Wanted! An army of citizen scientists to tackle air pollution 

Turn off Tinder and exit Instagram – scientists want you to turn your iPhones to research. Launching on Tuesday, the iSpex-EU project aims to recruit people from major cities across Europe, including Manchester and London, to take part in an initiative to monitor levels of air pollution.

Run during the International Year of Light, a worldwide celebration of light and light-based technologies this year, the project aims to raise awareness of air pollution and contribute to scientific research by encouraging people to use their mobile phones to record levels of airborne particles and droplets known as atmospheric aerosols.

“The point of the project is to measure the concentration of very fine particles in the atmosphere and these can be from natural sources, things like forest fires or volcanic eruptions, through to manmade factors like burning diesel,” explains Toby Shannon, the UK national co-ordinator of the International Year of Light, who is based at London’s Institute of Physics, one of the organisations supporting the UK side of the iSpex-EU project.

Armed with a free accessory dubbed an “iSpex add-on”, participants will use their iPhones to scan the sky to capture the spectrum of light reaching the device, the angle of the measurement and a property of light known as its polarisation.

“When there are particles in the air, they change the polarisation state of sunlight and that is what we record with iSpex,” says Elise Hendriks, co-ordinator of the iSpex-EU project based at Leiden University in the Netherlands. A free accompanying iPhone app will automatically collect the data and display it on a map, visible both in the app and on a desktop site, together with colour-coded feedback of the aerosol level measured. The data will then be processed and further analysed by the iSpex team.

The initiative follows an initial iSpex project, led by Leiden University, which used a similar set-up to monitor such air-pollution across the Netherlands in 2013. Now the project is going further, looking at atmospheric aerosols in a number of cities across Europe. “Cities are involved generally because there is a higher chance of getting pollution, but also because you need a certain density of people to get good measurements,” explains Dr Hugo Ricketts from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science who is involved in the Manchester arm of the project.

It’s a pressing problem. The Earth’s climate, air traffic and human health are all affected by air pollution. A report from King’s College, London published this summer estimates that in London alone around 9,500 premature deaths a year are linked to high levels of air pollution, of which particulates in the air are a component. Indeed, after smoking “it is the second biggest public health challenge,” says Professor Frank Kelly, an expert in environmental health at the university.

While air pollution is currently monitored using satellite systems as well as ground-based monitoring stations, Kelly believes mobile devices could offer a host of advantages, and is involved in the development of such technologies himself.

“In an ideal world you want to know what the pollution is where you are at that particular point in time and for that you need small, mobile, accessible, cheap instrumentation,” he says. While iSpex is a step in the right direction, Kelly believes that there is room for development.

“It’s good for improving awareness and allowing people to make decisions about how they go from A to B,” he says. “But beyond that it’s not that useful as it doesn’t tell you exactly what you are being exposed to.”

But others believe the data collected by citizen scientists will complement current techniques and could lead to new insights and aid mapping. “What we are hoping to get out of this project is enough distribution [of measurements] over Manchester that you should be able to start seeing whether there is a particular area that is more affected by pollution or less affected by pollution,” says Ricketts.

The iSpex units can be requested by email from co-ordinators within participating cities. Contact details are available at ispex-eu.org. “We’re hoping to get 750 citizen scientists in London and then a similar number in Manchester,” says Shannon. And with the campaign running until 15 October, he’s hoping for an Indian summer. “You need a nice clear blue sky to take the measurements,” he says as he looks over rainswept London. “I’m hoping it is not going to be like this for six weeks.”

Source: Wanted! An army of citizen scientists to tackle air pollution | Environment | The Guardian

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