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Use Your Phone or Bike to Track Air Pollution

Like in any urban area with a large number of vehicles, Pittsburgh breathers suffer from diesel air pollution.  Trucks, trains, boats, buses, and construction equipment all emit exhaust that contains ultrafine particles small enough to avoid the body’s defense systems and travel straight into the bloodstream.  This type of air pollution is linked to cancers, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses, and premature deaths.

GASP hopes to get a handle on the region’s diesel pollution with the help of local residents.  Concerned about dirty diesel and its effect on your local air quality?  If you have a bicycle or a smartphone, you can help collect data that will identify hotspots of diesel pollution in the region, whether due to high levels of diesel activity or individual companies with dirty fleets.

We need the help of cyclists to complete a reliable map of particulate matter in Pittsburgh.  Volunteers will strap air pollution monitors to the front of their bikes and gather data as they ride.  We’ll get a close-up picture of the type of air quality cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists are encountering on their commutes.  This will help us pinpoint areas of concentrated air pollution.

The bike monitoring project was made possible by a grant from Google, which has many cycling commuters at their Bakery Square office in Pittsburgh.  We’ll overlay the air data onto Google Maps, so Pittsburghers can see potential air pollution problem areas.  To learn more or to volunteer for the project, visit

GASP is also launching a less physically challenging project aimed at capturing diesel information. Smartphone owners can now send pictures of smoking diesel vehicles straight to GASP.  The photos pop up on a map.  Anyone can see the photos and map, and anyone can contribute pictures.  We’ll quickly get a sense of which companies show up a lot in the images, and which streets generate a lot of complaints.  GASP will follow up with the worst offenders to see what the problem is.  It’s hard to argue with a hundred pictures.

The project is part of “SENSR,” which came out of the Living Environments Lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  Sunyoung Kim, a Ph.D candidate in Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU who developed the SENSR app, explains “as researchers and social activists, we explore ways to promote grassroots efforts and activism through technology.   SENSR particularly focuses on lowering technical barriers for citizen science to easily make use of mobile and computing technologies.  We hope that our efforts can help foster grassroots participation for our everyday life, health, and well-being.”

For more information and to participate, download the SENSR app and choose “Dirty Diesels.”  You can also view the project and other citizen science projects at

These two programs allow concerned citizens to directly participate in making a difference in Pittsburgh’s air quality.  They’re easy and fun to use, and don’t require a big-time commitment.  A few minutes pushing a few buttons helps us better quantify our diesel problem.  The more ways for citizens to have a say in their communities, the better.  Help us fight for better air quality in Pittsburgh.

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