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An Inconvenient Killer
When asked what I thought the largest cause of global deaths was, I really had little awareness of this: My mind was drawn to diseases like Malaria, the horrors of Road Accidents, or the often stealth killer that is Heart Disease. I later googled these and found they were around 0.62million, 1.35million and 17.9million.
These are of course all tragic in their own right and make for sobering reading, to consider that the largest two are arguably ‘man-made’ and perhaps unlike tropical diseases or infections, they are a byproduct of our economic prosperity, and so their eradication is a nuanced choice of making sacrifices.
So it was a huge surprise that Air Pollution is 6 times more deadly than road accidents, at 7m (from 2019 WHO data, note - this data is before COVID). Again, my presumptions were off, when I realised that the indoor air quality problem was almost as bad as the outdoor problem.
The Problem Right Under (and Inside) Our Noses
Having wondered if I was uniquely ignorant to this, I did a few informal polls of friends in passing, and was clearly not alone - most people didn’t instantly cite Air Pollution, and were shocked at how big its impact is on our lives, beyond the more familiar narratives of like global warming.
This happened to coincide with an assignment I was given by DesignSpark to investigate "problems worth solving". Of course, it being 2021, and having just hosted a series of over 20 webinars on Sustainability and Design for ProtoLabs, which went on to feature in the British Design Council’s workshop at COP26 in Scotland, I was somewhat ‘primed’ to look at issues around the environment.
I had also just watched Sir David Attenborough’s powerful documentary, A Life On Our Planet, where in his lifetime he has seen CO2 levels rise from 280ppm to 415ppm. Even if you are unfamiliar with the feel of ppm (parts per million) of CO2, if you consider this level has been around 275ppm for a good few thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, the increase and rate of change is staggering.
As I began to research the subject more deeply, I couldn’t help wondering why is Air Quality such a relatively minor preoccupation in our lives. I wondered why it seemed to garner so few column inches in the media, and how even in a ‘developed’ city like London, where politicians in 2018 urged mayor Sadhiq Kahn to “get a grip on Britain’s life and death air pollution crisis”, yet in 2021, this still felt very much overshadowed.
However, what was not in doubt was that Air Quality was hands-down the ‘problem worth exploring’ with DesignSpark and its legion of 1.2million engineers in its community!
Taking to the Streets - then taking to the Workshop!
RS Components has been supporting a wide range of technically challenging, yet human-centered projects, from The Washing Machine Project - looking at sanitation in developing countries, to using 3D printing to help a young boy, Sol, have a succession of ingenious prosthetics as he grows in size. The challenge of Air Quality monitoring seemed a perfect project for RS with its 2500 suppliers and around 500,000 components to bear.
Over the course of the year, I developed the concept of what would become known as the ESDK, Environmental Sensor Development Kit. No doubt influenced by my time at LEGO, the modular system has a ‘Base Unit’, which contains a Raspberry Pi computer, a touchscreen, and a PMOD connection - which enables it to ‘stick on’ any number of I2C enabled ‘sensor blocks’ for Air Quality Monitoring.
The image shows (left to right) a Particulate Sensor, CO2 Sensor, and a combined VOC, Temp and Humidity sensor. The Firmware and PCBs were designed by AB Open, (and already they are working on expanding this range to include NOx, Formaldehyde and possibly Nuclear Radiation). This flexible device was configured to work with any other IoT device capable of ‘receiving’ the data from the sensors, which would be broadcasting from your desk, or from anywhere else in the world, be it monitoring VOC levels in a Laboratory, Particulates in a Workshop, or CO2 levels in School.
Making The Science Make Sense
During 2021, Coronavirus was still raging around the world, causing disruption, uncertainty and misery to many. DesignSpark produced 50 of these ESDKs as Beta devices to learn more about the breadth and depth of the issue surrounding air quality, and to start generating data, using its proprietary platform, which is free and anonymous. However, although I was aware that the DesignSpark community of industry-hardened designers and engineers like myself, would understand the importance and potential of the ESDK, with cutting-edge, yet affordable sensors, from Sensirion, and some nifty 3D printing, I was aware that neither my 5-year-old son, nor my neighbours and non-techy friends had any clue what I was doing with ‘ppm this’ and ‘PM2.5 that’, and probably assumed ‘VOCs’ was something about ‘Organic’, ‘...that’s good, right?’.
Joking aside, this is truly a problem for science - it needs to make serious issues like this more relatable to the general public, who, when you consider in the UK only about 6% of the population passes GCSE maths with B-A*, it’s fair to assume most people will find the Data Science of Air Pollution at best ‘hard’, and at worst, ‘dull’.
In response to this, the Good Air Canary was created to ‘make the science make sense, to more people [than just Engineers]’. Taking inspiration from the Canary in the Coalmine, the Good Air Canary takes the IoT data feed from the sensors in the ESDK, but ‘converts’ them into a small performance of flaps of its automata wings, as well as audible squawks that ‘its a bit stuffy in here!’ and advising you to ‘open a window’, if the CO2 levels get too high. It sneezes if you have too much dust present, and coyly accuses you of farting if the VOC level spikes, all in an effort to make the scientific aspects of the sensors and their outputs more relatable.
One Sensor, Many Narratives
The Good Air Canary was developed to alert people to bad air in their immediate environment, and it was quite startling to discover that I’d been working in my shed, on cold days with the windows closed, and the CO2 level was probably about 4-5x the limit for ‘good cognitive function’. From medical journals to publications by the military, you will find above 1000ppm of CO2 in your room, and your ‘lateral thinking’ and ‘cognitive ability to solve complex problems will suffer. Given that is quite literally my day job, this was staggering - and I instantly made changes to this, as well as realising my sleep at night has also dramatically improved through simply cracking a window (and later adding a pretty cheap heat exchanger), to improve sleep and awake fresher for the day ahead.
Yet as we researched deeper into the subject of indoor air quality, we realised that CO2 sensors were being used as a proxy for Coronavirus. This is a rather ingenious ‘mental leap’, as even though a CO2 sensor cannot detect a viral particle per se (or even a cold virus from a Coronavirus, for that matter), the correlation between many people breathing out CO2 in a confined space, and the air in a room not being adequately changed or ventilated, is pretty robust.
In early 2021 I learned that in Spain the authorities recommended restaurants and schools to install cheap CO2 sensors in all rooms to ensure adequate ventilation. Within a few months, the UK had followed suit, with more joining at the time of writing this. This was also verified by Sensorion, who we were working with on the ESDK, who manufacture the sensors - they were experiencing record sales, and were out of stock of CO2 Sensors at one point!
Indeed, this ‘multifaceted’ outcome of creating a CO2 sensor (be it in a serious ESDK, or a whimsical Canary), illustrates not only how different people respond to different presentations of the same narrative, but also will respond to the same data points in a way that is unique to their personality and individual concerns. The Air Quality Project was not only raising awareness of your ‘local’ problems but then building empathy towards the national and then international factors surrounding good air.
Passing on the Baton.
I was fortunate to present at a leading Tech/Design/Art/Ideas festival, in Germany, called Beyond Tellerrand (meaning ‘beyond the edge [of what we know]’), and I was proud to present not only this journey of working through the ESDK, and the Good Air Canary - but then seeing these ‘tools’ used by other innovators around the world:
With over 50 ESDKs sent to enthusiasts around the globe, DesignSpark continues to explore what is happening at a local through to regional level, and how the most pressing air quality issue changes depending on the country, its politics and its people.
AQ Influencer Profiles
In addition, 11 other Designers, Engineers, Artists, Makers, and generally creative folks, hand-picked by DesignSpark and myself, have created original and exciting IoT projects which also respond to Air Quality data. People from worldwide locations, such as Nigeria to Argentina, with embodiments as diverse as an illuminating dress, to a pavilion, with emotional issues ranging from Wildfires to passive smoking alerts to reducing childhood mortality due to traffic pollution in a neglected London borough.
When we started this project, we truly didn’t know where it would take us, and for many of the AQ Influencers, the journey is still in progress, but it is clear that the problem of ‘solving’ Air Pollution is as much connected to how well we relate to it, and that it is made real, relevant and accessible to all. Looking back on the staggering range of projects, a unifying spirit is activism by technical people - a desire to grapple with the problem and articulate it better, so that more people can apply their skills and ingenuity to creating solutions that will as a minimum save our planet, our home, but ideally also let us live better and healthier lives too.
If you are inspired by this, or would simply like to know more about how air quality sensors work, please check out the following mini shorts:
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Jodie Barnsley, who is a data science expert and has been working in the field of air quality research for some years. She is also part of the team who developed the DesignSpark.io platform - a free, secure and anonymous way to upload your air quality data to observe and analyse trends with others around the world.