Air Quality

Adverse health effects caused by air pollution are increasingly being recognised and debated at national and international level.  From 2017 to 2019 Knowle West Media Centre worked with communities in East Bristol to develop playful and accessible digital tools to help them collect and interpret air quality data, then act on what they found.

Illustration of the Air Quality team

Identifying

As part of the REPLICATE Project, a five-year EU-funded initiative exploring how digital technologies can improve quality of life and reduce co2 emissions, Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) ran several community events in east Bristol where citizens and community organisations could discuss the issues affecting the area.  

We discovered that lots of people wanted to find out more about air quality in Bristol – particularly the effect that air pollution is having on their health and where the cleanest air is in Bristol. 

Three groups that were particularly concerned about air quality were: cyclists,  schoolchildren and their parents, and taxi drivers. 

Another group who contacted KWMC directly to get involved were social housing tenants in  Bristol suffering from asthma since moving into a new housing development. 

One of the tenants said: “Quite a lot of people that live in our block are saying that they’ve  developed more health conditions since they’ve moved in […] A successful outcome is to  actually see a) how high [the air pollution levels are] and b) whether the developers or  management team will actually take on board what we’re saying and take action.” 

Find out more about why people got involved with the project in the video.

Framing

Each of the groups took part in issue-based design and making sessions to identify the  problem they wanted to explore in more detail, the data they wanted to collect, and how to  go about it. 

KWMC worked with artist Becca Rose and community organiser Zoe Banks Gross to plan and  facilitate these sessions. Each group developed ideas for how air quality sensors could be  cased, what a data journal might look like, and how the data they collected could be viewed. 

See what happened in one of our sensor-making workshops in the video below: 

Designing 

Becca then worked with the community and KWMC’s digital manufacturing space, KWMC:  The Factory, to co-design and create cases and paper data journals. 

The final design for the portable sensors was shaped like a ladybird. It could be attached to  bicycles, bags, and car windscreens to gather NO2 data on the move.  

Testing

Six of these portable sensors were tested. One participant commented: “You just cycle along and [the sensor] collects the readings of pollution levels. On top of that, I’ve also been  keeping a diary of the travel, what the weather is like and how bad the traffic is.” 

13 community spaces were also fitted with stationary sensors. 

KWMC was exploratory and ‘tech agnostic’ in its approach to sensing: combining different types of data, gathering data from different sources, mixing existing technology with prototypes, and responding to citizen feedback. 

A team of researchers and technologists also came together as part of this project, including  Ben Gaster and Kev Kirkland, to develop data and sensing tools and kits for future sensing projects, including the UWE sense boards and Data Unity. 

Find out more about how the UWE Sense air quality sensors work in the video below:

Sharing

In March 2019 KWMC ran three ‘making sense of your data’ workshops where citizens and  representatives from community organisations learned how to interpret and analyse the air  quality data they had collected from the portable ‘ladybird’ sensors and the stationary  sensors on buildings. KWMC’s digital fabrication experts supported them to design and  make interactive tools to help them tell their data ‘story’ back in their community. 

For example: one group made a ‘travel air gauge’ inspired by the mechanics of a see-saw: it  encouraged visitors to reflect on the environmental impact of their transport choices then  act differently the next time they travelled to rebalance the scale. 

KWMC also worked with digital artists and technologists to create visualisations of the air  quality data. The visualisations were printed onto postcards and distributed around east  Bristol. The data is also viewable via an open source platform

Reflecting

The hyper-local information gathered by citizens enabled them to seek out ‘cleaner’ travel routes and change their own travel behaviour, and better understand the issue of air pollution so they can champion change on a wider scale. 

One person who attended a data workshop observed that “it’s not always about the data – sometimes it’s about being more aware.” The pilot prompted them to make a major lifestyle change and get rid of their car.

Another attendee tested a ladybird sensor and commented that gathering data from the general public can “definitely be used to improve the quality of life in the urban environment”. They said: “As an architect, I can then use that information when I’m  designing spaces and actively respond.” 

The air quality pilot ran from 2017 to 2019. Through the damp homes and air quality pilots  (2016-2019) – both part of the REPLICATE project – KWMC engaged over 1,000 people with the process of ’citizen sensing’, over 1,232 hours and 693 engagements. 

The Bristol Approach to citizen sensing inspired Sam Prince to begin working with air quality  sensors – find out more in the video below: 

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