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PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues

Thursday, March 10, 2016

How crowdsourcing and technology are democratizing air quality monitoring

Allegheny County’s air ranks among the worst counties nationally for cancer risk. And our recent notice of legal action shows that businesses and regulatory agencies don’t always act in the best interest of public health. 

But what recourse do we have?
The federal Clean Air Act enables organizations like PennFuture to file citizen suits against polluters on behalf of its members.

But what else can we do?
Innovations and evolving technology allow people to become more informed and vocal about what’s in their environment. From social media to monitoring devices, residents can test their own air and water quality and push that information out like never before. 

How can you learn about what’s in your air?


Airviz Inc. and the CREATE Lab of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute developed Speck™, a small device that helps detect fine particulate matter in your indoor environment. 

Image via:
Clairton resident Cheryl Hurt, who owns a child daycare center, finds it particularly (no pun intended) helpful in a neighborhood located next to a coke plant. Speck allows her to determine when it is and isn’t a good day for the kids to go outside.

In addition, Clairton School District is one of the handful of schools that adopted a Speck and will have them available to check out from their library. With these Specks readily accessible, science and math teachers can use the sensors to teach air quality and statistics to their students through provided curricula.

Learn more from the CREATE Lab director, Illah Nourbakhsh. 


In addition to the Speck, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) is studying particulate matter hotspots in Pittsburgh and you could help in the process! It’s a fairly simple commitment that involves strapping an air monitoring device on your bike while following a specific protocol. 

Image via: GASP
Once the equipment is attached to your bike, continue on your daily commute and GASP will then gather the obtained data to see where the problem areas in Pittsburgh are located, and suggest ways for improvement for your route. 

See what pollution has already been recorded from previous bikers.


Do you notice the difference in air quality from day to day? Can you see it in the gif of the North Shore below? The Breathe Cam, a project of CMU's CREATE Lab in partnership with the Breathe Project, gives a regional view of air quality and shows comparisons of clear days and hazy days when fine particulate matter in the air is higher. 

The Breathe Project explains the science behind what we see, smell, and breathe each day and ways individuals, businesses, and governments can get involved to improve air quality for the region. The site's Breathe Meter also provides a side-by-side comparison of how Pittsburgh stacks up against cities throughout the nation in terms of air quality. Next time you notice a hazy sky, check out this resource. It might be pollution, not be your Instagram filter, that makes the skies look grey and tan instead of blue. 

What does this rise in technology and crowdsourcing mean?
This rise of technology and how organizations utilize new hands-on innovation tools could mean more than creating a general interest in environmental issues for citizens. It could have actual impact on environmental regulations. Seeing actual metrics and visuals before our eyes instead of what seemed to be intangible, invisible issues like air pollution will make us realize there IS a problem and we CAN do something about it. 

While the legislative process can seem tedious and lagging, especially with pressing environmental issues that need immediate action, these accessible tools can help us engage in these environmental issues without the slow assistance of government. This year, vow to be informed on what is going on around you in your own community and be a part of the solution! And who knows what technologies will be in store for the future.

Are you already using these tools or others? 
Let us know.

Do you suspect poor air quality in your area?
We want to hear your story.

Annie Regan is the western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @MsAnnieRegan.  

5 Pennsylvania conservationists you need to know

March is Women’s History Month and we thought we’d celebrate the occasion by highlighting five women from across Pennsylvania who boast impressive achievements in conservation. You’ll notice that each woman we’ve highlighted resides in a different part of the commonwealth -- a testament to the diversity of environmental and conservation issues in the state as well as the dedicated leadership of its citizens.

Pittsburgh, PA
Caren Glotfelty currently is the executive director of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, a position she’s held since August 2014. Prior to this role, Caren spent more than a decade as Senior Program Director of the Heinz Endowments Environment Program, where she promoted its mission by directing funds toward projects in community revitalization, land use and conservation, and environmental health. Glotfelty also served as the Maurice K. Goddard Chair in Forestry & Environmental Resources Conservation at Penn State University, specializing in issues related to natural resources policy and state and local environmental. In addition, she served as the Deputy Secretary for water management in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources under Gov. Robert P. Casey.  

Best known for: Holding positions in government, the philanthropic community, the nonprofit sector, and academia relating to land use and water quality.

Harrisburg, PA
Cindy Dunn was appointed the sixth secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Tom Wolf. Prior to her appointment, Dunn has held various other leadership positions in the agency. Dunn is the immediate past president and CEO of PennFuture and the recipient of the 2015 Celebrating Women In Conservation Award. In addition, she served as executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania and as the Pennsylvania program director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Best known for: Connecting with the natural places and spaces she works tirelessly to protect as a birder, hiker, angler, and canoer.

Thornhurst, PA
Barbara "Bonnie" Smith, president of the watershed protection group North Pocono CARE (Citizens Alert Regarding the Environment), a non-profit organization in Northeastern Pennsylvania working to protect the Lehigh River and its tributaries for future generations. Smith is also a member of PennFuture's board of directors and was a recipient of Chatham University’s Distinguished Alumnae award in 2015.

Best known for: Petitioning successfully to have the Lehigh River classified as “exceptional value,” the highest protection under the law, protecting over 219 stream miles of the Lehigh’s headwaters and tributaries in the Pocono Plateau.

Philadelphia, PA
Carol Collier joined the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University as its senior advisor for watershed management and policy in 2014 after retiring from her role as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, a post she held for more than 15 years. Prior to that, Collier was the executive director of Pennsylvania’s 21st Century Environment Commission and regional director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - Southeast Region. She also spent time in the private sector as vice president of environmental planning with BCM Environmental Engineers, Inc.

Best known for: Promoting the strengths and addressing the challenges of the Delaware River Watershed for decades.

Erie, PA
Sister Pat Lupo, OSB has long been a champion of the environment and conservation in Pennsylvania. Pat is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and a science educator who taught elementary and high school levels for more than 20 years. She has also worked for non-profit environmental organization, Environment Erie, where she served as education director. Pat currently works at the Erie Neighborhood Art House (NAH), a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, which provides classes in the visual, performing, and literary arts to at-risk children in Erie.

In particular, Pat has worked tirelessly to mitigate climate change and to transition the commonwealth away from fossil fuels toward clean energy. She has been interviewed about her advocacy work, penned numerous opinion pieces, and presented testimony before various bodies on climate change.

Best known for: Articulating the importance of conservation through her faith perspective and the moral obligation to protect the planet from harm.

PennFuture is honoring Sister Pat this month with the Celebrating Women in Conservation Award for her commitment to environmental activism and her achievements in conservation in Pennsylvania. 
The event is Wednesday, March 23 at 10am at the Erie Art Museum. The event is open to the public but registration is required by Friday, March 18. The event is co-sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and the Erie Art Museum.

Katie Bartolotta is southeastern Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @KatieBartolotta.