Citizen Science

Citizen Science Tuesday: AirCasting

January 20, 2015

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A look at air pollution from particulate matter (PM) in the area of New York City on the AirCasting online map.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

By Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy

What Is AirCasting?

Do you know what you’re breathing? Or do you only think you know?

Out of sight and out of mind. Because air pollution is usually invisible, it’s easy to believe that it’s not a problem in your neighborhood.

Now a revolution in wearable tech lets you learn more about exactly what you’re breathing as you go about your day.

AirCasting, a citizen science project led by the non-profit HabitatMap, displays the data from palm-sized, wearable sensors around the world on detailed air quality maps.

“The negative impacts of air pollution rank it among the most serious and widespread human health hazards in the world. Breathing dirty air causes chronic illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis and contributes to terminal illnesses such as cancer and heart disease,” says Michael Heimbinder, founder and director of HabitatMap.

AirCasting transforms people’s access to air quality data. Not only can people track their personal exposure to air pollution, the project’s mapping tools make the invisible pollution around us visible.

Why Is AirCasting Important?

You can’t escape hearing about the contributions of greenhouse gasses to climate change. You may also have heard about how air pollution impacts ecosystems.

But, you may not be aware of the extent to which these pollutants can impact your health.

“Government-run air quality monitoring networks are sparse, and publicly available air quality measurements don’t translate into an accurate assessment of personal exposure,” Heimbinder explains.

The AirBeam air quality sensor. Photo courtesy of AirCasting.
The AirBeam air quality sensor. Photo courtesy of AirCasting.

One pollutant of concern, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is not an exact material, but rather a term for any material suspended in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. You’ve probably never heard of it, you can’t see it, but you’ve almost certainly been breathing it.

Airborne particles of this size are a serious health concern because they can get into your bloodstream, affecting your lungs and heart.

HabitatMap’s AirBeam and DIY versions use a light scattering method to measure PM 2.5 in the air. To put it simply, sensors estimate the number of particles in the air based on the way that an LED light reflects off of them.

The AirCasting team is working to ensure the accuracy of the AirBeam by comparing measurements to the Thermo Scientific pDR-1500 monitor, a device often used by the government and academic researchers to track air quality.

Getting accurate local readings of air quality is key, because pollutants can be surprisingly localized.

“One unexpected finding from our AirCasting sessions were the invisible plumes of particles puffing forth from street level subway vents,” Heimbinder recalls. “We discovered that the characteristic rumble of subway trains underfoot was invariably accompanied by a spike in PM 2.5 measurements as particles were ejected from the vents that line the roadway median strips and sidewalks in NYC.”

Researchers, students (see AirCasting Youth) and citizen scientists across the world can use AirCasting data in their studies. They can share the results with government officials, city planners, and industries to encourage better practices.

“Our experience has shown that when AirCasters know how a measurement is made they feel empowered: they are better able to share and explain their findings to others and use that information to critically evaluate the quality of the data being collected,” Heimbinder says.

How Can You Get Involved In AirCasting?

Buy an AirBeam (coming soon) or a different air quality sensor (prices vary greatly from the Air Quality Egg to the Thermo Sciencific pDR-1500 Aerosol Monitor). You can also build your own—the cost will vary depending on how many things you want to monitor, but the parts for a typical AirCasting device cost around $180.

Connect your sensor to the AirCasting App via Bluetooth.

Carry your sensor whenever you are outside. It’s designed so that you can wear it in a number of ways; as a necklace, on your backpack, or attached to your belt. It fits in the palm of your hand and only weighs about 7 ounces.

The AirBeam monitors the air immediately around it by drawing it through a sensing chamber on the face of the device. (Don’t cover the face!)

Even if you don’t have a device, you can learn about air quality in your area and around the world by looking at the map. You can set it to show particulate matter, temperature, humidity, noise pollution and more.

Check out the blog to get the latest AirCasting news.

Find out what you’re breathing! Then share that information with AirCasting.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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