Giving Air Quality Awareness Back To The People


The Inspiration

On a cold January afternoon, I found myself at Carnegie Mellon University listening to a lecture by robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh. He spoke about how his lab, CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment), works hard to create robotic technologies in order to empower a “technologically fluent generation” and “everyday citizens and scientists”.

His speech hit home with me as I recently had a realization that I wanted to build technologies that would have a direct social impact for the future. I wanted to use the skills I had been taught at school to build technology that would give power to ordinary people to make an impact in their community. Thankfully, when I contacted Illah about getting involved he replied yes.

The Project

After an amazing tour of all the projects of the lab, I was connected with two other CREATE Lab engineers, Chris and Josh, who I would be working with on a Speck project. The task they had set out for me was to build an application for the Chrome web browser for their Speck air quality meter.

The Speck is a device built completely from the ground up by the CREATE lab that “detects fine particulate matter in your indoor environment and informs you about trends and changes in particle concentration”. The sensor does so by taking a reading of the concentration of Fine Particulate Matter or PM2.5 in the surrounding air. The inhalation of these particles can have negative health effects. As stated on the Speck sensor website, “Fine particles have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association as an air pollutant that can be very harmful to your health. Inhaling PM2.5 can cause coughing or wheezing. Exposure over extended periods of time can contribute to or worsen illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia”.

The SpeckSensor is built with a simple touch and easy to read interface that allows users to view their current and past air quality measurements. It even has a different color setting that allows people who are color blind to see the changes in the data.

The chrome app would allow users to register and connect their Speck to their Wifi network. The app required the ability to display current air quality readings and allow users to view their air quality data over periods of time. This application is currently being hosted at Github as an open source project here. While working on this project, I learned how to write a Javascript application that would interact with Chrome (HID) as well as with the Speck sensor itself. I also had fun figuring out how to get the Speck app to talk to the local wifi networks in order to add, remove, or remember networks. The final app that can be used with your Speck can be downloaded only for Chrome browsers here.

The Impact

The ability to give air quality awareness to the average person is invaluable. By enabling people to understand the cleanliness of the air they breath allows the prevention of health risks. As quoted by the Shreveport Times, “An extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes”.

The Speck is designed in a way that allows anyone of any age, technical ability, or region to view simple statistics of the air that they are breathing. As air pollution rates grow higher in regions all across the globe, people need to be empowered by the ability to view the air quality in areas that they work and live. Without such crucial information, people may be at risk of contracting asthma, lung disease or worse without knowing that the cause is simply poor air quality! By monitoring readings on the Speck you can then become an expert about your air quality, and run experiments to test a variety of approaches to reduce fine particle concentration in your home. While many governmental agencies have the power to check air quality at a large scale, individuals have not been able to check the air quality in their homes, work, or other places before the Speck Sensor. Therefore, I believe that the Speck is just another perfect example of how technology can bring change and empowerment to people all across the world.

Community Support

If you have interest in air quality awareness pre-order your Speck below!

Pre-order Speck

More Information About Pathways To Better Air Can Be Found Here!

Speck Sensor SXSW 2015 Talk

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Ryan Sickles’s story.