When Beatriz da Costa releases 20 pigeons into the smoggy skies of San Jose, California in August, the flock will be writing what might be the world’s first avian blog—one offering a bird’s-eye perspective on air pollution. Each pigeon will be equipped with a tiny backpack loaded with devices that will measure pollution data and transmit the information to the web, creating a real-time air pollution index. Da Costa, an assistant professor in the graduate arts, computation and engineering program at University of California-Irvine (UCI), plans to release the pigeons twice a day during the 9-day conference of the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts, which begins August 5th. But the “Pigeonblog” is more than a cutting-edge art project—it also points to a more egalitarian future for environmental monitoring, when the ubiquity of communications networks and increasingly small and powerful personal electronic gear will let anyone assess the quality of the air they breathe.

Though air pollution readings from the height at which the pigeons will fly—between 300 and 500 feet above the ground—won’t have immediate relevance for human health, UCI researcher Rufus Edwards thinks they may be important in conjunction with more standard air quality measures. Edwards directs the Air Pollution Laboratory at UCI’s Department of Environmental Health, Science and Policy, and he believes the data collected could be employed to truth-check the models used to determine how pollutants are dispersed in cities and communities. Typical air quality monitoring involves installing fixed equipment at sites located away from vehicular traffic and other possible point sources that could skew the results high, and then using mathematical techniques to estimate, or model, what the air pollution levels between those sites are most likely to be. “In the Los Angeles area we have 37 fixed monitoring sites that represent 19 million people,” says Edwards. But da Costa’s flock will be taking readings continuously as they fly over an urban area, which can then be compared and contrasted with the data predicted by the models. “We’ll get a good idea of what the pollution concentrations over these areas look like,” says Edwards.

Also intriguing is the potential for da Costa’s project to transform who’s collecting and distributing environmental data. In fields such as healthcare and earthquake monitoring, real-time measurement devices have been getting smaller, more mobile, and more accurate over the last decade, resulting in innovative products that allow rapid data assessment and analysis by both consumers and experts alike (see sidebar). Da Costa’s project points to a similar future for pollution monitoring: The $250-odd price tag for each device she’s using is a negligible sum compared to the $20,000 or more a regulatory agency might spend setting up a single fixed monitoring site. As the equipment gets cheaper and lighter, it’s possible that entire communities could be outfitted with hundreds of small, easy-to-carry personal sensors to measure pollution where it’s directly affecting human health. And with cell phones being adopted around the world with blistering speed, a device that can send location-specific air quality information to a database via existing cellular networks could make this kind of monitoring feasible in diverse situations. Edwards considers this an especially compelling facet of da Costa’s work. His research projects include monitoring air quality in developing countries to assess whether fuel-efficient stoves are helping to mitigate indoor air pollution, a major cause of respiratory illness and death worldwide, and having cheap, reliable devices is an important component of making such research successful. “The ultimate goal is to develop sensors that allow us to look at air quality data that affect health in a different way,” Edwards says.

Da Costa has undertaken a larger “Air” initiative, as part of the art-technology-activism collective Preemptive Media, to create prototype portable air quality monitoring kits that consumers could use. Attention, D-I-Y types—Da Costa and her graduate student assistants, Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto, plan to make their development process open source (i.e., accessible to any programmer) and distribute it for free online, so that anyone who’s tech-savvy can take widely-available devices, like cell phones, and adapt them to collect pollution data in their own neighborhoods and communities. “Scientific information is usually distributed in a top down, hierarchical approach,” da Costa says. “This is tactical technology—a way of building our own circuits.” And figuring out from street level up what’s in the air.

Story by Emily Gertz. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006