Taking Space

The HabitatMap & AirCasting Blog

AirCasting & HabitatMap in the News!

AirCasting & HabitatMap in the News!

The New York Times followed us around while we went AirCasting, then wrote a story and made a video about it. The story is excellent in that it covers not only AirCasting but a range of different citizen science air quality monitoring efforts. We also landed an article in Take Part that provides a nice overview of how HabitatMap got started and where we’re headed with AirCasting. And for the techies out there, have a look at the AirCasting coverage from the Arduino Blog.

My Air, My Health Challenge Update

We submitted our solution to the My Air, My Health Challenge judges a few weeks back. We won’t know who won until they make the official announcement at the Health Datapalooza IV. In  the meantime, we thought we’d share our solution (which can be downloaded as a PDF here) along with the instructional video we created  to introduce our pilot community health study participants to the AirCasting platform. Let us know what you think. Any and all feedback is appreciated.

Go With the Flow: Investigate Your Water System!

We are delighted to introduce Go With the Flow, part of HabitatMap’s MapThink Toolkit series. Go With the Flow is a short-term group research project that empowers high school students to investigate their water system through real-world learning and document their research findings using interactive web-based media.


Go With the Flow combines reading, writing, mapping, interviewing and local site visits. It blends traditional research techniques with innovative visual brainstorming exercises and uses maps for research, reflection and sharing. Our project gets students thinking about how they relate to the community around them and encourages them to examine how their water system and water use impacts the environment. This project aligns with the Common Core Standards, teaches effective research and communication techniques, and examines critical water issues from a geographical perspective.

Connecting Students to Community Through Research
MapThink positions students as democratic citizens who are active participants in their community and advocates for just and sustainable cities. Go With The Flow will guide students in investigating how homes and businesses are connected to water sources, how the facilities that provide clean water and dispose of dirty water are integrated into material flows and institutional networks that extend throughout and beyond the city, and how these flows and networks impact the geographic distribution of environmental burdens and benefits.


Why MapThink?
At the conclusion of the project, students will walk away with an understanding of:

• Real-world and Inquiry-based Learning
• The Value of Teamwork, Group Problem Solving & Brainstorming
• Innovative Research Techniques & How to Write Effective Narrative
• Professional Communication Skills & Presentation Techniques
• Technology & New Media Platforms + Best Practices
• How We Relate to and Can Connect With the Community Around Us
• The Importance of Water

Funding for the Go With the Flow toolkit was provided by the NYCEF Newtown Creek Fund of the Hudson River Foundation and HabitatMap donors.

Now Streaming Data from the Zephyr BioHarness 3

We’re happy to announce an update to the AirCasting app that includes connectivity for the Zephyr BioHarness 3. The BioHarness connects to the AirCasting app over Bluetooth, enabling AirCasters to record heart rate, heart rate variability, R to R interval, activity level, peak acceleration, breathing rate, and core temperature measurements. You can download the update from the Google Play Store.

Zephyr BioHarness 3

AirCasting from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Mayeta Clark, an intern at the New York Times video desk, contacted me a few months back to discuss AirCasting. I suggested that rather than do a sit-down interview, she capture AirCasting in action, because context is everything, right?  If the air is always safe to breathe where you live then personal air quality monitoring isn’t particularly relevant. But it’s a different story when the air is frequently foul, as it is in some areas surrounding Newtown Creek in North Brooklyn. So after agreeing to a location shoot that’s where we headed.

I like watching the sunset behind the Manhattan skyline so I charted a route for us between two of my favorite Williamsburg sunset spots: the Scott Ave. pedestrian overpass and Grand Ferry Park. Both spots also happen to be located next to facilities that pollute the air. Allocco runs a busy construction and demolition debris waste transfer station on Scott Ave. and the New York Power Authority operates a peaker power plant on the waterfront parcel adjacent to Grand Ferry Park.

SThe CO+NO2+T+RH AirCasting Air Monitor in white and the PM monitor in grey. Both are attached to my backpack using carbiners and velcro straps

Ready to roll! The CO+NO2+T+RH AirCasting Air Monitor in white and the PM monitor in grey.


Looking west towards Manhattan from the Scott Ave. pedestrian overpass.  Allocco's facility can be seen in the foreground.

Looking west towards Manhattan from the pedestrian overpass. Allocco can be seen in the foreground.


An Allocco employee closing the gate to keep out prying eyes.  Allocco is one of the

An Allocco employee closing the gate to keep out prying eyes. Allocco is one of the "better" waste transfer stations in the area. Their Kingsland Ave. station exports material by barge, keeping trucks off the road.


While both these facilities contribute to poor air quality in the surrounding neighborhoods, the worst offenders are the thousands of diesel trucks that ply local roadways and the BQE.  As I’ve written previously, the section of East Williamsburg we traversed is plagued by a seemingly endless procession of trucks making their way up and down Grand St., Metropolitan Ave., and Vandervoort Ave. According to a Truck Study conducted by Organizations United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity, half these trucks are carrying waste. Not a surprise when you know this area handles nearly 40% of the 12 million plus tons of waste moving through waste transfer stations in New York City annually.

The industrial section of Metropolitan Ave east of the Grand St. Bridge

The industrial section of Metropolitan Ave. east of the Grand St. Bridge


West of the Grand St. Bridge Metropolitan Ave. is lined with 2 and 3 story homes. The exhaust and noise from the nearly constant truck traffic takes it toll on East Williamsburg residents

West of the Grand St. Bridge Metropolitan Ave. is lined with 2 and 3 story homes. The exhaust and noise from the nearly constant truck traffic takes it toll on East Williamsburg residents.


Unfortunately, I ran into some difficulties AirCasting the route I had selected. On the first attempt, with Mayeta accompanying, we ran out of time. During the second attempt my phone battery died. And on the third attempt my phone crashed. Aaaargh!  So on my fourth go, I decided to forgo stopping to attach photos and notes to my session or walk at a stable pace and just hopped on my bike and rode. Then of course it started to rain! but fortunately the rain didn’t last long.

The carbon monoxide (CO) measurements didn’t budge for the entire session and the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) measurements were also mostly stable. (When viewing the sessions, toggle the arrow on the bottom left to view the graph; hover your mouse over the graph to see the corresponding location on the map). I believe the measurements are stable because the gas sensors we’re using don’t provide high enough resolution to detect part per billion or even part per million changes in gas concentrations.

To address this shortcoming we have two projects underway. First, we’re working with Michael Taylor from Carnegie Mellon to develop a sensor package that uses an electrochemical CO sensor rather than a metal-oxide one. These sensors are more expensive but we’re hoping the expense will be justified by a lower detection limit and higher resolution. Second, we’re working with the New York Hall of Science and the New York City College of Technology to develop a low-cost calibration lab. This will allow us to place the AirCasting Air Monitors in an exposure chamber and test their response to known gas concentrations.

The particulate matter (PM) measurements are difficult to interpret because the data stream is very noisy, with measurements jumping up and down a lot. This sensor counts particles as they flow through a chamber and interrupt a tightly focused LED light beam. Normally, a sensor of this design would record measurements every second but display data in one minute increments or greater to average out the noise. However, when you’re walking, or riding a bike like I was, the spatial resolution provided by one minute readings is insufficient to identify sources. (I could be blocks away by the time a reading is displayed and never know where exactly my highest measurements were recorded).

To make sense of the noisy PM measurements, AirCasting provides average measurement values for defined areas via the CrowdMap.  But rather than average together measurements from a single stationary monitor, the CrowdMap averages together measurements from multiple monitors, carried by multiple AirCasters, during multiple AirCasting sessions. We believe this approach will compliment stationary air monitoring networks by increasing the spatial resolution of air quality data, helping to identify hot spots and sources, while also providing a better assessment of personal exposure to air pollution.

On my first AirCasting attempt the PM measurements were higher from the pedestrian bridge to the waste transfer station and declined as I walked towards Metropolitan Ave. On my final attempt I rode past the facility twice and each time the measurements were slightly elevated compared to the surrounding streets but not any higher than was generally the case as I cut west across Williamsburg picking my way towards the waterfront. One finding from this trip is that excessive shaking of the particle counter tends to falsely elevate the measurements. I attribute the spikes at the end of the session to taking off my backpack and dropping it down as I moved around the park. Michael Taylor is going to help us with this problem too, adding a fan to the exhaust port of the particle counter to regularize the air flow.

I also recorded temperature, relative humidity, and heart rate. Have a look if you’re curious. You can see when it started and stopped raining by looking at the RH stream and noting when I stopped and took cover under awnings.

My Air, My Health Challenge

My Air My Health Challenge

We’re delighted to be finalists for the EPA/NIEHS/HHS sponsored My Air, My Health Challenge. Together with researchers and engineers from Carnegie Mellon University and New York University, we will be using the AirCasting platform to link exposure to carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter with heart rate variability and blood oxygen levels. For those interested in learning more, our round one proposal can be downloaded as a PDF here. Note that round one of the Challenge required a “theoretical” proposal. We hope to accomplish everything in our proposal but with the limited time frame (5 months) and small budget (15k) we’ll need to leverage in-kind resources and build off existing hardware and software to the maximum extent possible. We’re already contemplating several changes on the hardware front from what was listed in our proposal, including using an electrochemical CO sensor rather than a metal-oxide one and using off the shelf commercially available hardware (the Zephyr BioHarness 3 and the CMS50F) to monitor heart rate variability, respiratory rate, and blood oxygen.

What Goes Down Must Come Up: Addressing Vapor Intrusion in New York City

Vapor intrusion describes the process whereby volatile chemicals migrate from contaminated soil and/or groundwater and enter buildings through cracks or perforations in slabs or basement floors. Thousands of New Yorkers unknowingly breathe hazardous air contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on a daily basis as a result of vapor intrusion. Frequently they do so in the places they feel most safe: in their homes, at work, or while at school.

Vapor Intrusion

Based on faulty assumptions, environmental regulatory authorities long held that vapor intrusion was only an issue where the source of contaminants was shallow and the magnitude of contamination was extreme. Research and environmental investigations conducted in the last two decades have proven these assumptions wrong. As a result, in 2006 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began re-evaluating remedial decisions at 421 hazardous waste sites throughout the State. Fourteen of these sites are located in the five boroughs, but evidence indicates that hundreds of yet-to-be-identified homes, schools, and businesses are potentially impacted by vapor intrusion from VOC-contaminated soil and groundwater. The scale of the problem in New York City is unique because of its high concentration, past and present, of PCE-using dry cleaners located in dense residential areas. (Data suggests that a vast majority of U.S. dry cleaners have released toxic VOCs into soil and/or groundwater.) Because New York City residents and policy-makers are largely unaware of the vapor intrusion pathway and the impact of exposure to VOCs on human health, thousands of New Yorkers continue to breathe hazardous concentrations of VOCs on a daily basis.

In an effort to raise awareness of the vapor intrusion problem in New York City, we partnered with the Center for Public Environmental Oversight to create a HabitatMap of all the properties listed in the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Site Remediation Database. The green flags mark properties where no VOCs were found to be present; the orange flags mark those properties where VOCs were found to be present; and the maroon flags mark those properties where Chlorinated VOCs (CVOCs) were found to be present. Because CVOCs tend not to degrade when contacting oxygen near the surface, they present a greater threat of vapor intrusion than other VOCs, such as compounds from petroleum spills. Note that the contaminated properties marked on the map represent only those sites that have been placed in the State Superfund Program or enrolled in the Brownfield Cleanup Program. The total number of CVOC impacted properties in New York City is substantially higher.

Human exposure to chlorinated solvents, such as TCE and PCE, have been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases, birth defects, nervous system disorders, infertility, and cancer. Fortunately, a properly installed and maintained mitigation system can eliminate the threat of hazardous vapor intrusion, protecting residents, students, and employees from the impacts of future exposures. Identical to radon systems, mitigation systems for vapor intrusion, also known as sub-slab depressurization systems, are an effective and low-cost solution for homes and buildings where vapor intrusion may be a problem.

TCE Health Effects

It is unacceptable for the health of thousands of New Yorkers to be compromised by vapor intrusion when remedies are readily available and low-cost. To begin protecting New Yorkers we call upon the New York City Office of Environmental Remediation and the State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health to institute a program to identify, map, and begin responding to VOC contamination in New York City groundwater. For starters, we urge them to:

• Create a public data base of all known data on VOC groundwater plumes in New York City, including all Phase II Environmental Site Assessments conducted by both public and private entities;
• Mandate groundwater and soil gas testing for all new construction in the City; and
• Require the routine installation of passive or active subslab depressurization systems on all new buildings in New York City, to prevent vapor intrusion.

• Center for Pubic Environmental Oversight “A Stakeholder’s Guide to Vapor Intrusion”
• DOH “Guidance for Evaluating Residential Soil Vapor Intrusion in the State of New York” and fact sheets on PCE and TCE
• DEC “Vapor Intrusion Guidance” and “Strategy For Evaluating Soil Vapor Intrusion at Remedial Sites in New York”
• NY State Assembly Report, “Vapor Intrusion of Toxic Chemicals: An Emerging Public Health Concern”
• EPA Guide, “Building Radon Out: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Build Radon-Resistant Homes”. Radon sub-slab depressurization systems are identical to those used to mitigate vapor intrusion from chlorinated solvents or other VOCs.
PCE Standards Letter to NYSDOH

AirCasting Goes West Coast for Urban Prototyping

We had a blast last weekend in downtown San Francisco exhibiting AirCasting as part of the Urban Prototyping festival organized by the Grey Area Arts Foundation. We let folks check out AirCasting Laser Particle Counters (ALPACs) and Android phones so they could stroll around measuring and mapping particle counts and sound levels.  Here’s a map of all the particle count sessions and the CrowdMap for these same sessions.

Dropping Science

I'm explaining the CrowdMap on the big screen behind me while Tim, regaled in the AirCasting Luminescent Vest, drops some street sensing science on inquisitive visitors

Generally particle counts were low but there were some consistently higher readings along Mission Creek (that skinny canal on the southern end of the maps). We can’t be sure, but the proximity to 280 and the railyards to the north may have been a contributing factor. AirCasters also reported higher readings near smokers and occasionally when they were near the electric generator for the event. A huge thanks to Tim Dye from Sonoma Tech for doing the heavy lifting required to make our exhibition a reality and to Jeff Blair and the rest of the AethLabs team for contributing their know how and enthusiasm. We connected the the AethLabs MicroAeth to the AirCasting app and look forward to getting our hands on one to make black carbon measurements here in Brooklyn.


The latest addition to the AirCasting sensor family: the AirCasting Laser Particle Counter or ALPAC. It's a dressed up Shinyei PPD42NS.

Lighten Up! Introducing AirCasting Luminescence

We’ve just released the step-by-step instruction manual detailing how to make your own AirCasting luminescent apparel. AirCasting Luminescence uses a IOIO microcontroller connected to the AirCasting app over Bluetooth to illuminate LEDs in response to the sensor measurements received by the AirCasting app: green for low intensity, then yellow, then orange, and red for high intensity. AirCasting Luminescence was developed to communicate sensor measurements without the normally required reference to a screen interface and to spark interaction between AirCasters and people located in their immediate vicinity. So go ahead, download the AirCasting Luminescence DIY guide and make a fashion statement with your sensor measurements!

AirCasting Luminescent Vest

Meet the AirCasting Air Monitor

We’re excited to announce the release of the step-by-step instruction manual for the AirCasting Air Monitor. This handy guide has all the information you need to build your very own mobile air quality monitor and connect it to the AirCasting app to map and graph your sensor measurements in real-time. The Arduino-powered AirCasting Air Monitor senses temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas concentrations.  Note that if you’re interested in measuring different parameters, it’s simple to modify the design to incorporate new sensors.