What's In Your Air? A Smartphone App Has the Answer! by Samantha Jakuboski, September 09 2015, 0 Comments

Thanks to smartphone apps, tracking the trains and buses, hailing a taxi, tuning a piano, managing stock portfolios, viewing patients’ X-rays and ultrasounds on the go, and lip-syncing one-liners from the Real Housewives have never been easier. Today, it seems like there is an app for practically every purpose, hobby, and interest, and I am always amazed at all the new high-tech apps created to entertain and benefit the public.

Even so, never in my wildest dreams have I imagined that tech geniuses would one day design an app to measure air pollution real-time. Yes, that’s right: there is currently an app in an experimental stage that determines the amount of dust and aerosols (particles such as volcanic ash, sea salt, and those released from the burning of fossil fuels) in the air at one’s exact location. #MindBlown

The app, called iSPEX, was developed by research institutes in the Netherlands and is based on the technology of the Spectropolarimeter for Planetary Exploration, an instrument that gathers information on the particles in Mars’ atmosphere. In addition to collecting air quality data for the smartphone user's personal knowledge, the data collected from the app is sent to a database so that researchers can analyze it and create air particle maps. Since thousands of people are using iSPEX, researchers are able to obtain air quality information during times and in areas that previously had limited data. The information collected from iSPEX also tends to be more detailed than that from satellites, allowing for the creation of more comprehensive air particle maps. So really, the app's users are taking part in a really big science project. 

To use iSPEX, a small, inexpensive add-on piece called a spectropolarimeter needs to be attached to the camera of an iPhone (iSPEX is not yet available for Android phones). The camera and add-on device then function as an optical sensor that, when held up to the sky, collects information on the incoming solar light’s spectrum and polarization.

Depending on the type and number of aerosol particles in the air, light is scattered and absorbed differently. Based on this fact, the app is able to use the light information gathered to deduce the types, structures, and sizes of the air particles present. (Since water droplets from clouds affect these light measurements, iSPEX must be used only on clear days in order to obtain reliable data.) 

iSPEX’s first trial took place in the Netherlands in 2013. Thousands of people were given the add-on piece (for free!) for their phones, and for three days, they scanned the sky. At the end of the trial, it was found that the data was very accurate with that collected from satellites and ground-based air quality devices.  

Due to iSPEX’s success in 2013, it is now spreading across Europe with its new campaign currently underway: iSPEX-EU. Between September 1 and October 15, 2015, over nine thousand people in cities across Europe will be given the add-on piece for free and will track the air quality data in their area. 2015 is a particularly special year for this campaign, as the United Nations announced it the International Year of Light and Light Based Technologies (IYL 2015). This declaration was a means to support and increase the use of light-based technologies in solving problems facing our society and increasing our understanding of world phenomena. By working toward a fuller understanding of air pollutants in our atmosphere, iSPEX-EU is doing just this.

What I find very cool about iSPEX is that it provides people with an opportunity to take part in meaningful research without necessarily having that PhD in atmospheric chemistry, or even a middle school diploma! Such citizen science is a great way to make people feel useful and increase awareness about pressing issues we face as a global community, such as air pollution. Perhaps if people can measure for themselves and see visual depictions of the air pollution in their area (with iSPEX’s color-coded atmospheric particle maps), they will be more motivated to decrease their own air pollution and live greener lives. I know I would!

Right about now, you may be thinking, “What a cool app! I want to download it, pick up a spectropolarimeter, and start scanning the sky ASAP.”

Well, if you live in the Netherlands, Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copehagen, London, Manchester, Milan, or Rome, you can! These countries and cities are currently participating in iSPEX-EU.

However, if you are like me and don’t live in the places mentioned above, let alone in Europe (sigh), where the add-on devices are being given out to volunteers by the iSPEX company, I guess you simply have to wait until the campaign expands and the add-on pieces become more readily available. 

With iSPEX's current success in its experimental stage, I find it highly unlikely that iSPEX will not continue to spread across the globe. Who knows, maybe one day, instead of people holding out their phones to take selfies, they will be holding them out to scan the skies. 

Picture Credit: iSPEX Project

Author Bio:

Samantha is a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is very interested in environmental science and hopes that through blogging, she can help change the way people view their actions in relation to the Earth and environment and live more eco-friendly lives. Samantha also maintains an environmental science blog on Scitable, Green Science.