Once I was able to understand how to connect the AirBeam to my phone, and to input data into its open source map, AirCasting, I was finally able to test the pollution around Birmingham. To learn how to connect the AirBeam to your phone, and how to operate AirCasting, check out my previous blog post here.
The sunroof was closed almost completely shut, except for a tiny space to allow the rope to go through. This allowed the AirBeam to be securely placed at the top of my car. Sometimes the AirBeam would move around if I drove too fast, but for the most part, its movements were really small.
On one day of testing, I was driving a different car so the orientation of the AirBeam was standing up instead of lying down. The way and where exactly you decide to orient your AirBeam is up to you, as long as the intake and exhaust areas of the AirBeam are pointing to the outside. And if you decide to orient the AirBeam standing up, it’s better to flip the AirBeam so that the bottom of the AirBeam is in the direction of the wind. This will increase the accuracy of the data collected. It’s also important to remember that the AirBeam is not waterproof, so if it starts raining, you should take the AirBeam inside.
I decided to test the air quality close to three Birmingham city high schools: Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Jackson-Olin. The reason why I chose those three high schools is because they are in different areas in Birmingham, and each high school represents a different socio-economic bracket. I did not test the data on school grounds, because it’s against the law unless consent is given by the schools, but I would park around a minute away from each high school and collect the data on a public road. I just wanted to emphasize that I am a law-abiding citizen, and that jail would seriously deter my plans to graduate college in 2018.
In order to get the most accurate results, I decided that it would be best to test the air quality on three different days, using the same path each day, and starting the testing around the same time. I also tried my best to avoid highways, because I wanted to collect data in areas that were in close proximity to people that were outside.
I created a sheet that helped me organize the data collected. If you would like to conduct your own data collection study, you can print this sheet out.
The weather on the three days I tested were, coincidentally, quite different. On the first day of testing, I unfortunately forgot to take a pic near my first site, Mountain Brook High School, but I was able to take pictures of my other two stops.
For Jackson-Olin High School, AirCasting was not displaying the air pollutant data, only the decibel reading of the AirBeam’s microphone. After messing around with the maps and sensor data, I realized that no particulate matter readings were recorded, because only the sound sensor was working near Jackson-Olin High School.
I used some rope and bungee cords to connect the AirBeam to my car.
I connected the bungee cord to my car’s two sun visors. I then connected one end of the rope to the middle of the bungee cord, and the other end of the rope to the AirBeam.
The sunroof was closed almost completely shut, except for a tiny space to allow the rope to go through.
This photo is courtesy of http://www.takingspace.org.
Before collecting data, I mapped out my route.
The average reading near Homewood High school was 10 μg/m3
Mountain Brook High School
The average reading near Mountain Brook High school was 8 μg/m3
AirCasting was not displaying the air pollutant data, only the decibel reading of the AirBeam’s microphone.
Note: Although only three days of data are mentioned in this article, I actually tried to collect data on more days. For example, on one extremely cloudy day, it started raining after I collected data near Mountain Brook. The data was still collected and used as an average for Mountain Brook. I tried to delete it from AirCasting, but I realized that it does not let you delete any of the data once it has been sent to CrowdMap. I initially tried to make the number of testing days equal for all three high schools, but some unforeseeable circumstances has allowed some high schools to have more data than others.
[Editor’s Note: Be sure to click on the images to enlarge them, especially if you plan to try this at home.]
Before I conducted my pollution study around the city of Birmingham, I needed to test the AirBeam itself. The AirBeam is a portable air monitor that is used to collect pollutant particles. You can purchase an AirBeam at http://www.takingspace.org/aircasting/airbeam/. Once I saw the small box the AirBeam came in, I got really excited. Surely, this will be an easy setup and execution…right? Thankfully, after
15365733 some mistakes, I was finally able to get the setup and execution right. I hope this rundown will prevent you from wasting your time, and make your use of the AirBeam an easy and carefree process.
First of all, the box the AirBeam came in was really small. Unfortunately, that meant that there was no instructor’s manual. The manufacturing company, thankfully, did in fact leave a blue card in the box. Displayed on the card was a link to an online website that had more information on how to use the AirBeam.
The website which is found on the card is www.takingspace.org, which is the same website that was used to purchase the AirBeam. It was really helpful in understanding the different parts of the AirBeam. It also introduced me to the app AirCasting, which is used to map all of the data collected from the AirBeam. An important thing to note is AirCasting is currently only available to Android users. The website didn’t really explain how to connect to AirCasting, except that AirBeam and AirCasting are connected via Bluetooth. After many tries and Youtube videos, I was finally able to figure it out.
First, you need to download the AirCasting app from the Play store on your phone. It’s free so don’t worry!
Then, you should turn on your phone’s Bluetooth. A device with the name “AirBeam” should appear. Make sure to pair the AirBeam with your phone until it becomes part of the paired devices. I noticed that the first couple of times I connected my phone to the AirBeam, a passcode popped up on the screen. Write the passcode on a piece of paper, because you will need that later on. It’s also important to note that the passcode changes with each connection. So if a disconnection occurs with the Bluetooth, you need to write down the new passcode. After using the AirBeam a couple of times, I noticed that a passcode stopped appearing. That might occur to you too and that’s okay! It just means that the AirBeam stayed as a paired device, and so no passcode is needed.
By the way, please disregard the words “FlashCube” in the picture above. It is another device that I have connected to my phone. It is irrelevant to the AirBeam.
Open the AirCasting app and hold onto your phone’s back button for a couple of seconds and this should appear:
Click on “Settings” Then click on “Profile” at the very top to create an account. It is important to create an account, because it will help organize your data and the account name is what will appear on the AirCasting map.
After making the account click on “External Devices”, and click on “Connect” next to the word AirBeam. At this point, a popup asking for the passcode will appear. Put the passcode in and it should connect.
You will be correctly connected if this appears:
After that click on your phone’s back button to go back to the main page of the app.
Now is the time to use the AirBeam. Turn on the AirBeam. The dark red bulb should now display a light red light. If the AirBeam is connected correctly to the AirCasting app, the light will blink a couple of times, then become solid red like in the picture below. From time to time, the light might blink again and that is also fine. Be careful, because if the light is blinking consecutively, then that means the AirBeam is not connected to the app properly, and you need to repeat the above steps again.
Go back to the AirCasting app and click on “Start Recording.” This should appear:
It will sometimes switch to this:
If it switches to the above picture, then that means that the AirBeam is only collecting the decibel reading of the sound travelling around you. If your goal is to collect air pollution, like mine is, then it is imperative that the AirBeam is collecting the particulate matter readings. You should restart your recording, until you see the four colored blocks appear.
Click on “Stop Recording” whenever you have finished collecting the data. AirCasting will ask you to input the session details.
You will then be asked if you want to contribute to CrowdMap. Click: “Yes, save and contribute.”
To access CrowdMap to see if your data was collected go back to www.takingspace.org and click on “Maps” in the upper left corner.
After clicking on “Maps”, a map similar to this should appear:
Click on “Mobile” in the upper right corner. Search for your results by putting your profile name under “Profile names.” Then click on the “Submit” button. You might need to click the “Submit” button a couple of times, until the “Sessions” section at the left of the page starts to display your results.
Click on any one of the data points you collected under “Sessions” and you will have something like this appear:
My favorite part of AirCasting is the CrowdMap. Click on “CrowdMap” in the upper right corner. Search for your results by putting your profile name under “Profile names.” Then click on the “Submit” button. You might need to click the “Submit” button a couple of times until the “Sessions” section at the left of the page starts to display your results. You might also need to wait while the map is being loaded.
The colored squares on the map are your results. Zoom in by clicking on the plus sign at the bottom of the page. This will really help you follow the path you took during data collection, and actually show you more readings. The more you zoom in, the more squares appear unless you collected data at only one point.
Clicking on different points of the data squares will show the average reading value taken at that point.
Make sure to check back here next week, because I will show you how to connect the AirBeam to your car. I will also share my results with you. If you have any questions or issues, leave a comment below or email me at email@example.com.
If you’re anything like me, you look forward each week to the newest episode of Science Friday, a.k.a., “SciFri.” I listen to the show on Birmingham’s NPR affiliate, WBHM.
Last week, Science Friday aired a particularly interesting segment for us at Gasp. “Pedaling Through Pollution” tells of a study currently underway at Columbia University. Researchers are attempting to literally map bicyclists’ exposure to air pollution in New York City by employing innovative technological solutions.
Subjects will wear air sensors to collect pollution data; heart and respiration monitors to measure blood pressure and breathing; and smartphone technology to geotrack location. All of this information will be gathered over the course of a five-year grant period, and will be used to determine the health effects of toxins on those who ride bikes in urban areas:
“The goal of this research project is to understand how much air pollution you are exposed to as you ride your bike in NYC, and also to measure how this exposure affects your heart. We are particularly interested in measuring your ‘inhaled dose’ of air pollution – how much pollution you actually draw into your lungs – and how it varies as you exercise.”
Needless to say, we are fascinated by this project. It’s also worth noting that WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate station, is a partner in the study. They’re helping the Columbia team recruit volunteers to wear the equipment around the city.
Just two weeks ago, researchers in Europe published a first-of-its-kind study which found that even “safe” levels of air pollution — particulate pollution and nitrogen dioxide in particular — are associated with an increased risk of STEMI, or “ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction.”
The American Heart Association defines STEMI as a “severe heart attack caused by a prolonged period of blocked blood supply that affects a large area of the heart.” AHA says STEMI carries a “substantial risk of death and disability and call for a quick response by many individuals and systems.”
The Columbia-WNYC project shows that technological breakthroughs offer scientists more tools with which to gather air pollution data and study its affect on our health. The fact that even “safe” levels of air pollution still carry increased health risks makes this study all the more salient, especially in cities like Birmingham with elevated levels of air pollution.
This is why our mission matters to you. Gasp is currently working with researchers and students at universities to understand the health effects of air pollution on Birmingham residents. We also empower Alabamians to report air pollution concerns. To help support this critical work, join or donate today.
On Tuesday, I sent a letter to Heather McTeer Toney, EPA Region IV administrator, asking that her agency invest in “next generation” air monitoring in Birmingham to gather data, empower citizens and improve public health for northern Birmingham communities. “It has been established that the ambient air quality in northern Birmingham communities is unhealthy,” I wrote, “despite claims from local regulatory agencies to the contrary.”
Residents in northern Birmingham communities have known for decades that the soot covering their homes is likely affecting their health. Recent analysis of data from the air monitor on Shuttlesworth Drive shows just that. Increased air monitoring is essential to determining just how harmful exposure to these pollutants is for the folks who live, work and go to school in these neighborhoods.
In April, after the Jefferson County Board of Health rejected our request for a hearing on ABC Coke’s air permit, one board member asserted that we — not the health department tasked with protecting public health — should gather the data. It is not the job of a Gasp, a small nonprofit organization, to conduct comprehensive public health assessments and implement policies based on that data. Nevertheless, we are committed to solving this problem. And with EPA’s support, significant strides could be made using next generation air monitoring.
Common sense dictates that soot-covered homes should be viewed as a red flag. However, the lack of initiative from local and state regulatory agencies to conduct additional air monitoring means we must look elsewhere for solutions. Gasp is advocating that the EPA help bring the citizen science movement to Birmingham in full force. All over the country, citizens are empowering themselves to gather the data they need to help determine what, exactly, they’re breathing every day.
Citizen science is a growing movement across the United States. As in other areas around our country, Gasp would like to see EPA provide training for citizens who are living in close proximity to large polluters like Walter Coke and ABC Coke, among others. The one air monitor currently in the northern Birmingham area is not enough. Let me be clear: Knowledge is power, and we desperately need more data.
Dorothy Davis lives across the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, Ala. In “Toxic City,” Dorthy point blank told us, “I sleep out there in that back bedroom and a lot of nights the dust off the plant out there will smother you to death.” People like Dorothy deserve to know what’s really in the air they’re breathing.
All across the country we have seen examples where citizen-driven research, including “next generation” technologies, have been utilized to get an accurate read of pollution levels emitted from large industrial facilities.
Take Tonawanda, N.Y., for example. Citizens knew that more air monitoring was needed to determine what pollution levels they were being exposed to from the nearby coke facility — Tonawanda Coke. They received training. They gathered data. And ultimately they found unhealthy levels of benzene. Their findings prompted the state to conduct their own fenceline air monitoring, confirming the citizens’ suspicions: the level of benzene coming from the facility was 30 times higher than what the facility was self reporting.
Here in Jefferson County, facilities like Walter Coke and ABC Coke are under-monitored and trusted to accurately report their emissions to regulators. I believe increased air monitoring, led by empowered “citizen scientists” will enhance economic opportunities and quality of life for all Birmingham residents — but especially those living near polluters.
Do you agree? Tell us!