Building an Air Quality Egg is a rewarding experience for non-experts
The Air Quality Egg is a community project that aims to produce an open air quality sensor network (an introductory video is available on Kickstarter).
The Internet of Things is network of entrepreneurs, designers, artists and students who take a look at “urban infrastructure, smart grid, open hardware, quantified self, open data, environmental monitoring and more” with an interest in putting a “networked computer where none has gone before”.
On March 29th we embarked on a little adventure to build our own prototype version of an Air Quality Egg sensor box with Joe Saavedra (developer of citizensensor.cc, faculty at Parsons Univ NYC teaching embedded computing). The exciting part of this workshop was that we were one of the first people to start contributing open air quality data via this DIY, citizen-driven methodology; our finished sensor box (which we of course got to keep)streams directly to a live feed on Pachube (a realtime data infrastructure platform for the Internet of Things, managing millions of datapoints per day from thousands of individuals, organisations & companies around the world).
We rolled up our sleeves and Joe guided us through the workshop explaining not only the technical aspects of the different electronic components but also the crutial challenges and concerns about applying the Egg to environmental monitoring. In essence, Joe cautioned that although the sensor box is very affordable and quick to assemble, it must be acknowledged that the data produced will never be comparable to that produced by the highly tuned equipment of government agencies. In fact, apparently the sensors in the Egg cannot be calibrated. In addition, the sensors are not capable of detecting slight changes and variations in air composition. So why bother building an Air Quality Egg in the first place? I’ll get to that in a moment.
Our Air Quality Egg included sensors such as the MQ-7 Carbon Monoxide sensor, a DHT temperature and humidity sensor and a Nitrous Dioxide sensor. The first step was to put together and Arduino ProtoShield, which included:
- 1X ProtoShield bare PCB
- 2x Stackable Headers 6-pin
- 2x Stackable Headers 8-pin
- 2x 5mm Basic Yellow LEDs
- 2x 330 Ohm resistors
- 1x 10k resistor
- 2x Momentary push buttons
- 2x 0.1uF Ceramic Capacitors
“If I saw further it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants”
To be honest, these were electronics I have little experience of but being in the room with people enthusiastic and completely immersed in their work was very inspiring. This experience reaffirmed the idea that DIY techniques carried out in a workshop environment such as this not only motivate interaction and validation for what we are doing but provokes raising the bar on your own achievements, especially when there are people with differing levels of expertise. In addition, as Michael Polanyi said “the free and open exchange of ideas is the vital pulse of scientific inquiry”. Members of a passionate community tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their abilities and talents. By interacting with people you engage in interesting activities, no doubt about it, especially when the subject is new to you and thus lead to the discovery of new ideas, concepts and insights.
Ok, so we’ve built our egg, now what?
After the session we sat outdoors in a nearby park to discuss the uses, social aspects and challenges of using this device. We took turns in addressing what people’s motivations were, what they had wanted to get out of it and how they had felt about the experience:
- “I am passionate about the technology”
- “Knowledge is power and in this case it doesn’t do any harm”
- “It is part of our research, our initiative in Madrid – we are looking to build a collaboration so that what we did here we can do it in Madrid. We want to be able to offer the opportunity to any people to collect data (not just give them the device but the knowledge and ability to make data visible; we want to give them a way to prove that there is something of concern in the environment. Essentially, if you do not have data you are blind – you do not see it, you do not see the harm. We are interested in doing this without affiliations, without political interests just for your own purposes”
- “I like the technology and the concept”
- “My concerns are: IOT interest in getting citizens involved with equity but there are also corporate interests and we need to think of how to monetize IOT – is there a conflict between the two? That is, doing this with equity in mind and the corporate interests of commodifying this? I also have two issues: first, data accuracy on the one hand – meaning comes from comparing and from applying in different contexts (if you take data outside of the context in which it was created is doesn’t make sense); second, I am interested in exploring what kind of power you want to give citizens? Can we change society?”
- “I am fascinated by Francis Galton he was in a way obsessed with measuring things – he applied Darwinism to human evolution, he was an inventor, an eugenicist, a statistician, and it seems that there is something about measuring that appears to be innate to being human… the act of measuring is more important than the actual numbers that you get – something happens in your mind – in this case you conceptualize air differently by interacting with it in this way”
- “I wanted to know if this was something that regular folks could do because this is not for everyone – we realise that right? For others this might seems geeky, or even intimidating. By coming here I wanted to know what kind of feelings people get by interacting with these things and comparing it with the feelings people get by interacting with other media to achieve the same goal – but if we take a step back maybe we need to evaluate ‘where we are going’, that ‘goal’ we want to achieve. I also think that different methods can give us these experiences of awareness and conceptualisation, of apathy and caring for the world around us and maybe we can merge them with what we did here.”
- “I wanted to build the egg myself – I had been following pachube and their work for a while and I wanted to compare it to others’ sensors – I wanted to experience it for myself and have my own understanding of it”
- “I am interested in electronic projects – I really like the idea and extending it to the outside is fascinating. I would like to see the spread these sensors everywhere so we can keep track of what is happening around us. I was also interested in seeing what kind of people get involved in these kinds of events and I was surprised to see so many not so techie”
- “I am interested in understanding “What is the trigger?” – it was interesting to see that there were people from the wider community here. And it makes me wonder is it something about this time now? Is it an extension of now? I mean, the Arab Spring, public participation and awareness with the internet… Would we have seen this fifty years ago? Also, I wonder if we will ever have the same accuracy as say governments. But the point is that like with the printing press, when it came out, it revolutionised everything! Now we take it for granted but then it was a paradigm shift. Maybe we will get there with this?”
- “But do we want to get there? How? What kind of new social arrangements will it create?”