A whiff of citizen engagement powers Pittsburgh’s new air pollution app

Jason Shueh, StateScoop: A new tool from Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab reports on poor air quality with help from a sensor almost everyone has: the human nose 37xl0qw.

To alert residents of hazardous pollution, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab released a new app to map noxious odors in Pittsburgh.

Dubbed Smell PGH, the app — available on iOS and Android — works by combining crowdsourced reports of “unsafe smells” with air quality data submitted from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. CREATE Lab Project director Beatrice Dias said the app represents a two-way channel for locals to report potentially hazardous aromas and to receive pollution warnings from the county health department and AirNow.gov, the Environmental Protection Agency’s national air quality monitoring portal.

“Smell is such a personal experience and it’s very subjective, but for a lot of people it’s very real, especially for people who live near a pollution source,” Dias said. “The beauty of the Smell PGH app — and hopefully the power of it — is that it helps residents understand it’s not just you, that you’re part of a community that’s experiencing this.”

The Heinz Foundation funded Smell PGH in 2016 with a $49,000 grant to Carnegie Mellon along with an additional $70,000 grant to the university to support air quality monitoring. With these funds, the CREATE Lab collaborated with community members to see where their efforts would go furthest. The common thread in the feedback they received was a demand for pollution complaints to be heard.

“Just giving people a way to contribute their voice is important,” Dias said. “At the CREATE Lab we find that even though we do a lot of work in technology that the human experience is very important to us, and documenting that in a way that’s related to the technology is also important.”

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