by Jonathan Keane
February 19, 2015
And breathe… High-definition cameras are letting residents monitor the air pollution in their cities online, and in real time.
The Breathe Project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, worked with Carnegie Mellon University to create the Breathe Cam – four high-resolution cameras that capture haze and air pollution activity, along with software that visualises the data online. Up and running since December across Pittsburgh, the idea is that residents equipped with accurate information can lobby more effectively for companies and councils to stick to environmental guidelines.
Developed by the CREATE Lab at CMU’s Robotics Institute, the Breathe Cam snaps expansive panoramas of the city 24/7, which are available on the Breathe website alongside data taken from sensors on humidity, temperature and wind speed.
Randy Sargent, senior systems scientist at the Robotics Institute, says that the cameras have five times the resolutionof 4K television. To use the Breathe system, a resident logs on to one of the cameras, where they can see a view of the city as well as archived footage going back one year. They can see any haze over the cityand display data on fine particles, temperature, sulphur dioxide levels, humidity and wind direction captured by six sensors across the city to let users see what might be causing it.
Users can focus on different parts of the city with the Change Detection tool. Selecting one aspect of the view, such as plumes of smoke from a stack, brings up data on pollution levels in that area over previous months, showing when the stack is most active.
The cameras and sensors cover about 200 square kilometres of the city and surrounding areas. Users can share the images and data on social media and can take snapshots of the air quality to send to city officials.
The cameras, and similar ones such as Camnet in Boston and Hazecam in Cleveland, Ohio, allow residents to “see” the pollution in a way they couldn’t before, says Ben Barratt at King’s College London. “The reason that the smog in Beijing is so notorious is people can see the pollution,” he adds.
Monitor your area
Other cities and groups have also deployed systems to track and visualise smog and haze, using maps or videos. They include London Air, developed at King’s, and the Dublin Dashboard in Ireland’s capital. Amsterdam’s Smart City initiative is attempting to increase civic involvement by encouraging residents themselves to install its air-quality sensors where they live.
Response to the cameras has been positive so far, says Johnson. “It’s a tool that is giving people the ability to learn about air quality in Pittsburgh in a way that they never had access to,” he says.
Local groups in Pennsylvania are now deploying their own camera systems. For example, residents in Allegheny County are using the software developed by Sargent and his team to specifically monitor the local Shenango coke plant and ensure it is complying with regulations.
Sargent says that faster broadband speeds and improvements in camera technology have helped. “Five years ago the computing power and the storage would have been prohibitively expensive,” he says.
Roy Harrison at the University of Birmingham, UK, welcomes these sorts of awareness-raising systems in cities. “Air pollution is a major public health issue which ranks highly amongst the avoidable causes of death in both the developed and less-developed world,” he says, “so no hype is necessary, just the facts.”