In November 2015, several hundred people gathered for a meeting in Ben Avon, a neighborhood of around 2,000 people nestled along the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh. As with previous assemblies of this kind, residents had come to learn the latest about an unwelcome neighbor.
That neighbor was the Shenango Coke Works, a coal processing plant straddling one end of an island directly opposite Ben Avon. Residents had long suspected the plant’s emissions were regularly polluting the air to such a degree that living there was a hazard. They blamed the bad air for asthma, nausea, headaches, and myriad other illnesses they and their families had suffered. But in the past, they had lacked definitive evidence, outside of their own experiences.
So, they found some.
Not long after the meeting began, with a representative from the US Environmental Protection Agency sitting in the front row, Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Randy Sargent got up and started reeling through time-lapse videos from cameras he’d helped the neighborhood point toward Shenango. Taking frames every 5 seconds, 24 hours a day, the cameras made it easier to do what the community had tried to do over the years: watch the smoke.
Distinguishing toxic clouds from mere steam is tricky business, so the community turned to Sargent, who works out of CMU’s CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment). He and colleague Yen-Chia Hsu developed a computer-vision algorithm to pick out bad smoke types in each picture.
Stitched together from hundreds of frames, the resulting video showed a looping reel of black, brown, blue, and orange clouds from a single month. Paired with federal, local, and community sensor data gathered from corresponding days, Ben Avon’s suspicions finally seemed to find some footing: Shenango was releasing permit-busting amounts of toxic substances into the air five out of every seven days.
The Shenango Channel
One month later, DTE Energy announced it would close its Shenango facility, citing a weak steel market and lack of customers. By January, the plant had baked its last batch of coal and it’s now slated for demolition.
“They said it was economic issues, but I wonder if the timeline changed because of the pressure from the community,” said Bea Dias, project director for CREATE Lab. “The algorithm was a tool that gave their voices more weight, an extra leg to make a case. But the tech wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t have an active community to use it, people to put it in front of the decision-makers constantly.”
Dias’ group is charged with engaging directly with communities to provide them with hardware, software, and other solutions to address their concerns. The computer-vision algorithm turned out to be a particularly powerful realization of that mandate. But it’s just one example in a field that’s experienced astounding growth in recent years: high-tech tools for citizen science.
Even if you don’t have a factory pumping out bad air in your backyard, you might still want to get involved in some kind of citizen science—which is research conducted by enthusiastic amateurs, either alone or in concert with professional scientists. Luckily for you, there’s something for everyone.
Want to help pick through terabytes of space telescope data to find exoplanets and quasars? Head over to Zooniverse. Maybe you have a laboratory project in mind, but you can’t afford the equipment. No problem; print out the parts from a blueprint on Appropedia’s Open-source Lab.
How about some DIY biology? Local biospaces, such as BioCurious in Santa Clara, California, or the Baltimore Underground Science Space in Maryland, can advise and assist with projects ranging from DNA extraction to printing cell cultures.
Tinkering with projects and crowd-sourcing data are two of the main occupations of citizen science, and a major stimulus for it is empowerment.
“This recent era of federal deregulation shines a spotlight on the insufficiencies and gaps in oversight, and when we can’t rely on government intervention, we must rely on ourselves,” said Gretchen Gehrke, data and advocacy steward with Public Lab. But access to the necessary tools to do that work can be a challenge, she added.
“Access” often simply translates to “making things cheaper.” Thanks to the ever-plunging cost of sensors and microcontrollers, access to satellite data and the willingness of others to share technical expertise, sophisticated tools once available only to institutional researchers are now in the hands of anyone who wants them.
(Photo: Andrew Thaler)
Consider the Raspberry Pi–based spectrometer designs hosted by Public Lab’s community pages. Spectrometers are used to determine information about an object or substances through the analysis of its light properties. A commercial handheld version runs about $1,500; a bulky lab workhorse is five times that. Or with a little guidance, you can build one for yourself for about $70.
Another citizen-science pioneer is Andrew Thaler (pictured below), a deep-sea researcher and marine ecology consultant who started Oceanography for Everyone because of barriers to access. The organization’s stated goal: “Empowering researchers, educators, and citizen scientists through low-cost, open-source hardware.”
The main tool Thaler worked on developing was a CTD, used in oceanography to measure conductivity (salinity), temperature, and pressure. It’s an essential tool for studying and understanding an aquatic environment—but if you want one, get ready to fork over $6,000 at a minimum, up to the tens of thousands.
(Photo: Andrew Thaler)
With a lot of patience and collaboration with friends and colleagues, Thaler developed a CDT for $300. The most expensive component is the sensor itself, which runs nearly $200. Yet tested alongside a device that cost 200 times more, Thaler’s CTD returned data within a 2 percent margin of error of the more expensive unit.
“There is an increasingly relevant need to remind scientists that they’re also citizens,” Thaler said. “Sure, you might have access to a massive research grant, and you can buy a $60,000 commercial unit. But that’s a huge barrier for entry for community groups who want to monitor their own waterways. If [scientists] also start supporting programs that make that same piece of equipment cheaper, a lot more science gets done.”
Access to monitoring and robotics tools has helped at least one marine community accomplish a major goal. In Mexico, several fishing villages used Open ROV, the same open-source robotics platform Thaler uses in his training programs, to conduct surveys of Nassau grouper spawning aggregations. The grouper is a key reef fish as well as a vitally important commercial species, and the community established a marine protected area to shield it from being wiped out by poachers.
(Photo: Michelle Z. Donahue)
In Pittsburgh, CREATE Lab didn’t stop with Shenango. Another prong of its mission is to help communities build on the knowledge and tools they gain through working with CMU scientists. And Pittsburgh being what it is, still somewhat in the grip of its steel-age legacies, Shenango isn’t the only thing making a stench.
Enter Smell Pittsburgh, an app that came out of CREATE Lab’s Shenango work. Still under development and envisioned as a tool that could eventually be used in any city in the nation, the app lets residents tag offensive environmental odors, which are logged in the app as well as reported to the local health department. After logging, the app displays a map that shows any other smell reports from the same day and time.
Mark Dixon, a Pittsburgh-based documentarian and industrial engineer, described the app as a way to motivate people to be engaged with something they’d like to change about their environment.
“There’s this ‘valley of malaise’ that occurs when you report problems and nothing happens,” Dixon said. “This app accelerates people through that valley—and the first thing they see is that they’re not alone. Plus they can really see the scope of the problem.”
Dixon is working toward building on the usability of the app. One project involved developing an algorithm that combines Smell Pittsburgh reports and National Weather Service data to try and predict upcoming #Stinkburgh days, as they’re tagged on Twitter. After achieving a roughly 75 percent success rate over a 10-day test period, Dixon shared his information with a group of local data geeks, including a Smell Pittsburgh developer. As a result, the ability to more reliably predict bad air days may be forthcoming in future versions of the app.
Prediction is also one goal of a different kind of app, the Mosquito Habitat Mapper. Launched in June 2017 by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) in partnership with NASA, the app aims to identify and eliminate dangerous mosquito habitat.
Already tested in Barbuda, Peru, and Chile, the app trains people to identify mosquito larvae they find, snap a picture, and eliminate standing water, and also to log time, location, date, and local environmental conditions into the app’s database. To date, the project has accumulated around 1,500 data points—not yet enough to make any meaningful predictions. But the hope is that in the long term, an accumulation of better data from the ground in places where mosquito-borne disease is a serious public-health issue can help refine prediction models, which are currently based on weather and climate data gathered by satellites.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about how mosquitoes respond to microclimates,” said Rusty Low, a senior scientist at IGES who spearheaded the app’s development. “We’re looking for subregional, subseasonal tools that can be used by public health workers and communities to better understand their risk for disease.”
In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins doctoral student Anna Scott’s Weather Cubes could also give urban planners more to work with when it comes to planning for healthy cities in a warmer future. Scott’s cubes, which came about as an outgrowth of her studies on urban heat, are outfitted with Arduino-based sensors to measure temperature, humidity, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. Fifty cubes are deployed at 25 sites around the city, and Scott hopes to put more of them out this summer.
(Photo: Anna Scott)
Early monitoring data revealed that a greater number of small green spaces, like pocket parks, could be better for lowering temperatures across the city than several large parks, according to Kristin Baja, a former Baltimore climate resilience planner. That information could shift the perception of the city’s 16,000 vacant lots from blight to beneficial.
In Baltimore’s Turner Station neighborhood, Larry Bannerman hosts two of Scott’s cubes. His predominantly African-American community has experience battling local polluters and agitating for protection. He said he’s happy to have an additional card in his deck, should he need it.
“We’ll have a crystal clear picture of what’s in our air,” he said. “That knowledge in our pocket will be our biggest asset if we need to make some changes.”
A View From Space
In John Amos’ view, citizen contributors are going to be key to tackling a problem that’s often on his mind: making massive amounts of visual data more usable.
The non-profit he founded, SkyTruth, used satellite imagery analysis to show that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was larger than BP’s publicly stated estimates. Though the group continues to use human eyes to monitor satellite imagery for environmental impacts from spills, surface mining, and other industrial activity, SkyTruth is currently working toward adding artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data into the mix.
SkyTruth Alerts is a service users can sign up for to be notified of certain environmental changes in a particular area—say a new gas drilling permit, a violation of a permit, or the report of a chemical spill or natural gas leak. Initially developed as an in-house tool, the alerts are currently scrape from Coast Guard and state-environmental-department reporting sites. Around 3,000 people are current users of this tool.
The evolution of the service aims to include more and more data sources and tools, and use AI and machine learning systems to compare new satellite imagery alongside historic imagery. With those kinds of references, analysis can detect changes even before they are reported through official channels.
The holy grail is to allow users to share their own observations and alerts, thereby creating a range of communities with shared concerns.
In fact, crowd-sourced data contributed by SkyTruth users for a separate project, FrackFinder, resulted in several studies that pushed Maryland to ban fracking in 2017. Johns Hopkins public health researcher Brian Schwartz looked at several health implications of living near fracking wells, including asthma and premature birth rates. Though he drew upon many data sources for the studies, there were “no alternatives” to the type of data that SkyTruth’s users contributed, he said.
“We met with state elected officials several times and presented our findings and answered all their questions,” Schwartz said. “Some of them were reported, in newspaper stories and elsewhere, to have said that the ‘Johns Hopkins health studies’ finally persuaded them to vote for the ban. Those are our studies.”
The power of local, on-the-ground human observation, combined with the data-crunching abilities of cloud computing, makes it possible to see potential problems unfold in real time, Amos noted.
“It’s not just about things that have already happened, but also things that are happening in the environment before know anything about it, to be made aware that something is happening that we should be paying attention to,” Amos said. “To me, that’s a tech-driven, grass-roots revitalization of environmentalism.”
And interest in harnessing emerging technology to simply be curious will only grow from here, added CREATE Lab’s Dias.
“These kinds of technologies shouldn’t just be in labs or higher-ed spaces only,” she said. “They should be accessible to everyday people, to create, and not just consume. And the idea is that once people are more fluent in technology, that they can take everyday things off the shelf and hack something together that works for them.”