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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

New App Helps Pittsburghers Breathe Easier About Local Air Quality

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

If you want an update on air quality, look no further than your smartphone.

CREATE Lab, a program of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, and Airviz, a CMU lab spinoff, have developed a smartphone app called SpeckSensor that gives users real-time access to Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers based on their location.

“We want people to be aware of what is happening outside and be able to transfer that inside," said Sarah Longo, operations manager at Airviz. "Say, when I open my window at this time, it’s not a good time to do that, because tons of buses are idling and that has impacts on my child’s asthma.” 

Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom 13 percent of U.S. cities for particulate air pollution and in the bottom 2 percent for toxic air pollution, according to research funded by The Heinz Endowments.

SpeckSensor, funded in part by the same source, loads information from the nearest air quality monitor to the user's smart device. AQI numbers translate to colors -- green for healthy, yellow for less healthy and orange, red and so on for more hazardous readings. The colored alerts are similar to those used by the Environmental Protection Agency its air quality flag program recently adopted by local schools and the Allegheny County Health Department.

Users can search additional locations by name or zip code in order to compare air quality across the country.

“If you wanted to monitor your family’s air quality and you lived in Pittsburgh, but they lived in Atlanta, you could type in several different cities and they would all come up on one interface,” Longo said.

On a sunny, Autumn morning in Pittsburgh, the application said the city’s South Side had an AQI of 29, considered to be “good," whereas in Clairton the AQI was 58, considered to be “moderate.”

When consumers think about air pollution, they think of the outdoors, Longo said, so Airviz developers introduced an indoor monitor earlier this year.

“You can monitor what happens when you could cook with a certain cooking oil, or when you use a vacuum that doesn’t have a HEPA filter, or whenever you don’t turn on your range hood when you’re cooking,” she said.

The Speck monitor retails for about $200; hundreds are in use in Pittsburgh, according to CMU spokesman Byron Spice. The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundationpurchased 1,000 Specks, which are on loan to the public through libraries, schools and community organizations.

The SpeckSensor app can pull data from Speck monitors as well, Longo said.