Showing posts with label sensor journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sensor journalism. Show all posts

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A call for journalists and makers to join hands around IOT and evidence-based journalism

Writing for Al Jazeera English, D. Parvaz reported on a recent conference for atomic experts organized by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), where it was remarkably difficult to get answers from atomic experts.

The conference, titled “International Experts’ Meeting on Radiation Protection after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident – Promoting confidence and understanding,” was generally closed to the media. Journalists received presentations on USB drives, but were not given any opportunities for Q&A. The media handlers were pleasant, but not very helpful, Parvaz noted.

Great! I requested an interview with the IAEA Scientific Secretariat, Tony Colgan (no can do). Or a statement on why the conference was closed to the media (not so much). How about an IAEA expert on the effects of radiation on sea life? (Nope).

For a conference designed to “promote confidence and understanding” with the public, there was very little engagement with the public. Despite this, Parvaz did find one group of presenters who were very helpful and answered her questions.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Understanding air pollution with a simple dust sensor

Outdoor air pollution, in the most extreme cases, can be immediately identified even without any special training. It casts a haze over cities, collects on streets and buildings, and provides dramatic fodder for the news. Even when the air pollution isn't actually visible, we can smell when something isn't quite right.

I previously wrote about how difficult it can be to obtain basic environmental data, and how government budget cuts are threatening air monitoring networks in several states. It now appears that other countries are making hard decisions about which monitors to keep, and which monitors to shut down. The Guardian reported recently that up to 600 air quality monitors, including monitors for nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM), could be shut down across the United Kingdom.

Yet for all the attention the media pays to outdoor pollution, people spend only about 1 to 2 hours outdoors (and that's only in the pleasant summer months) according to one University of Newcastle study. According to the EPA, we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors. We spend the vast majority of our time indoors, so it makes sense monitor pollution in the home.

Indoor Air Pollution (IAP) is an especially big problem in developing countries, where 60 to 90 percent of households still rely on coal and wood for heat and food preparation. About 36 percent of acute lower respiratory infections and about 22 percent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the developing world are caused by IAP (pdf). In one study of women in China, researchers found that a 10 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic meter) increase in PM1 (ultrafine particles smaller than one micrometer) was associated with 45 percent increased risk of lung cancer.

IAP isn't just a concern in developing and BRIC nations, though. Similar problems exist for the rural poor in the US and Canada, where indoor pollution exceeds the World Health Organization air quality guidelines in up to 80% of homes. As in BRIC nations, these homes rely greatly on burning organic fuels.

Air quality at home can be an issue even for homes that don't burn wood or coal. Indoor air pollution can come from "molds, bacteria, viruses, pollen, animal dander and particles from dust mites and cockroaches," according to the American Lung Association.

Indoor air pollution ranks among the top five environmental risks to public health, the EPA says. Indoor pollution levels may be two to five, and sometimes 100, times higher than outdoor pollution.

All that makes the indoors a great place to put a dust sensor.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

IEPA is silent on request for data, emails surrounding large tire fire

When a supply of one million tires caught fire in Hoopeston, IL, there were no environmental monitors to track pollution in the community.

IEPA responded to the event along with firefighters, and has been keeping tabs on pollution ever since. With the fire extinguished, IEPA's primary concern has been shifted to the tire dust kicked up during cleanup.

From university research, we know an uncontrolled tire burn releases cancer-causing chemicals and mutagens (pdf). But it's been 61 days since the fire began, and the public is still in the dark on pollution figures from this massive fire.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Michigan also faces cutbacks in air quality monitoring, risks violating federal requirments

Illinois isn't the only state facing cutbacks in environmental monitoring due to state and federal budgets. In its annual plan to monitor air quality, Michigan also revealed it is having difficulties keeping its network of air monitors intact.

Unlike Illinois, however, Michigan's cutbacks threaten the state's ability to meet federal laws for air monitoring.

"The MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) cannot implement all of the new monitoring requirements described above without new funding and a concomitant reduction in other monitoring requirements due to financial and staffing limitations," the state's environmental agency wrote in its 2014 ambient air monitoring network review (PDF).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Witness to Hoopeston tire fire calls experience "bizarre" (photos)

Last week, I wrote about a massive tire fire that burned in the small town of Hoopeston, Ill. In my post, I argued that citizen-based sensor journalism could have helped the community understand the local environmental impact of this man-made disaster.

I've sent an email to the IEPA requesting that the agency release the data they collected after the fire. In the meantime, we can assume from scientific studies that the tire fire released pollutants, toxins, cancer-causing chemicals, and even mutagens which can affect genetics thorough generations.

After publishing my post, I received a tweet from a follower who was at the scene. Dan Johnson, a fellow Urbana, Ill. resident, just received a new camera and thought the Hoopeston tire fire would be an opportunity to try it out. He was shocked by what he saw.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A massive, toxic tire fire, and how citizen sensor journalism could have informed a community in crisis.

A fire at a tire disposal plant in the small town of Hoopeston, Ill., polluted the skies for hours. Photo by @JonathonLinares.
At 5:30 am on Wedneday, June 19, a spark generated by static electricity at J&R Used Tire Service started a fire that would black out the sky for miles around the small town of Hoopeston, Ill.

Initial reports from fire crews suggested the fire could burn for days. By the time it was extinguished the next day, more than 100 firefighters from two states had come to snuff the tire fire, about 500 homes had been evacuated, and rail service through the town was shut down.

According to the Champaign-Urbana NPR affiliate WILL, state environmental officials requested that the state's attorney general to issue a court order to stop the business until it's determined how the fire started, how safe the business is, and what kind of environmental impact this fire had on the community.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency seems primarily concerned with the air and water at the moment. A tremendous amount of water was used to extinguish the blaze, and that water has been contaminated with the byproducts of burning tires.

Obviously, there's a great deal of burning material that was sent into the air. IEPA has been monitoring the air in Hoopeston (pop. 5,321), but that data hasn't been made public on any sort of accessible website.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Illinois EPA looking to cut back on air monitoring

Facing the prospect of budget cuts, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has drafted plans to reduce the number of air quality sensors throughout the state.

The 2014 Ambient Air Monitoring Plan, drafted in May by the IEPA, recommends that the agency discontinue one sulfur monitoring site, one particulate matter monitor, and three lead monitoring sites.

"The proposed 2014 network plan provides select discontinuations from the plan approved by US EPA and operated in 2013," the plan reads (PDF). "The design of the monitoring network for 2014 has also been based upon the assumption that funding to support the monitoring program is likely to be reduced in fiscal year 2014 and that all efforts would be made to keep as much of the network intact as possible."

The particulate matter monitor is located atop Washington High School in the South Side of Chicago, one of the more polluted parts of the city. It specifically measures the amount of particles under 10 micrometers in diameter, known as PM 10, which can damage lung tissue, cause cancer, and lead to death.

According to the IEPA's 2011 annual air report (2012 and 2013 reports are not available from the website), this was the same monitoring station that observed the highest annual average concentration of airborne cadmium and sulfur in the state for that year.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Finding a definition and purpose for sensor journalism at the Tow Center

#Towsense presentation on mapping mangroves
by Aaron Huslage, photo by Moshin Ali (@moshin)
Before I left for the Tow Center's sensor journalism workshop at Columbia University last weekend, my wife and I hosted some friends for a spinach lasagna dinner. On the stack of books my wife was researching for her dissertation on toxins in science fiction, sat my latest obsession, the DustDuino sensor node.

While we ate, the node's tiny LED lights blinked away as it took particulate matter readings every 30 seconds. A friend pointed out the interesting juxtaposition of the pollution monitor siting on a copy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Our friend's husband, an entomologist, asked what it was all about.

"Part of the idea is to have people make these all over the country, especially places with bad air," I said.

"Interesting," he said. "You know... that doesn't sound much like journalism," he said. "It sounds like research."

I thought about it for a moment, and took a sip of the lemon-and-bourbon cocktail my wife prepared. I didn't have a good answer.

"Journalists are kind of unemployed at the moment, so we're looking for other things to do," I replied.

For me at least, the Tow Center's workshop helped find an answer to that question, and provide a deffinition and goal for sensor journalism. About 50 folks with backgrounds in journalism, science, architecture, community informatics, and computer technology came to the Tow Center's first sensor journalism workshop on June 1-2.

I owe a big debt to the organizers of this event: Emily Bell, the Tow Center director; Fergus Pitt, Tow research fellow; Taylor Owen, Tow research director; along with Laura Kurgan, director of the spatial design lab at Columbia; and Chris Van Der Walt and Sara Jayne Farmer of Change Assembly, Inc.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Step-by-step guide to programming the RN-XV WiFi module for Arduino

The Arduino prototyping standard has been around for about 6 years now, and has proven to be immensely useful for sensing devices. It's the heart of the DustDuino and many other sensor nodes.

But for all the flexibility that the Arduino provides for collecting data about the environment, there still isn't a reasonably-priced, reliable shield to send data via WiFi.

The official Arduino WiFi shield, while well-supported, costs around $85. That's a pretty high price to connect a $4.50 chip to a network. Cheaper options such as the WiFly shield do exist, but some of the libraries supporting these devices are difficult to decipher or unstable, if they exist at all.

I spent a long time myself looking for a cheap, effective WiFi solution for the Arduino platform, and I've been very pleased with the $35 RN-XV module.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

DustDuino: A plan to crowdsource environmental reporting with low-cost dust sensors

A before and after photo of Shanghai inundated with smog, by Flickr's morgennebel.

There's some good news in the air. Or, well, about the air.

Last month, the American Lung Association released its 2013 report on the quality of the nation's air. The Lung Association's "State of the Air" report shows the country's air is continuing to improve.

The Lung Association attributes healthier air as a "direct result of emissions reductions from the transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines and coal-fired power plants, especially in the eastern United States."

That much is good. But there's much room for improvement.

According to the report, "Of the 25 cities with the worst problem with spikes in particle pollution, fourteen had more days or worse problems in 2009-2011 than in the previous report." Six cities included in the report had their worst year ever (over the 14 years the report has been made) for short-term spikes in particulates.

Chicago, home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation, continued to flunk both daily and annual levels of particulate pollution. This was where I did my own environmental investigation on how the Fisk coal-fired power plant threatened the health of the Pilsen neighborhood (see: "Battle in the Barrio").

The Fisk station dumped 755 tons of particulates into the air on an annual basis, according to a pollution report from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Task Force found that the plant contributed to 15 deaths and 23 heart attacks annually, a figure based on EPA data.

The residents of Pilsen eventually won their battle, and the Fisk station was closed. EPA tests after the plant closure showed the particulate and radiation levels had returned to city-wide norms. Interestingly, one of the EPA air quality monitors was mounted in a baby stroller to measure levels around the perimeter of the plant.

Pilsen didn't have air quality monitors to begin with, though. Its residents had to lobby the Illinois EPA before the state placed an air monitor atop an elementary school in the neighborhood. The readings from the monitor led the IEPA to declare Pilsen a "nonattainment" zone for lead, a particulate which impairs the IQ, learning capabilities, and memory of children.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Columbia's Tow Center is brainstorming sensor journalism prospects in workshop

In a little over a week, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University will be organizing experts across multiple disciplines, from around the country, to come up with low-cost, widely-distributable solutions for sensor journalism.

For their Sensor Journalism Weekend (June 1-2), the Tow Center will host discussions on the "pre-history, current practice and opportunities for sensors in journalism," in anticipation of a pilot sensor journalism project to be conducted over the summer.

According to Tow's calendar, there will be "technical, ethical, theoretical and practical resources available, demonstrations of current sensing equipment and opportunities to expand links throughout the community of people working in the field." Folks from the Spatial Information Design Laboratory in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University will be in attendance.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Making a home for a sensor node - with a laser.

Sensor nodes need a good home if they're to last any considerable amount of time. And if they're to be deployed outdoors, they need an especially robust home.

This can be complicated. Most sensors need to be exposed to the elements to obtain good readings. But expose these electronics to the elements too much, and you'll break them.

In a pursuit of finding the right balance between price and accuracy for a sensor node for professional and community journalists, I'm fabricating a prototype using open-source hardware and software, 3D printers, and now, lasers. Fortunately the "maker" revolution makes this process more accessible than ever.

Previously I wrote about working with Arduinos and temperature sensors. Continuing on the theme of sensor nodes for journalism, here are some details on the next step in the prototyping process.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Building a Wifi Temperature Node for Journalism

Wireless sensor nodes can help monitor conditions the community, in the next state over, or across the globe. These sensors don't have to be complex or expensive to be useful -- even a simple wireless temperature node can be helpful in tracking heat waves, monitoring the heat-island effect in cities, and serving as a warning system for asthma sufferers.

Previously, I've chosen a prototyping platform and 3D printed useful parts to make a sensor node. This post covers planning, assembling, programming, and testing a wireless temperature sensor node for journalism.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Heat island effect and asthma: an argument for temperature nodes for journalists

Meteorologists shouldn’t be the only people in the news ecosystem concerned with temperature. Extreme temperatures can exacerbate food shortages, hurt the economy, affect energy prices, provoke health crises, cancel public events and disrupt public services.

At the moment, Australia is undergoing the worst heat wave it’s ever recorded. Pavement has melted, and gasoline evaporates right out of the fuel pump, making refueling a car a challenge. Fires are burning out of control in coastal regions. People have died.

It’s gotten so hot (all together now: how hot is it?) that the Australian weather service has added a new color to its heat map which denotes temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 50 degrees Celsius, or half the boiling point of water.

This also doesn’t seem like a problem that will disappear in the near future. Climate scientists believe extreme temperatures are only going to be more prevalent. Due to climate change, many parts of the world could experience more extreme high temperatures and fewer extreme low temperatures, with climate models predicting higher maximum temperatures and more heat waves in the future (Easterling et al, 2000).

By some estimates, these heat waves will increase by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next four decades (Barriopedro et al, 2011). Without countermeasures, these high temps could cause “increased adverse health impacts from heat-related mortality, pollution, storm-related fatalities and injuries, and infectious diseases” (Field et all, 2007).

Some might point out that we have a national service that tells us what the temperature is. Election forecasting virtuoso Nate Silver pointed out in his book “The Signal and the Noise” that it’s such a valuable service, in fact, that a multi-billion dollar service industry in weather forecasting has sprung up from the National Weather Service freely sharing its weather data (it should be noted that these services are providing independent forecasts, not simply repackaging NWS data).

In an age where many phones come pre-loaded with weather apps, does it make sense for a publication to have a network of temperature sensors?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Making a sensor node for journalism: picking components and 3D printing useful bits

Open-source microcontrollers can be very handy for journalists: they can fly a data-gathering drone and control a data-gathering sensor node, among other uses. Previously I wrote how sensor nodes could be useful in a journalism investigation. Now it's time to leave the theory behind, and actually prototype one of these sensor nodes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Nodes for journalists: a primer on bringing sensor data to the reporter

Drones are pretty cool, and could be pretty useful for journalists. They allow journalists to film hard-to-reach spots, such as partially-sunken cruise liners. These unmanned systems also can be used to collect geospatial data and photomaps, both of which can come in handy for a journalism investigation.

As I’ve written before, though, drones simply are remotely piloted aircraft (or watercraft). By themselves, they are not very useful tools. What actually makes them useful is that they are mobile platforms for sensors, which can collect data to guide reportage. Cameras are just one of a multitude of sensors that drones can carry into the sky.

What kind of additional sensors could you use on a drone? It’s probably easier to ask what exactly you want to measure in the environment, and then find a sensor to fit the application.