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Allegheny

California towns adapt Carnegie Mellon's 'Smell Pittsburgh' app

| Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, 5:18 p.m.

A Carnegie Mellon-developed app that lets Pittsburghers report stinky air pollution has been adapted for refinery-rich communities in the San Francisco Bay area, in a step toward making the program available to cities nationwide.

Air Watch Bay Area , launched earlier this month for the California communities of Richmond, Crockett, Rodeo and Benecia, is an adaptation of the " Smell Pittsburgh " app developed and launched last year by Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab to crowdsource air pollution reporting, said Beatrice Dias, project manager at CREATE Lab.

"One of their interns worked with the lab over the summer to customize the app for the Bay Area's needs," Dias said. "The app is slightly different, but they use the same back-end."

As the name implies, Smell Pittsburgh was developed as a way for the average Pittsburgher to use an air-quality measurement available to almost everyone — their noses — to track and report when pollution gave the air an unsavory aroma and/or caused any health symptoms.

A map then combines users' reports with data from wind and air-quality monitors to track the direction, concentration and possible sources of stinky pollutants. The data is shared with the Allegheny County Health Department.

But in California, where the source of air-quality problems tends to be microscopic particles that aren't as smelly as Pittsburgh pollution, the program added an option to send photos of particulate sources or dust accumulations through its website, Dias said.

The communities in California using the program have a number of refineries, like a Valero Refinery that caused evacuations and sickened workers during a flare-up in May, according to the East Bay Times .

Kathy Kerridge, a member of the Benecia Good Neighbor Steering Committee and one of the people who helped start Air Watch, said the program helps them gather data about air pollution in real time to share it with the public, or with the gas industry and air-quality regulators.

"Our main goal is that people who want to get real-time information about what's in their air have an easy place to go," she said. "Over time, it'll be a very good method where we can say, 'you say the air quality's fine, but here are all these reports,' and 'are we able to correlate these reports with spikes in the (air-quality) monitoring?'"

Unlike Pittsburgh, Air Watch doesn't have a direct channel forwarding its users' reports to local air monitoring organizations, but it does offer links so users can make separate reports to the Bay Area Air Quality Monitoring District, Kerridge said.

Dias said the program was expanded to the Bay Area because a collaborator at the CREATE Lab was already working in that area on air-quality issues. But lessons the team learns from adapting the app to California will help them make it available to other communities.

"We're hoping in the next month to develop a plan for how to make it useful to other cities as well," Dias said. "Each city has different needs... We could have a network of smell apps, and have them communicate with each other."

Since the data is crowdsourced, it's also made available for public download, Dias said. The team is working on deciding how to store and access the data as more communities join — whether to keep it on the lab's servers and create ways for everyone to access it, or have each organization keep their own and set up ways to share it.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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