Pigeons and People Help Track Air Pollution

by Nicole Morell on July 5, 2016 · 0 comments

in Energy, Health, In the News, Modern Geekhood, Science

What’s the quality of the air around you right now? To avoid the worst pollution on your daily run, should you go out first thing in the morning or late in the evening? Chances are, you don’t know the answers to these questions, but that’s something Romain Lacombe SM ’08 wants to change. Lacombe is founder and CEO of Plume Labs, a Paris-based startup focused on sharing real-time data about air pollution and helping people reduce their exposure.

Photo Jun 27, 3 17 30 PMLacombe, who studied Technology and Policy at MIT, launched Plume with the idea that more data helps people make better decisions. While data on air pollution is occasionally available on the evening news, Lacombe says that’s not enough to empower people. “It’s very hard for consumers to know what can be done to avoid pollution,” Lacombe says. To address this, he created an app that he hopes will be the “Waze of air pollution,” referring to the popular real-time traffic app. The Plume app allows users to set their location and get real time alerts about the air quality around them. Air pollution information comes from open data sources like those provided by EPA monitors. With the app, users can find out the current air quality and how it may change over the next several hours. The app provides suggested times for exercising outdoors or taking a baby outside based on the air quality. “What people don’t know is that pollution actually changes a lot hour by hour,” Lacombe says.

But to truly succeed, the Plume app must collect data from users around the globe, not just open-source monitors. Lacombe has a plan for that. Plume labs has developed small censors—slightly bigger than a postage stamp—that can be worn by users to collect air quality data no matter where they go. Plume recently finished a beta test with the devices, though pigeons transported the devices, not people.

A Plume pigeon tests the device.

A Plume pigeon tests the device.

Lacombe says he chose pigeons to test the device’s mobile abilities,  in part for the publicity. Several pigeons were—adorably—outfitted with small backpacks that contained the censors. The pigeons then flew around London testing the air. Plume collaborated with Twitter to create accounts for the pigeons. Twitter users could tweet the pigeons at @PigeonAir with their location to get a localized air pollution report. According to Lacombe, the pigeon fleet was a success. “It was a great way to raise awareness and showed us there was a way to make air pollution more understandable,” he says.

Although the pigeons have retired, users can download the Plume Labs app to get real-time air pollution data fed by open-source monitors. The small devices will soon be available for human consumers to share their own pollution reports.

Lacombe says that being more aware of air quality could encourage people to help  address air pollution and its effects. “The problem and opportunity with pollution is that it’s local and that helps to raise the awareness on the impact on the general population and show why we need to solve this problem,” he says.

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