A project by Beatriz da Costa, with Cina Hazegh & Kevin Ponto
It was a famous photograph of a pigeon carrying a camera around its neck taken at the turn of the last century that inspired PigeonBlog. This technology, developed by German engineer Julius Neubronner for military applications, allowed photographs to be taken by pigeons during flight time. A small camera was set on a mechanical timer to take pictures periodically as pigeons flew over regions of interest, Currently on display in the Deutsche Museum in Munich, these cameras were functional, but never served their intended purpose of assisted spy technology during wartime. Nevertheless, this early example of using living animals as participants in early surveillance technology systems made us pause. What would the 21st century version of this combination look like? What types of civilian and activist applications could it be used for?
PigeonBlog enlists homing pigeons to participate in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative designed to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public. Pigeons are equipped with custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server without delay. Pollution levels are visualized and plotted in real-time over Google’s mapping environment, thus allowing immediate access to the collected information to anyone with connection to the Internet.
PigeonBlog adopts a playful approach in effort to address a serious topic: 1) Hazardous air pollution continues to affect the lives and development of young children growing up in urban areas , and results in a significant all cause mortality in Los Angeles and other urban communities 2) Facilities emitting hazardous air pollutants are frequently sited in, or routed through, low-income and "minority" dominated neighborhoods, thereby putting the burden of related health and work problems on already disadvantaged sectors of the population who have the least means and legal recourse (particularly in the case of non-citizens) to defend themselves against this practice.
By using homing pigeons as the “reporters” of current air pollution levels we are hoping to achieve two main goals: 1) to re-invoke urgency around a topic that has serious health consequences, but lacks public action and commitment to change; and 2) to broaden the notion of grassroots scientific data gathering while building bridges between scientific research agendas and activist oriented citizen concerns.
Southern California and specifically Los Angeles County, is among the top-ten most polluted areas in the country. With an underdeveloped public transportation system, and no major plans to improve current conditions, this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.
In the Southern California region, economic concerns of the automotive industry tend to motivate policy decisions far more than human health and environmental ones. Los Angeles is one of the most highly polluted counties in the country, yet attempts to reduce car traffic don’t appear to go beyond the introduction of carpool lanes. There are few alternatives to using one’s car to get anywhere in the city.
The largest government led air pollution control agency in Southern California is the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), covering Orange County, and the urban areas of Riverside and Los Angeles Counties. Despite AQMD's efforts, in addition to major air quality improvements achieved over the past thirty years, pollution levels in the region still exceed national regulatory health standards. In 2005 ozone levels exceeded the federal health standard for ozone during 84 days, or nearly one-quarter of the calendar year.
However, we find the means by which air pollution measurements are being conducted more interesting than the work that remains to be done in terms of air quality regulation and control. For instance, the South Coast AQMD controls 34 monitoring stations in its responsible district. These are fixed stations at an approximate cost of tens of thousands of dollars per station. Each station collects a set of gasses restricted to its immediate surroundings. Values in between these stations are calculated based on scientific interpellation models. Stations are generally positioned in quiet low-traffic areas, not in known pollution hotspots. The rationale behind this strategy is to obtain representative values of the urban air shed as opposed to data "tainted" by local sources in the immediate environment.
There are a number of questions that arise from this approach: what is the relationship between the air shed concentrations and those to which community residents are exposed as they move through their local environments with many local sources? Who is responsible for taking measurements of local sources in community locations? Who is validating the interpellation models that relate concentrations from fixed site monitors to concentrations in local areas that are the basis for compliance with urban air quality standards?
In order to address these concerns, we have developed a low-cost battery powered device designed for homing pigeons that can conduct localized measurements while moving throughout the urban environment. When carried by pigeons, measurements are taken at ground level before take-off (at any location its human owner chooses to release the birds), and at about 300 feet altitude when flying to their home destination. Whereas the ground level information provides us with specific data about a location of our choice, data transmitted during flight-time fulfills yet another function. The pollution measurements taken under in-flight conditions will help to learn more about pollutant travel at low altitude – measurements that remain difficult to conduct, especially in urban areas due to restrictions on airplane or other flights at low altitude in urban environments. Recent behavioral studies of pigeons revealed that in addition to the traditional theory of magnetic field orientation they use visual markers such as highways and bigger streets for orientation. Flying about 300 feet above the ground pigeons are ideal candidates to help sense traffic related air pollution and to validate pollution dispersion models. Thus PigeonBlog has the potential of helping to validate current pollution models used by the scientific community, and we have started to explore these options with air pollution scientists at the University of California at Irvine, using these initial releases to validate the use of such technology in this application.
The pigeon "backpack" developed for this project consists of a combined GPS (latitude, longitude, altitude) / GSM (cell phone tower communication) unit and corresponding antennas, a dual automotive CO/NOx pollution sensor, a temperature sensor, a SIM card interface, a microcontroller and standard supporting electronic components. Designed in this manner, we essentially have developed an open-platform SMS enabled cell phone ready to be rebuilt and repurposed by anyone who is interested in doing so. Our intent is not to support commercial applications but to encourage open-source modifications and enhancements to our freely available hardware telephony device.
With PigeonBlog we hope to make a contribution to the atmospheric and health sciences by introducing a low cost model of obtaining data that would compliment data obtained by the fixed monitoring sites, and would validate urban air shed models of pollution dispersion in areas where fixed monitoring site data are not available.
However, the projects’ main concern lies is in addressing the following questions: How can a non-academic public become involved in grassroots scientific data gathering? How can an “old topic” such as air pollution be addressed through artistic means in an effort to increase public interest and support for solutions to these problems? How can real-time information about current localized pollution levels be made public? How can a mutual beneficial human and non-human relationship be developed in an urban context inhabited by both beings? How can we "re-script" our relationship to technology and the city, and build our own hardware and sensing devices?
And finally, how can we contribute to a techno-scientific discourse that takes political, research and artistic concerns into account on an equal footing?