West Oakland group hopes to fight air pollution with cell phones

Surrounded by freeways, West Oakland has one of the highest pollution rates in the county.

Surrounded by freeways, West Oakland has one of the highest pollution rates in the county.

Circled by three freeways, scattered with industrial factories and a stone’s throw from one of the largest ports in the United States, West Oakland has a high pollution rate. According to a report released in 2009 by the Alameda County Public Health Department, because of their proximity to diesel emissions, the cancer risk rate for West Oakland residents is twice as high as for other people in the Bay Area, and the area has one of the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the county.

That’s why this neighborhood has become the centerpiece of a new partnership between a local environmental justice group, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), and a high-tech research company based in Berkeley, Intel Labs, that works on technology and software systems with a focus on user experiences. The group’s goal is to collect data on the kinds and quantities of air pollutants in West Oakland and use that information to get diesel emissions reduced. Ultimately, they want to capture this data by using cell phones.

“The vision that we are pursuing is what would happen if mobile phones had air quality sensors in them,” says Allison Woodruff, a research scientist at Intel Labs. “Since West Oakland is so near the port and freeways, residents have particular sensitivity to particulate matter”—that means small particles that are suspended in the air like pollen, dust and soot. To health researchers one of the most problematic types of particulate comes from diesel fumes, which can be emitted by ships, trucks and cargo handling equipment. Diesel particulate is made up of very small particles that easily penetrate the lungs; health researchers believe long-term exposure can lead to heart disease and lung cancer.

Intel Lab's GIS dust tracker.

West Oakland has only one air monitoring station, so the idea behind the pollution sampling project is to create hundreds of “mobile air monitoring stations” that could instantly capture air samples and measure pollution levels from block to block. The cell phones could work in two ways: People with the sensor loaded in their phone could either use it intentionally by going out and gathering data at certain locations; or use it passively by letting the sensor collect the data whenever their phone is turned on.

But at the moment, the development of a cell phone that can capture particulate matter is still in its initial phases—Intel hasn’t yet developed a computer chip that can measure particulate matter that’s small enough to fit inside a mobile phone. Instead, while they work on developing a smaller chip, Intel and EIP are using a larger device called the “GIS dust tracker” that can do the same thing.

EIP’s office is in deep West Oakland, a few blocks from the BART station and across from a giant empty lot. Inside the loft-like space, posters line the wall—one reads “freedom to breathe.”  Sitting on a back table are the dust trackers, little boxes about the size of answering machines with bright blue screens and antennae. People use the trackers by carrying them around the neighborhood and holding them near a potential pollution source—the machines then read out what type of particulate matter is in the air and at what levels. “This data is a tool and a resource that communities like West Oakland don’t normally have,” says Margaret Gordon, the founder of EIP.

Gordon has recruited youth volunteers to take the GIS dust trackers and walk around West Oakland after school gathering data. “They are looking for those things, like people smoking, smoke stacks, cars burning. Then they look at the machine to see if there’s any spikes,” says Gordon. Many of these volunteers are from the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists, a kindergarten to 12th grade school in Berkeley that bases its curriculum on science and math. Gordon sees their work in West Oakland as a hands-on way to teach them about urban environmental health.

Along with the GIS dust trackers, the volunteers also carry around another machine Intel Labs developed—a hand-held device that can measure other types of pollution like carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Both of these gadgets have a GPS tool that tracks the exact location and time of where the air is being analyzed.

When Gordon first set up EIP about five years ago, her goal was to lower pollution in West Oakland, a neighborhood where she has lived for nearly the last 20 years. She got started in this type of work years earlier when she was a housekeeper for the founder of the environmental watchdog group Baykeeper, and realized that the health problems she was seeing in her community were likely coming from pollution from the port. She recalls asking herself, “Why do one in five children here end up in the hospital with asthma or a respiratory infection?”

Margaret Gordon, the founder of EIP. Photo courtesy of Civic Ventures Talking Eyes Media.

Gordon began volunteering at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works on environmental, economic and social issues, and eventually joined the staff there. During that time, she worked on projects with the West Oakland community identifying health issues and sources of pollution. “We listed 250 things and picked 16 to work on, like asthma, truck pollution and what chemicals were being released into the neighborhood,” she says. “Having research and data, you can capture more of a bigger picture.”

The skills and training Gordon learned at the Pacific Institute made her unstoppable when she opened EIP. Today her list of achievements includes advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how to get cleaner air in vulnerable neighborhoods; persuading the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to reduce the amount of pollution allowed from the Red Star Yeast factory, the largest fixed source of toxic air pollution in West Oakland; lobbying the California Air Resources Board to enforce existing codes and ticket idling truckers waiting for their cargo at the port; and working with truckers, business owners, city officials and residents to help design the first designated commercial truck route, which limits trucks driving through West Oakland’s residential streets. Gordon is also the recipient of a 2010 national Purpose Prize, which is a $100,000 prize given by Civic Ventures, a national think tank that works on social purpose, to people who are having an extraordinary impact on society.

As Gordon’s EIP volunteers go out each week gathering data and collecting results on air pollution, this information will eventually be compiled to see if emissions have spiked, lowered or stayed the same. By using this real-world data, Gordon and Woodruff believe that their group could collect enough information to help modify laws and put tighter air pollution regulations in place. “Margaret could have that data and start to work with it,” says Woodruff. “She could take existing technology from today and use it to forecast in the future.”

As far as the development of the smaller chip to fit inside a mobile phone, Woodruff says she believes this project could be done within a few years. “It’s not a multiple-decade time frame in terms of technological obstacles,” she says. “But there’s a lot of complicated and interesting problems to work out. That’s why we are trying to use real-world data.”

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