July 10, 2008, 5:00 PM — Researchers at Intel are hoping to use mobile devices to improve air quality in San Francisco, though it may take a while before the technology reaches users.
Researchers have developed a prototype mobile toolkit that gathers air-quality measurements and could ultimately help improve residents' health. The company also hopes to use the technology as a way for people to understand the environment.
The program, called Common Sense, is being tested in conjunction with the city government and grassroots organizations in the Bay Area concerned about the environment. In the future, the toolkit could be offered to users of cell phones and mobile Internet-access devices, provided Intel sees value in it.
The mobile toolkits, attached to street sweepers run by the San Francisco city government, include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and ozone sensors that measure air quality in areas covered by the sweepers, which clean debris from streets. Those are the top three air pollutants and the most common toxic gases people encounter, said Paul Aoki, a researcher at Intel.
A cell phone, also part of the mobile kit, tracks the location of sensor readings using GPS (Global Positioning System), and then the data is sent to a server in Berkeley, California, where the location and readings are compiled. The sensors are on a board that measures 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) by 2 inches.
The data could benefit an asthmatic or lung cancer patient, who would immediately be able to gauge the air quality and determine whether it is safe to stay in an area, said Sushmita Subramanian, a researcher at Intel. The data could also help people decide whether it is healthy for them to stay in a particular area of the city, she said. The more data researchers collect, the more credible the air quality information will be, so she hopes the mobile sensors reach more devices.
The mobile toolkits are on five street sweepers now and will soon be on 10 more, Aoki said. The sensors will be able to measure the air quality across 80 percent of the city's geography covered by the sweepers.
Only three still sensors in San Francisco measure air quality, and the toolkit could fill significant geographical gaps to cover most of the city, Aoki said. The data is currently accessible only to Intel researchers, but there are plans to make it publicly available as more data is collected.
Improved data collection will be possible if users are willing to share data, and the researchers are working to build a community to get involved in their effort. For example, Intel is working with citizens and grassroots environmental organizations to collect data around the ports of Oakland, where diesel emissions are high.
"We don't intend to be a clearinghouse for environmental data, but we hope to provide tools and ways for people to use technologies we are developing," Aoki said.
Another way to collect more data is by putting sensors on more devices, and Subramanian hopes the toolkit catches on for mobile Internet devices or as attachments to cell phones. More people will be able to visualize air-quality data instantly on their mobile devices and submit data from a neighborhood anonymously, she said.
The toolkit will be smaller over time as chips shrink. For now, the researchers are focused on developing software that provides measurements and presents data in a way users find easy to interpret, the researchers said.
"The data needs to be scientifically credible enough so that it can't be easily dismissed as noise. That's the research we're doing now," Aoki said. The researchers are also trying to figure out how other hardware tools could be used to sharpen data collection.
It's also tough to gauge air quality or the location of the air measurement from mobile devices that are tucked away in, say, pockets, but light and temperature sensors could help improve the accuracy of data collected, Aoki said. For example, a light and temperature sensor could determine when a device is stashed away, with an accelerometer able to tell when a device is pulled out, after which the sensors can accurately measure the air quality.
Over time, the database will be able to delete false positives to ensure the air quality is correctly reflected, the researchers said.