Urban Canary and air quality monitoring

At the back-end of last year I wrote about a fascinating new wearable technology from SmartSite, which is designed to help improve safety levels on construction sites.

The company, which is part of the Y Combinator stable, offers hardware that is connected to the cloud to help companies measure what hazardous substances employees are exposed to.

Such exposure is common on building sites, and can lead to conditions such as cancer, dermatitis and a range of respiratory problems.  To help reduce this, the SmartSite system monitors particulates in the air, UV rays, and even noise levels on site.

Urban air quality

New York-based design company OFFC have attempted to bring such awareness into the home with a device called the Urban Canary.  The device, which is a bright yellow plastic canary, tracks pollution level in its immediate surroundings.

The aim is for it to be carried by children and providing a continuous monitoring of air quality, with alerts sent if pollution breaches certain levels.  If air quality becomes too bad, the ‘canary’ becomes ill and sends an alert to the parents’ smartphone, where data can be analyzed.  The alert comes with information on the types of pollutants, and any actions that can be taken to mitigate their impact.

The idea behind the device is that the canary mimics the health of the child, thus providing a vivid, visual representation of the way air pollution can harm our health.  The canary changes color as its health deteriorates, with red providing clear evidence of extremely harmful conditions.  The device can be adjusted according to the age of its companion, and therefore their sensitivity to air pollution.

There is also a social element to the service, with each canary connected up, thus allowing users to communicate with one another and share tips on where the least polluted parts of their town or city are.  It also creates a comprehensive pollution map for an area that could have wider uses, although at this stage that is not on the agenda.

Mobile environment monitors

Urban Canary aren’t the only project aiming to ‘crowdsource’ such environmental monitoring. A Canadian project, called Inhale, aims to get kids, and their parents, signed up to act as environmental monitors.  The concept is a simple one, and will certainly be familiar to the many of us who are prone to use wearable devices to track our activity levels.

Volunteers agree to attach air quality monitors to the buggies and prams used to ferry their children about.  The aim is for street by street measurements to be provided of air pollution levels.

The devices are capable of capturing particulate levels in the air, map where the readings come from, and then produce a heatmap that is viewable online.

The project, which is a collaboration between the Toronto Environmental Alliance and Environment Hamilton is also available for things such as bike handlebars.

“Identifying neighbourhood ‘hot spots’ for air particulate pollution is an important first step in sparking community dialogue around neighbourhood-level solutions designed to improve air quality and ultimately, quality of life,” the team say.

Both projects are great examples of how relatively simple devices can not only help to better inform our own choices, but also help to collect the kind of data that can make society better too.