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Image caption: Phillips Hue lamp connected to our Praxis/Urban monitor located at Preston Circus in Brighton. The lamp colour is orange, indicating PM10 levels present a medium level risk to health.
Air quality monitoring allows us to quantify air pollution. It is our best tool for making the invisible threat of poor air quality visible. It is critical for understanding
- baseline pollution levels at a location,
- what harm they represent to human health,
- the impact of any interventions.
Turning air quality data into an experience
It can be difficult for non-scientists to engage with, much less understand the implications of, air quality data. Scientists and artists alike are developing creative ways to raise awareness of how poor air quality affects health.
There is no one correct approach, because the most effective way to visualise air quality data depends on who you want to engage and what you want them to do about it. Here are some of the more interesting approaches which suggest ways to reach different audiences.
1/ Carbon Visuals
This example shows air quality data taken from Marylebone Road, London in 2014. You can choose a month and the graphic shows PM2.5 particles (those particles up to 2.5µm in diameter). Each spot in the cube represents 1,000,000 PM2.5 particles, with different size spots representing different size particles.
This graphic gives a relatively precise visualisation of the PM2.5 data collected. When you compare July and August, you can easily see August saw higher levels of PM2.5 because the density of the dots is greater. It’s embedded in a webpage, so it is easy to share. It isn’t so good for prompting action: the colours aren’t easy to distinguish and the cube graphic is abstract and impersonal, therefore it’s less compelling than the projects below.
2/Air of the Anthropocene
This is a collaboration between Professor Francis Pope, an environmental scientist at the University of Birmingham, and Robin Price, a digital artist, which received funding from the National Lottery. Robin creates photographs to document air pollution around the world by walking with an array of LED lights that are switched on and off in response to readings from particulate sensors. The higher the levels of particulate matter in the air, the more dots of light are seen in the photograph.
In the photographs of places with higher levels of particulate pollution, you see a dense net of lights and in some photographs it becomes a wall of light (here is a selection of the photographs). This is much simpler than the Carbon Visuals project and even though it gives less information, it is probably much more impactful for a casual observer.
3/ Yellow Dust
Yellow Dust is an installation that creates a large, yellow cloud of water vapour. As visitors walk through it, the cloud changes in density and humidity in response to changes in air pollution levels. Changing levels of air pollution can be both seen and felt. The air quality data itself is also displayed at the installation, so visitors can see the data behind it.
It was developed by Dr Nerea Calvillo, a researcher at Warwick University, and displayed at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017. This kind of installation is ideal for raising awareness with the general public and changing attitudes for those who experienced it. However, it’s not very scalable as it only works when people visit the installation, which requires a lot of specialist equipment to set up.
4/ VRtitude AQ
VRtitude AQ uses virtual reality to make air quality data visible and it’s designed to be used by policy-makers, urban planners and residents for effective consultation and decision making. The pilot was created for a new building development in Manchester. Users, wearing VR headsets, wandered around a virtual model of the existing streets and the proposed development. Colour gradients were visible through the headset to represent air quality information for different locations.
Like the more arts based projects above, it uses visualisation and experience to make it easier for non-scientists to engage with air quality information. Where it differs is that the technology is portable and easy to run, making it accessible for local authorities and commercial applications.
5/ A simple warning system using colours
At South Coast Science we use a simple, but highly effective way to represent air pollution. By connecting a colour changing LED lamp to a Praxis monitor, the lamp changes colour in real-time in response to sensor data from the monitor. The sensor reporting this data is located at a busy intersection in the centre of the city of Brighton.
You can log into this device yourself by following the link on this page https://www.southcoastscience.com/data-dashboard/
The lamp can be configured to respond to any of the gas or particulate data, the one shown above is configured for PM10.
- green light means low risk
- orange light means medium risk
- red light means high risk
The light shifts gradually from colour to colour, showing subtle changes in PM10 (or whichever pollutant is chosen). This colour scale is intuitive (we all know red is usually a warning!) and has a scientific basis, because it’s a simplified form of the colours commonly used for air quality reporting.
A successful project is always the result of using the right tools that will deliver the outcomes you need. To find out more about our air quality monitoring equipment please visit our products page or contact David Johnson.