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Community / Public space

A new tool gives minute-by-minute views of Pittsburgh's air pollution

As humans, we’re not always brilliant at relating to numbers. If, for example, you were told that pollution levels in parts of China hit 500 micrograms per cubic metre earlier this year, chances are you’d just shrug. See a photo of what that actually looks like, you might take a little more notice:

Image: Galaxyharrylion at Wikimedia Commons.

A new pollution tracking tool in Pittsburgh aims to take advantage of this effect, by showing residents exactly what the city’s pollution looks like on any given day. The Breathe Project, developed by a coalition of local groups, offers minute-by-minute panoramic footage of the city (the “Breathe Cam”), along with data on pollution levels, temperature and humidity.

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The images are collected by cameras trained on the skylines of different areas of the city. These images are then stitched together by “Time Machine” Software, designed by CREATE Lab at the local Carnegie Mellon University, to create animated timelapses of the city’s skyline showing changes over a few hours or a full day.

The software also allows you to zoom in on images to look at the air around specific buildings. Here’s a panoramic shot of the downtown area:

 

And a zoomed-in section:

This function would allow users to track pollution from a particular source, and could enable citizens and local government to hold particularly bad polluters to account. Illah Nourbaksh, co-creator of the Time Machine software and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

People can use Breathe Cam to gather visual evidence of what’s happening to the air they breathe, whether it’s for the entire city or for a pollution source that is a concern in their neighbourhood… With a better understanding of the dynamics of our environment, people can work more effectively to improve conditions.

The project also collects stills from clear and smoggy days for comparison. Here’s two shots of the North Shore area: one taken on a clear day, the other when the concentration of P25 pollutants was eight times as high:

Pittsburgh, as a former steel city, has a long history of pollution: in the 1940s, coal fumes were often so thick they blocked out the sun completely. The air has improved dramatically as industry was shut down, but the city still ranks eighth on the American Lung Association’s list of the worst US cities for year-round particle pollution. Let’s hope the new tracking tools help it drop down the rankings. 
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