Civilian Scientists + Air Quality Tech Innovation with Matt Mehalik

How can we use technology to empower citizens to engage and take action to improve air quality? We speak to Matt Mehalik, Executive Director for The Breathe Project and adjunct faculty at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University about solving for air pollution using a suite of technology tools in partnership with an engaged community.


Karrah Krakovyak
Sustainability Innovator
More about Karrah Krakovyak
Highlights from this article

The needs and the goals of community members it directly in their lives, how they experience daily life...And so the connect connecting all of that together is the way in which change can happen. Change that is grounded in thoughtful scientific knowledge and information and public health information, but it but directly impacts people's lives. And that is the best combination of citizen science

And so people don't really know the impact of in particular fine grain particles PM 2.5 microns. They're small enough when people inhale them, they bypass the lungs defense systems and go directly into the bloodstream and where they can settle out in different tissue. And wreak havoc over the course of a lifetime, which is why we have some unfortunate cancer statistics around Pittsburgh. #50 #air-pollution

One of the challenges of air quality work is that unless you see visible pollution, smoke plumes coming out and settling in over communities, which unfortunately continues to happen in Pittsburgh, but not every day is like that... So the cameras allow people to see where pollution comes from. They're trained on the major point source pollution facilities are around Pittsburgh and we can see what's happening 24/7. #50 #air-pollution

And on any given day, the map, we can map out where the bad smells are flowing through the atmosphere around Pittsburgh. And those data points correlate with what we see on monitors. And so it helps us detect, so human smell is very sensitive. And the It's a good monitoring technique too, to tune into when something smells bad. And it's one data point that can be combined with what the monitors are showing, what the cameras were showing. We've seen many incidents where some people in a community will smell something. They'll report it on Twitter and recorded on the smell Pittsburgh app that will prompt us to go and look at cameras. And lo and behold, many times we see. Two hours before that smells detected, there was an eruption at one of these major facilities that exists around the Pittsburgh area. So it's that combination of people and their daily experience and quality of life wanting to improve it. Using technology to record and collect data integrated with other sources of information and data, and then take action. #50 #air-pollution

So for decades, a lot of these communities have been ignored despite and during truly awful air quality conditions with high incidents of families being disrupted by disease directly attributable to air emissions. So it's at its core it's an environmental justice issue. The many of these communities are finding their voice by creating a space where people can feel like they can voice their concerns, participate by recording. #50 #air-pollution

And so we can zero in on the need to regulate and enforce what happens with a few key facilities. Most of them are old steelmaking facilities and Coke making facilities...It has technology that dates back to the 1970s. So it's 50 years old and the company hasn't been investing in, improving it. In fact, what US Steel has done over this past year is take the money that it's made and invested in new facilities in Arkansas and Alabama, and not doing anything to repair the problems in Southwestern, Pennsylvania, which is where that company started, by the way.

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