Nutty Technology for Better Air Quality

    Ah, the marvels of the modern multifunctional cell phone: Internet browser, video camera … pollution monitor? Cell phone users everywhere may one day be able to view information about the air quality around them, thanks to a device called Squirrel.

    Photo Courtesy of Cal-(IT)2 and Jeff Kubina
    The Squirrel device, on the left, collects data on nearby air quality. It then transmits this information to a cellular phone, which relays it to a central station for analysis.

    The device was invented by Shannon Spanhake, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. Squirrel is designed to monitor personal exposure to specific pollutants in the air around its user, and then wirelessly transmit this information to the user via cell phone. The chip sensor on the current prototype can detect carbon monoxide and ozone, two pollutants that Spanhake feels are of significant concern to the average person. Once the data is transmitted, a software program called Acorn installed on the cell phone allows the user to view pollution information as a screensaver. However, Spanhake said she is still experimenting with Kael Greco, a graduate student from the visual arts department, regarding ways to design the interface.

    A key feature of Squirrel is that it also transmits readings to a public Internet database, allowing the technology to do two things. The database will help individuals gain knowledge about the environment around them , and it will help scientists compile information from several units to gain a deeper understanding of area-specific pollution patterns.

    The data would supplement readings acquired by the official state and city pollution monitors set up by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, unlike these official monitors, which are usually located on building roofs and sample the air from high above the city, Squirrel will measure the air that people are breathing at ground-level.

    “”[Environmental] policy is regulated by the readings of the official monitors, but they are not monitoring what people are actually breathing,”” Spanhake said.

    She hopes that Squirrel will provide a more detailed picture of pollution levels that could lead to policy change, she said.

    Furthermore, the rate at which a city acquires new pollution monitors can severely lag behind the rate of population growth. For example, in the last decade, the population of San Diego has grown by about half a million people, while the EPA has added only one pollution monitor. With Squirrel, the number of monitors could actually grow with the population.

    “”The EPA can’t keep up with population growth, but this way they don’t have to,”” Spanhake said.

    Another benefit of Squirrel is that it will allow the public to participate in collecting real data about the earth.

    “”I think it’s a great idea partly because it creates awareness and partly because it allows anyone to make these measurements,”” said Milton H. Saier, a professor of biology who instructs the lower division course Human Impact on the Environment.

    Saier also supports Squirrel because he believes it may increase public knowledge about environmental pollution.

    “”It will create involvement, and involvement usually leads to a better understanding,”” Saier said.

    Indeed, Squirrel is meant to provide new insight into pollution problems and increase the user’s sense of environmental responsibility.

    “”Why should the EPA be the only people monitoring pollution?”” Spanhake said. With Squirrel, individuals have power to gather information that could aid progress toward a cleaner and more environmentally conscious society.

    In fact, it is this gathering power that gives Squirrel its name.

    “”Squirrels are notorious for being curious, intelligent, persistent and adaptable animals whose successful existence very much relies on people,”” Spanhake said. “”They exist in urban environments and they live on the ground, where we do. This is the way I would like the pollution-monitoring device to exist.””

    Spanhake, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and received her master’s degree in visual arts from UCSD, first came up with the idea for Squirrel after one of her many trips to Tijuana, where she co-founded an art gallery. She had always been struck by the haze of smog and smell of exhaust generated by the 24 lanes of bumper-to-bumper idling traffic at the border, but found that information regarding pollution levels in the area was hard to uncover.

    While it can sometimes be hard to take an idea past the brainstorming stages, Spanhake believes that with the right mindset, anyone can be an inventor.

    “”If you have something you want to see in existence, you can find ways to make it,”” Spanhake said.

    It remains to be seen if this technology will be popular with the average green-minded cell phone user. As is the case with any new gadget, the issue of cost will probably play an important role consumer behavior.

    “”I think I would use one, but it depends on if it’s affordable,”” Eleanor Roosevelt College freshman Liz Diaz said.

    But students still seem intrigued by the idea.

    “”I would definitely use one,”” said Joelle Rosser, Eleanor Roosevelt College senior. “”It would be easy, interesting and would contribute to a better future for everyone.””

    Spanhake sees a lot of hope for the future with Squirrel.

    “”I hope that Squirrel air-pollution monitoring will be as ubiquitous as listening to music on an iPod,”” Spanhake said. “”[I hope] that people will realize the value in generating data and be inspired to challenge the empiricism of other institutional data; that emissions regulations created in the service of people will be influenced by data actually attained by people; that people will demand more from their phones than ringtones and screensavers.””

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