leader at ISI Foundation in Turin and a physics professor at Sapienza University of Rome.
Five partners joined their expertise, from social sciences to computer and environmental sciences. €2 million of EU funding was invested in the project to create the tools and organise various case studies.
Two smartphone apps were developed: AirProbe monitors exposure to air pollution and WideNoise measures noise levels. Both apps include social games to share information and impressions as well as interactive maps. The AirProbe app works in conjunction with a small battery-operated sensor box that can easily be carried in a backpack or in a bicycle basket, and connects to your phone via Bluetooth. After sucking in air, the box sends readings for the level of ozone, black carbon and other pollutants to a central server, which then sends around information about the town’s polluted areas as well as peak pollution times to avoid.
During the project, researchers tested the system with volunteers during four challenges in London, Antwerp, Kassel and Turin. These Air Ambassadors collected over 28 million air quality points. They gave their feedback on the tools – for example some advised to make the sensor box smaller and to water-proof it – and on their perception and feelings.
“It is interesting to see the difference between the feeling we have, our perception and the actual data,” explained several participants. “Even the big streets were not as evil as I had thought prior to participating”, said a runner who took part in the tests.
The system is currently used in schools and for new studies. For example, data collected via WideNoise has informed a response to a proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport.
Regarding AirProbe, the sensor box would need to be mass-produced in order to widen its use.
“For the time being, I imagine a much smaller, ideally wearable sensor box integrated into our clothes and objects”, says Professor Loreto. “The integration with the smartphones is of course also envisioned, though on a longer timescale. It all depends on which companies are interested in producing the sensor box, and how much smartphone makers are willing to invest”.
Scientists can also use the information gathered to analyse pollution trends and post this information online for citizens and public authorities. This could, for example, help deal with traffic congestion. “It is still too early to draw any conclusions, but it will be interesting to see how people change their behaviour as their awareness of the environment increases,” added Professor Loreto.
Vice-President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, responsible for the Digital Agenda, says: “Thanks to new technologies we are now firmly in the era of citizen science where everyone can create, collect and share data for the common good. Data about the environment, but also about health and culture for example. Opportunities to be better informed and connected are higher than ever before, we have to grab them.”
Air pollution is one of Europe’s biggest silent killers. In 2010 more then 400 000 people are estimated to have died prematurely from air pollution in the EU. Poor air quality also increases medical costs, reduces economic productivity, and damages crops and buildings. EU legislation ensures high air quality standards, member states are obliged to monitor air pollutants and ensure limit values are respected. The European Commission has also proposed new measures aimed at saving lives and protecting people’s health.