What Are You Breathing Right Now?

What Are You Breathing Right Now?


Air: we all share it, from the minute we enter the world. Besides the oxygen, nitrogen, water, and other gasses and particles in our air, have you ever thought about what’s really in the breath you just took? It’s hard to know what you’re breathing because precise detection instruments are expensive, sparsely located, and only measure outdoor air. But that’s changing.

I wondered how I could use a sensor to measure air pollution in my backyard. Might these hyper-local data tell me what I’m breathing right now? And better yet, would this information allow me, and others with air-sensing devices, to share information and collaborate with the goal of improving our health?

Because it’s often difficult to see or smell air pollutants, the government developed AirNow, a program that provides access to real-time air quality conditions across the nation. While the 2,200+ monitoring sites reporting to AirNow provide very accurate and reliable data, the average number of sites per major metropolitan area is often fewer than a dozen locations due to high instrument costs. These monitors detect the average air quality levels for a region but do not always represent the quality of the air you breathe everywhere you go (in the office, driving to/from work, etc.).


Recent advances in sensors, microprocessors, and communications have enabled individuals to measure pollution with their own devices. Many makers, artists, researchers, and companies are working to make air sensing more ubiquitous by developing new sensors and sensor networks, integrating existing sensors in novel ways, and improving the quality and accuracy of measured data. We are building a future of connected devices to improve the quality of the air we breathe without the need to rely on distant government monitors.

Early efforts by Brooke Singer and Intel Research showed that people want portable air-sensing systems to explore their neighborhoods and urban environments and examine them for pollution. Many consumer and commercial products (NetAtmo, AirBase) have sprung up to provide people with easy-to-use air quality and weather information. Several crowdfunded efforts have created their own sensing communities (Safecast), while other groups have focused on open source and educational efforts (AirCasting, CitySense-UCSD).

Intel hand-held device
Intel handheld device.

This is an exciting time to see how air quality monitoring will transition from a few costly, static instruments to many inexpensive, easy-to-obtain sensors blanketing the nation. Using low‑cost sensors in this way is vital to public health for several reasons:

  • Individual data is essential for individual health. Tailored information about your experience — whether it’s activity level, sound levels, or the air you’re breathing — helps promote individual behavior change.
  • Crowdsourced information helps all of us. Official air quality instruments are expensive, so air quality agencies can’t monitor everywhere. Access to more spatially dense measurements can help us detect and avoid local hot spots of air pollution and avoid exposure to harmful pollutants.
  • Knowledge of what’s in our air helps us understand our environment. While studies like the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study point to particle pollution as the 8th leading cause of death worldwide, it’s often hard to relate to these large-scale, long-term statistics. With individual pollutant measurements, we can begin to understand and relate to these immense numbers in a personal, local way.
AirCasting data in Brooklyn, NY
AirCasting data in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Screenshots of the AirCasting app
Screenshots of the AirCasting app.

A future of informed citizens monitoring air quality is taking shape. Everyone will benefit from a community that collaborates to provide high-resolution, high-quality data. I’m especially excited about how makers can help form this community by:

  • Developing sensors and sensor systems with sufficient quality to accurately identify and solve air quality problems
  • Conducting pilot projects that demonstrate novel sensor applications
  • Developing new ways to visualize information.

So think about your next breath. What’s in the air?

Want to know more? Look for upcoming blog posts on:

  • Sensor data quality: How good is good enough?
  • Mobile air quality sensing.

Tim Dye, TD Environmental Services. For more than a decade, Tim has directed his knowledge and creativity toward the design and development of innovative information systems, such as AirNow, AirNow International, and SmogCity2. He leads several efforts to conduct low-cost, citizen-based air quality monitoring. His enthusiasm for finding ways to communicate air quality information effectively also led him to explore the fusion of environment, technology, and art in our everyday world.

View more articles by Tim Dye
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