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DesignSpark Environmental Sensor Development Kit - Air Quality project Q&A with Jude Pullen

As part of our journey into #ActivistEngineering we caught up with Jude Pullen, a Creative Technologist who helped us launch our first community driven project around Air Quality.

DS - So Jude, what is a Creative Technologist!?

JP -
“Well, it basically means I explore how old or current tech can be given a fresh twist, or how cutting edge tech can be understood more simply - both with the intention of creating new experiences that enrich our lives”.

DS - What is it that attracted you to this project?

JP - "Activism for Engineers"

“I've been working with DesignSpark to explore the notion of what Activism looks like for Engineers. As a Chartered Engineer, I have some core skills in Mechanical Engineering but have gravitated towards projects which help people in some way and try to provoke new ways of thinking... Examples include BBC’s Big Life Fix, curating a series on Sustainability x Design with ProtoLabs, or even fun explorations of what 3D printing might mean for families making things together - Bo Peep’s Skunk Mobile.”

“Living in London, I was all too aware of Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s cleaner air initiative, and the news coverage that most people in the city have air which is unfit to breathe. It was backed up by the World Health Organisation, which claims that 99% of Londoners live in areas which exceed guidelines on safe air.”

DS - How bad is the problem around the world?

JP - "Smoking 63 Invisible Cigarettes a Day?"

“So one can only imagine how bad it is in other countries who are less fortunate. The air in some parts of China is so bad, that it’s the equivalent of smoking 63 cigarettes per day - so says the World Economic Forum’s report.”

“This is what sparked the idea to explore Air Quality as a subject for Engineers to engage with. Having worked at Dyson for 4 years, working on everything from aero-acoustics of their DC37 to being a joint-lead designer of the AM10 Humidifier - which was a first of its kind of project, with its UV sterilisation, Piezoelectric Atomisation, and of course use of the Coanda Effect to mix air and water together without a wet patch on your floor! All of these things taught me that testing and data are key ingredients in technological innovation.”

DS -  What Good does an Estimation Do?

- “From these formative years at Dyson, I realised after speaking with various experts in the field of Air Pollution and Sensing, that there is a moot point over what is "good enough". If you want really accurate data on Pollution, you typically need gear in the order of 10’s to 100’s of thousands of pounds. The problem is that when looking at Air Quality maps of London, this of course means that there are only a couple hundred sensors, which might sound a lot, but for example, the borough I live in only has 3, which means that there is no road-by-road data. These sensors are often not by Schools, Homes or frankly many of the places you’d actually want to know about - to make a decision about your lifestyle and health.”

DS - But the problem is not just limited to Outdoor Air Quality, right?

JP “Yes, that’s right! Rising Air Pollution in our towns and cities is a well-known global Issue, but outdoor air quality isn’t the only problem. The fact is that the most exposure we get to air pollution is from being Indoors!”

It doesn’t matter what part of the world you live in, poor Air quality affects just about everyone. We don’t generally realise it, but our homes, offices/workshops or favourite indoor public places could be slowly degrading our health. But don’t just think because you live in the mountains that it’s less of a problem, in fact, if you have a cosy log fire roaring to keep warm in the winter, the particulates produced and pushed into the room could be slowly killing you, especially if there is inadequate ventilation.

Conditions like Asthma are on the rise and are triggered by allergens and pollutants in the air. There can be a number of things generating these, some obvious, some so not!

The problem is a combination of lifestyle, ventilation and of course the quality of the outdoor air. Here are some of the common pollutants that affect us;

DS - So how can your low-fat Stir Fry not be so healthy for your lungs!?

JP - “In our homes there are lots of pollutants and allergens that we often inadvertently breathe in, and these are slowly causing damage to our lungs. Some of these are less obvious than others but can affect us all in our everyday living. VOC’s (Volatile organic compounds) for example Cooking is one that surprised me! Particularly if you cook on a gas hob using a Wok or Frying Pan, all kinds of pollutants are thrown into the air from the process and the cleaning up afterwards with sprays and detergents also add in more! Good ventilation can help, but it doesn't solve the problem completely.

In addition to gas, the burning of all fossil fuels is a problem. If you have an open fire or even a Barbecue too close to an open window. If you live on a busy road, fumes from vehicles.

Cleaning and personal hygiene products can also release nasty VOC’s into the air and if you have a 3D printer in your home or workshop, those can also be really bad!”

Your personally produced CO2 can also have a big impact on your productivity, creativity and well being, especially if you’re in a small enclosed space with poor ventilation. Do you often feel tired and have a headache after a morning of Zoom calls? It’s possibly due to you poisoning yourself with the CO2 you’re producing when talking in a poorly ventilated workspace. I have a CO2 monitor on my desk and the more I talk, the higher the CO2 levels get… time to open a window!”

“We need more data!”

“When you consider the report in the Guardian suggesting that 40,000 deaths per year are attributed to Air Pollution, why do we have such little data? One answer is to of course ask the government to install ‘Lab-Grade’ sensors on every street, but this seems obviously too expensive, and will take forever to implement.”

DS - Aren’t these Pollution Sensors big and expensive to deploy!?

JP - “Yes, but the alternative is to take matters into your own hands. Now, a word of caution, if you are reading this, you should be aware that even if you buy some of these Air Quality Sensors - from RS/Sensirion, or from any of the huge range of desktop units online - the fact is these are NOT as accurate as Lab Grade sensors. They are usually not calibrated and are certainly not as durable. But are they good enough to tell you you are at risk?”

Image Credit - Omron-Healthcare

"Don’t Let Perfect Become The Enemy of the Good".

“Although not Lab Grade - these devices will certainly highlight a ‘difference’ or ‘delta’ between high/medium/low risk. They may not be highly accurate - but they can show you a clear trend, and let you know if you should seek a more detailed/thorough investigation (or write to your local MP).

In case you are sceptical of this proposal to not use ‘professional grade’ - consider this: When at a hospital, you may well have had your blood pressure taken on a machine that is probably a few thousand pounds. Its accuracy and precision are very high - that is to say, it is calibrated, and it is also very exact. Why then does your doctor advise you to buy a £25 one from the local high street chemist?! Why isn’t the NHS saving millions per year and just getting stuff from Amazon?!!

The answer is that the Home Test kit is not truly accurate, but it is precise enough - that is to say, it might read 118/78 when the NHS one will read 116/75 - but this is not what the doctor is interested in - they are interested in the trend: in other words in week 1 through 10 - do you go up or down?”

“Go Local!”

This is the thrust of this Air Quality Project - we are not claiming that these sensors which cost £1000’s less than the Lab gear are highly accurate, but they will reliably inform you that if you stand by a bus station that the levels will be 20x the recommended limit, even assuming the worst possible error of say 25%, then you are still at least 15x the recommended amount, and have every right to put this to your council for independent validation.

Governments are there to serve the people and keep us safe. But the fact remains, they too are not immune from being swayed by public opinion - that’s the whole point of voting. But although it is arguably simpler to vote on emotive matters, what happens when we lack the data - this is where awareness of the issue is key.”

“Activists with Armed With Data”

“The Activist part of this project is not about civil disobedience, it’s about leading a fight with data. Both have their place, but as DesignSpark is a design and engineering community - it seems worthwhile to ask for people to help, who have the skills in mechanics and electronics to help create ‘good enough’ data and raise awareness.”

“When you consider how many people don’t have access to any data whatsoever, at a local level, it is frustrating at best and tragic at its worst. The tragic story of the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, illustrates how this issue is still, for the most part, too low on the agenda for the government and local councils, but also too low in public awareness to galvanise action.”

"Addressing Complacency - with Data at Our Fingertips"

“Although one might wonder why the WHO’s statistic of 99% of London is at risk does not keep us all awake at night, the subtlety is clearly ‘how bad is too bad?’. If a Governor in any city wanted to make a difference, where should it focus its efforts? Or to put it another way - how bad is the air near you? Is the problem mostly NO2 based, or is it more about Particulates? Which of these should you worry about more if you have Asthma or certain allergies? What can you do to reduce harm to you and your family whilst raising awareness at a civic level? What are the long term effects of a given pollutant?

The answer is not just ‘more data’ - but data, explained simply, to provoke deeper investigation. This is where Engineers are uniquely qualified, and dare I say it, are in my experience, highly motivated to take up a cause, which has a real purpose but also allows them to do all the things they love. Whether creating prosthetics or assistive devices ( or respirators in the pandemic (various hackspaces), Engineers are a relatively quiet and unassuming bunch, who seem to take up the challenge more often than is reported in the media.”

“Whether you’re a fan of Edison or Lovelace, or Musk or Shotwell - it’s fair to say these people were obsessive about finding answers through clever use of technology. We cannot all expect to live up to their fame, but not all projects require a rockstar-scientist to make a difference. It can simply begin with one person getting enough data to spark the change they want to see in their community, but perhaps it goes further...

We hope at the very least you will enjoy tinkering with these projects, but we suspect the severity of the issue will shock you the more you explore it in your area - and especially for others who might need it even more than you.

As NASA is famous for saying “In God We Trust...For All Others - Bring Data”. Protests help: But imagine the impact of Protests combined with Data”.

“This is Engineering Activism.”

DS - How can the DesignSpark Community get involved?

JP - “Over the last few months, I've been working with DesignSpark and Andrew and Callum at ABOpen. Together we’ve created a cloud-connected open-source modular Environmental Sensor Development kit. For phase one we are working with some hand-picked Engineers to tinker and create some inspirational add on projects that they will share on DesignSpark from November. Then in phase two early in the new year, we will start to put these in the hands of the DesignSpark Community members. We want to build up a global network of these devices and work with them to share their projects, data and support with the DesignSpark Community. This is the start of DesignSpark’s drive to promote and foster #ActivistEngineering, where they will encourage Engineers to step back and ask how they can create engineering outcomes that have a more positive impact on the world around us."

DS - We're all very excited about getting these kits out into the wild and into the hands of engineers! We've rounded up a small hand-picked set of clever Makers/Engineers to kick things off. These guys are our Alpha testers and we've asked them to help us test the kits and create exciting applications with them.

Jude, you have an exciting project of your own, don't you!

JP - "Yes, I've been tinkering in my workshop creating a Good Air Canary that pulls data from the Development Kit.  If you follow my profile, you'll get an alert when I've posted the project up on DesignSpark.

If you want to learn more about DesignSpark’s #ActivistEngineering and the Air Quality project, sign up for DesignSpark and follow the stories. Members will also be able to make a request for a free Air Quality kit. Sign up today and we’ll keep you posted.

Learn more about the Hardware - Introducing the Environmental Sensor Development Kit

Credits -

The DesignSpark Environmental Sensor Development Kit (ESDK) affectionately known as the “Jam Sandwich”, has been designed and developed as open hardware and software in conjunction with Award-Winning Creative Technologist, Jude Pullen and Andrew Back and Callum Snowden of AB Open.

Created by DesignSpark in conjunction with;

Jude Pullen - Overall Concept and Key Design Features 
AB Open Ltd - Hardware Design, Development, and Layout
AB Open Ltd - Software/Firmware/API/Cloud Integration –
Jude Pullen - Enclosure Design 

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