Every citizen is a potential volunteer scientist who just needs to be given the right tools to become an environmental activist as well. That is exactly what the Spanish has done Lorena Gordillo Dagallier by designing a network of low-cost mobile sensors to measure air quality in our cities through citizen participation.
Along with those of three other women, his project, which he has called “open-seneca”, has received the international award Women4Climate Tech Challenge 2020 of the C40 group, which brings together 96 cities around the world committed to reducing polluting emissions.
Gordillo, 25-year-old industrial engineer, acknowledges that, until recently, she herself did not take the fight against climate change as a personal matter and that she lacked “motivation” to take action on the matter. However, his turn to practical environmentalism begins at the University of Cambridge (UK), where he is pursuing a PhD in biosensors.
“We have designed a sensor that is small, cheap and that people can carry it on their bicycles or with themselves while they are walking or traveling by any means of transport through the city ”, the young scientist from Madrid explains to the EFE agency. For now, he says, it’s “bigger than we’d like.” He describes it as a “small dust and waterproof electrical box” with dimensions of about six by four inches and a weight of around 500 grams.
By bike or on foot
Other researchers, he notes, are already trying to develop sensors on chips, so that in the future they can be installed, for example, on mobile devices, but for the moment these sensors must be mounted on bicycles or carried over. For this reason, he considers it essential to maintain the motivation of the “volunteer” and encourage others to get involved in “data collection”, in what “we call citizen science”.
“We have worked first with specific groups, such as cyclists or package delivery companies, since the former are aware and the latter move around the city a lot and allow the city to be mapped faster and in detail ”, he says.
With these bases, the “open-seneca” has functioned successfully as a pilot program in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Nairobi (Kenya), hence the mayors of Stockholm and Lisbon, members of the C40, chose it this year as one of the winning projects.
With the 25,000 euros of the prize, Gordillo will be able to implement a wide network of mobile sensors in these two European cities, where their own citizens will measure pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), total nitrogen oxides (NOx), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or carbon dioxide (CO2 ).
“The sensor -exposes- measures every second and transmits the information to a platform. Each person who takes it can see their route, as in the itineraries of Strava or Google Maps. May see your path and which parts are most polluted, which fewer and at which intersections. They can see directly what they have been exposed to on each of their journeys ”.
More users, more reliable
Obviously, the reliability of this mobile network improves with the increase in volunteers. “When there are enough users with the sensor in a city, we can make that data anonymous to preserve privacy and then generate a map showing the areas with the greatest contaminationn, the hot spots, ”says Gordillo.
The community also fine-tunes data verification, since if a high number of activists detect the same levels at a certain point, this means that “there is a general problem, not an isolated one”, as would be the case if, for example, “Someone was behind a truck at the time”, says the expert.
In this sense, Gordillo highlights that the experiences of Buenos Aires and Nairobi have shown that the sensors are “coherent with each other” and that their data usually coincide with those collected by traditional “reference stations”.
“We do not intend to give absolute levels to determine if the contamination is above the regulatory limit, but rather provide relative values, detecting whether in one street there is more pollution than in anotherto. But we have shown that low-cost sensors can be used for this and that they give the same information as a reference station ”, adds Gordillo.
The low-cost concept is also key, as remember that many Developing countries they cannot afford to have a manned reference station in every big city. The “open-seneca”, he celebrates, not only contributes voluntary labor, but also “creates ties between the city and a citizenry” that, when they have information, “get involved in the search for solutions”.