The Views May Be Scenic, But This Photo Project Aims to Document Air Pollution

Dec 3, 2014

Every minute of the last six months has been captured by a series of four high-end panoramic cameras trained on some of the most scenic views to be found in southwestern Pennsylvania.

But the collection of pictures has not been created to help the sell the city to tourists and businesses, instead they have been put up to document the pollution that often gets in the way of seeing the landscape.

“Looking at the Ohio River Valley, you can see on a good day all the hills going back behind the Ohio River and on a bad day you can’t even see the close hills,” said Carnegie Melon University robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh.

After the cameras capture the images, data from nearby air quality monitoring stations is added and an archive is created.

“The difference is stark,” Nourbakhsh said of two otherwise identical images, one taken on a good quality air day and one taken on a high pollution day. “It usually causes people to gasp when they look at two different days like that.”

Nourbakhsh is working with funding from the Heinz Endowments through the Breathe Project to create the archive that he says will only grow in the future. It takes a few thousand dollars to purchase and mount a new camera, but he and his team have created a much cheaper solution through an app.

“If somebody has a spare cell phone they would stick it on their window, literally, and once it is on the window it will report its data directly to us at Carnegie Mellon and then we will serve it right back out,” Nourbakhsh said. 

The goal is to get at least a dozen such stations up and running in the next year. Beyond that, Nourbakhsh hopes to get thousands of shares and tweets about the pictures and data in the same span of time. The ultimate idea is to spark conversations about air quality.

“It’s too easy for us to think about the improvements we have made to air quality in Pittsburgh in the last 40 years and feel like all is well, but we have some of the worst air pollution in the country and we need a public debate so that we can take the right steps to solve that problem,” Nourbakhsh said.

Many of the images in the Breathe Project website tell the story through time-lapse images and all are zoomable. The project hopes the images and data will not only raise awareness, but also teach people how to use their eyes to tell when the air is bad so they can make decisions about protecting their health and changing their behavior.

The system created by the project is being offered to other cities to begin a larger debate over air quality issues.