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Huge potential in mobile air quality sensors

In the near future, smart technology will give each and every one of us the possibility to monitor air quality where we live, say scientists at NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research. However, the future is already here…

Alena Bartonova
Research Director Alena Bartonova, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

On June 7, Bergensavisen brought an article on an exciting initiative from the newly established organization FriskBy. FriskBy plans to engage students from several high schools in Bergen to build, deploy and monitor more than 200 measuring sensors for air quality. According to the newspaper, these sensors will be placed at different locations around the city.

– NILU welcomes such dedication and wishes for similar initiatives in other cities, says Dr. Alena Bartonova, Research Director at NILU. – Smart technology yields many opportunities, which still need exploring. Over the past three years, we have worked hard at researching and developing our resources in this area.

Bartonova is co-ordinating the EU project CITI-SENSE (Development of sensor-based Citizens’ Observatory Community for improving quality of life in cities), which revolves around the use of mobile sensor technology to allow you and me to monitor air quality in our community. In addition, the use of mobile applications allows us to share information with each other, and gives us a better basis for being able to reduce the pollution impact on our society and ourselves.

From idea to reality

CITI-SENSE will be launched in nine cities; Barcelona, Belgrade, Edinburgh, Haifa, Ljubljana, Oslo, Ostrava, Vienna and Vitoria, where volunteers are equipped with mobile sensors to measure air quality in their communities. The sensors send data to a shared system, and the citizens get useful information in return, such as a real-time map of the pollution situation.

The scientific director of the Citi-Sense-MOB project, Núria Castell, demonstrates the use of a mobile sensor with a mobile phone.

Data from the citizens’ mobile sensors and phones are put together with data from existing public data collection systems, for example from stationary monitoring stations. Such aggregate information will be available both online and through newly developed applications for mobile devices. The interface – a so-called “Citizens’ Observatory” – is meant to work as a virtual meeting place. People throughout Europe may use these virtual meeting places to exchange information and learn from each other. They will also get tools for and training in how to evaluate and use the data collected for their own and others’ benefit.

Environment and health in Oslo

NILU is also scientific coordinator for, and one of five Norwegian partners collaborating with the City of Oslo and public transport companies Router # and Nobina on another project: Citi-Sense-MOB (Mobile Services for Environment and Health Citizens’ Observatory). This project takes place in Oslo, and includes installation of air quality sensors on buses and bicycles. These sensors collect continuous monitoring data on environmental conditions in the city. CITI-SENSE and Citi-Sense-MOB collaborate on testing different micro sensor technologies and methods to monitor urban air pollution, and communicate this to the public and policy makers.

– Such initiatives allows us to collect detailed real-time data that has not been available until now, explains Dr. Núria Castell, scientific co-ordinator of Citi-Sense-MOB.

Castell further explains that the combination of data from these new technologies, with the methods and tools the researchers already have access to, provides new and expanded understanding of the dynamics between air pollution, environmental health and climate change in urban areas. These are highly relevant contributions to a sustainable environmental strategy for Oslo, in addition to allowing citizens the opportunity to learn more about what the air quality in their community means to them.

Great challenges

Although the new mobile technologies offer many opportunities and have great innovative potential, there are several challenges to be handled. For example, data collected through smart technologies can only provide indicative measurement results. The data will not be 100% scientifically safe, since the new technology still suffers from some uncertainty in function and use. Thus, it would be difficult to compare data from them with data from government monitoring stations.

– But, based on our experiences, we can safely say that it is possible to use data from these smart technologies in a scientifically sound manner, says Alena.

– Over the past few years, NILU with partners have developed a system that makes it possible to let the sensors be included as a complement to the public measuring network. So although information from the mobile sensors are only indicative for now, it can provide a more comprehensive picture of the environmental situation in the city – if paired with data from public measuring equipment. Moreover, it will be especially useful in areas of the city where there are no stationary monitoring stations.

Standardization and requirements

The sensors are easy to use. However, the system that ensures communication between the sensors and the rest of the world depends on being able to connect not only to the mobile platforms people use, but also to other information systems.

Since one of the objectives of both CITI-SENSE and Citi-Sense-MOB is to support the global observation systems (GEOSS – Global Earth Observing System of Systems), the researchers must use standardized tools at every stage. Thus, specific requirements for the sensors, to the communication protocols, and to how data is stored and how accessible they should be.

– These projects are standardization experiments in many ways, says Alena.

– We are entirely dependent on a wide range of protocols, quality and standardization systems being able to communicate, so that we may later compare the results with those from the other participating cities – and the public readings and other information gathered.

Kick-off this autumn

In both CITI-SENSE and Citi-Sense-MOB, they are preparing campaigns to test out this complicated infrastructure on a large scale. The kick-off for the campaigns is set for this autumn.

– We have set up a stationary monitoring network throughout the city, complemented by mobile measuring instruments – sensors. Volunteers will be carrying some of the sensors, others are mounted on buses and bicycles, explains Núria Castell. – We have also set up monitoring stations in some of the kindergartens in Oslo, to get more information about the air quality where children spend a large part of the day.

– The parking guards in Oslo will be the first to use our mobile air quality monitors, says Alena. – They will provide us with data about air quality from many different areas of the city. In addition, we are going to recruit volunteers who would like to use the sensors for a few weeks, and test our mobile application. While testing, they will also have the opportunity to provide direct feedback on what they think about the air quality where they live or work.

Målestasjon i Kirkeveien
The roof of the monitoring station in Kirkeveien, Oslo, is Citi-Sense’s main location for testing their air quality sensors under real conditions. Photo: Claudia Hak, NILU.

Involving students

In addition to outdoor air quality, CITI-SENSE also focuses on indoor environment. This spring, the project in collaboration with SINTEF Byggforsk completed a campaign at three high schools (Lørenskog VGS, Lambertseter VGS and Horten VGS).

Students following the subject “Technology and research theory” used sensors and other measurement technologies to monitor the indoor environment at their schools, and to learn more about air pollution. After a month, the campaign concluded with a conference where 80 students shared their experiences and results with each other and the researchers involved. A similar campaign will be carried out this autumn.

Added value for both citizens and government

– The CITI-SENSE systems are designed to promote dialogue between the citizens and their government, explains Alena. – By providing individual information about how citizens perceive the environment at different locations in town, we offer the authorities access to information far beyond what the air quality monitoring stations can deliver.

– Thus, we welcome such initiatives as FriskBy’s, and are happy to share our experiences, she concludes.