A report from the Air Quality Egg meeting
The air in Utrecht is, apparently, quite filthy indeed. It's a hot topic that is one of the talkingpoints of every political party.
That's why this afternoon was so interesting. We held a great discussion at SETUP's temporary space at the Oudegracht 183 about the airquality in Utrecht, and whether a current Kickstarter project called "Air Quality Egg" should be adopted by Utrecht.
The Air Quality Egg
This Air Quality Egg project aims to give everyday people a small, affordable ($70) device that lets them measure air quality outside their own house. Connected to the internet, it shares this data with the world, making possible all kinds of 'big insights'. At least, that's the promise. So far, plenty of people think it's a great idea, as the project has already received twice the amount of money it needed to really get started.
The egg is open source too: it's not developed by a single company, but by a loose well-meaning and politically engaged community of geeks spread all over the world. If you would want to point out a focalpoint though, it's Pachube, a data-marketplace startup based in London. Any data the egg gathers would be stored online on their website. But the data, it says in their terms of service, "always belongs to you".
So, an open source tool to gather open data. Great. What's not to like?
Well, for once thing, it turns out that the sensors currently used are an order of magnitude too insensitive to really measure airquality precisely. Local activist Ted Zorn, who joined us today, pointed out that with the current cheap sensors it's an order of scale too imprecise, making the measurements taken by the eggs more difficult to use as a counter argument to the measurements taken by the local government.
Similarly, Erik Boons, senior air quality adviser at the local government, pointed out that imprecise measurements bring with it many problems, as people who use the data, like joggers, might take it too seriously. Decoupling data gatherers from those that act on the data creates problems of interpretation. Already this example Egg, coincidentally in the nearby city of Houten, has "a very odd vertical axis". Apparently, if polution levels were really this absurdly high, we'd all be in big trouble.
Data isn't everything
Casper Koomen, who is part of the Air Quality Egg project, has heard this argument before. He countered that while the measurements aren't that precise, they are real-time which has its own advantages. They still show relative trends in the data.
But more importantly though, the project is not really intented to be scientific. Not right now anyway. The Air Quality Egg, he hopes, will be a great startingpoint to develop a platform for all kinds of measurements about our environment. Sensors will get better and cheaper. For now, building a community and a movement is just as important. "Linux", he explained "is seen as a reliable platform now, but it too has its roots in people who just came together to build something together in an open proces". This time, it's not software but our enviroment that we're working on. "People are more engaged with their environment now, especially if they feel they can act to make it better".
Annemiek van der Berg, who is a senior adviser in the local government on participation processes, agreed that participation is vital to good government and a vibrant city. It's an argument that echos the sentiments expressed at the recent Social Cities of Tomorrow conference organised by The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform. People have new ways of connecting and acting around issues they care about. They form "temporary publics": groups of people that quickly organise around a shared goal to exert pressure and change things for the better. They take ownership of the problems.
For me, the question that lingered is that it might be difficult to form a community around dodgy measurements. It's a chicken and the egg story.
At the end of the discussion we were excited by the bigger picture, but let down by the current technology. A common pattern.
The next step will be to see how much more the devices would cost when better sensors are used. Another option would be to point to the educational aspects of the project. Young people can still use it to learn more about what's around the corner.
At SETUP we believe that it would be great for Utrecht to be part of this long-term development of open tools and open data. Especially surrounding air quality. We too, will be curious to see if we can upgrade the eggs. But even without that upgrade, the project is a great example of geeks and government getting closer together for a common good. Already at the table issues like "how can our local government form pathways for projects like this to enter our discussion" were raised. Let's take it from there.
Ted pointed us in this direction for better gas sensors: