Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pigeons as Information Technology: A New Method for Monitoring Air Pollution

Environmental activists are well aware that information is power. The Toxic Release Inventory has empowered communities and gains wide media coverage when the "dirty dozen" companies are revealed. Now bold academics have devised a new means of collecting relevant air pollution data; pigeons with cell phones!

To be serious for a second, the interesting issue here is that even major cities such as Los Angeles only monitor air pollution in perhaps 25 different locations. A pigeon flies around many more places than that and thus can spatially sample from a huge number of locations. I do hope these pigeons get paid for their services.

I will never again curse a pigeon now that I appreciate that they are our new "google" part of the information technology revolution. Perhaps you should launch a IPO of a pigeon raising farm where you breed these cute creatures for their new mission (see below).

With regards to the Green Cities publication countdown, I'm hoping it is down to 12 days. The publisher has told me that the hardcopy and the paperback versions will be published at the same time.

Pigeons beam air quality info to blog

By JULIANA BARBASSA, Associated Press WriterFri Aug 11, 8:33 PM ET

Pigeons with backpacks and cell phones will be taking to the sky and sending air quality data to a blog as part of a whimsical project that blends science, art and activism.

Investigators at the University of California, Irvine hope the winged researchers will fill in gaps in knowledge about the air we breathe, and bring nonscientists into the debate on air quality.

"They transmit in real time, and all the information is available to the public," said Beatriz da Costa, a UC Irvine professor of arts, computation and engineering.

The pigeons will fly over Silicon Valley Saturday as part as ZeroOne San Jose, a technology and art exhibit.

Da Costa said the project was inspired both by the haze she saw hovering over Los Angeles when she moved to the city three years ago, and by a century-old photo of a pigeon carrying a spy camera around its neck.

"They were heavily used in World War II by several European countries," da Costa said of homing pigeons. "So I started thinking, what could we surveil right now that would be in the social interest?"

The birds will carry miniature backpacks equipped with a global positioning system monitor, pollution sensors, and cell phone transmitting equipment that can send the data directly to a blog where it is overlaid on Google maps. Visitors then can roll over the maps and learn about air pollution in the area.

It took da Costa and two graduate students working with her a year to develop equipment that is small and light enough, at 1.3 ounces, for the one-pound birds to carry.

Still, the project has drawn opposition from animal rights advocates, who questioned its scientific validity in a letter to UC Irvine's chancellor last week, saying the experiment could "result in injury and exhaustion for the birds."

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District already monitors air pollution at 28 different stations, and the data gathered by pigeons would be redundant, said Holly Mattern, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"It's an experiment with animals that is unnecessary," Mattern said. "It just shows bad decision-making on a lot of people's parts."

UC Irvine's animal ethics panel reviewed the project, and found it was harmless.

"It's not that they don't feel it at all, but they're capable of carrying it," da Costa said of the pigeons. "They're trained to do it, and the worst that can happen is that they fly, then take a rest."

The birds fly for about half an hour at between 300 and 500 feet. Their value to air quality researchers comes from their mobility, since they could potentially fill in pollution information between the stationary monitors researchers have to rely on, investigators said.

"This is about raising awareness, and rethinking the way we gather data," da Costa said. "In this case, we're doing it in a fun way, using homing pigeons."


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