“Air Box” Brings Citizens, Businesses and the Government Together to Create the World’s Densest Air Quality Monitoring Network

Maker | Social Innovation

Recently, the sky in Taiwan has always been gray and smoggy. Pedestrians and motorcyclist on the road put on masks. All monitoring stations have reached the red light level, an indicator of “meaning that the whole population is at risk.” What does exactly this smoky affect our health?

All air quality monitor stations in Taiwan rang alerts, and then general public gradually paid attention on PM 2.5 micro grain concentration. Hence, the “air box”, air quality sensor, was jointly created by a researcher, Chen Linzhi, from the Institute of Information Science of Academia, Sinica and the maker community. While based on the voluntary sponsorship, and participation from makers, the government, enterprises and the general public, a new type of air quality detector has become an important reference for many people when they went out. Just check the air box website or mobile phone app at any time, people can arrange an itinerary according to air quality conditions, avoid harmful, dirty air and then find the cause for the deterioration of air quality.

This air box, which can instantly track down PM 2.5 concentration levels, is jointly developed by Chen Linzhi and the Local Aware Sensing System (LASS), a self-fund community with spirit of open sourcing and focusing on public welfare. This facility is a real-time and continuous monitor of air quality through a miniature sensor for specific regions. With data analysis, it can not only trace air pollution, but even help predict the diffusion of air pollution. Air Box is exactly a demonstration of maker spirit and implement of social impact.

Born for Demand—Completion Begins with Paternal Love

Deteriorating air quality had worsen the asthma symptoms in Chen Linzhi’s two-year-old kid. He worried about air pollution cause his son toward a long-term asthma. He decided to find a solution which specializes in “PM 2.5 Instant Concentration Sensing” and tried to find out the pattern of change in air pollution via his research.

In the following year, Chen Linzhi and Xu Wulong, nicknamed “Haba” and cofounder of LASS community, met each other to find they both were doing the same job- environmental sensing. Therefore, they decided to take advantage of their strengths to complement each other and work together on solving the air pollution. Thanks to the “Micro Air Pollution Detection Module” developed by Chen Linzhi and the team, it is possible to instantly detect PM 2.5 concentration, temperature, humidity, and air pressure and related indicators of immersed environment. Therefore, he and “HABA” decided to do the environmental sensing on PM 2.5. “LASS”, a social community, provides technical supports, “HABA” leads everyone to write programs, and then I combine academic resources to build back-end systems and servers.”

The LASS community is composed of a group of like-to-do makers who connect the process of “thinking” and “doing” and are enthusiastic about finding answers and solving problems. Chen Linzhi, the research team, LASS, makers, netizens, scholars, government units, and private companies have worked jointly together. “We also called on the makers from other counties(cities)to join, and finally now there are 19 ones and 40 like-minded makers participating in the process, and each of them rewrote our open code, self-made miniature sensors, and deepened the technology of the environmental sensing platform. The result was completely 1 + 1 > 2.” Now the air box has become a success of citizen technology initiated by Makers, and automatically multiplies more and wider applications.

“I found that the makers who participated in this community were almost young dads.” Chen Linzhi said with a smile. The main research area of Chen Linzhi and his team is the “Participatory Sensing System”, which is to find a solution to the living problem through the establishment of devices or networks by the masses, and then analyze the data obtained through observation to find out the solution to the problem. Through open data and data analysis, the air box can immediately trace the genuine culprit of air pollution and help predict the spread of air pollution, forming a leading global PM 2.5 real-time sensing network.

The Point is Not the Hardware, but the Data

However, it is not easy to develop a sensing device with both advantages of “high accuracy” and “low cost”. During this period, Chen Linzhi and his team experienced numerous cycles of development, failure, improvement, rework, failure. It took a lot of time, money, energy and effort to finally develop an air box prototype that had stable quality.

The Air Box adopts the Open Data model to share R&D results and observation data. No matter whether was the research project of the Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, student science exhibitions, academic reports, government or civilian, or corporate groups, etc., all can develop various expansions of use through converting into different versions of air box for its own needs based on Chen Linzhi’s basic structure.

“In fact, it is not the hardware to concentrate on, but the data for analysis. That is what we all have to try our best.” Chen said: “The most important purpose of the participatory sensing system is to begin with “environmental data collection by box itself.” Through the Big data obtained by the masses’ self-observation, the experts analyze and identify the crux of the problem and push the government departments or relevant units to take action and proper methods to solve issues of air quality problems from the bottom-up.”

Chen Linzhi pointed that, in the past, as people encountered problems, they only counted on staffs or officers from the government to help to resolve. However, in fact, the top position officers don’t understand what people really need, then turn out to made it uneasy to promote large-scale pilot projects for the government. “Completing this research always requires a lot of data. And you never reach the destination if you want to request help from top officials, it may takes a lot of lousy processes but not work. But if you find a topic related public concern issues. Then, I can do my research while assisting you, and push those concerns and solutions from the grassroots to the top officials finally to solve problems. It can roll like a snowball become larger and larger.”

The “Going Begging” Early Phase

As Chen Linzhi said, the essential to make this project successful is Big data acquirement through mass observations of these air boxes. At the beginning, although Chen Linzhi had developed a prototype air box for research purpose, and it would face the dilemma that no people like to install one in their own homes. Therefore, only the team’s relatives and friends would install the air box at home in initial stage. But, due to the insufficient number of installations, the real-time PM 2.5 concentration data were insufficient and lacked effective value. “Fortunately, the government, schools and enterprises have taken parts in a timely manner. Real-time data of PM 2.5 concentration observations could be greatly expanded. And the observed data can be further analyzed with Big data vs. specific areas for patterns of air pollution migration path.”

An air box developed by Chen Linzhi and the LASS community.

At that time, the Taichung City Yusian Cultural Association, which was concerned about the Taichung environment issues, took the lead in buying 100 “air boxes” and launched the adoption activity for “distribution of air boxes to all places in Taichung”. The Taichung Maker further modified it to a mobile version that made air boxes were easy to carry, thus citizens can supervise conditions of air pollution. In 2016, Taipei City, New Taipei City, Taoyuan County, Taichung City, Tainan City, and Kaohsiung City Government also joined the Air Box Project. Edimax Technology even donated hundreds of air boxes to primary school campuses in various regions. Through environmental education, children learn how to observe PM 2.5 real-time concentration scales and monitor air quality in the specific region.

“In the past, we didn’t always know the air pollution level until we felt uncomfortable, kept coughing and got respiratory infections. Now by analyzing the data of PM 2.5 concentrations and the real-time statistical analysis of air quality from air box, we can then calculate the source, time, site and even find the real culprit of air pollution.” Chen Linzhi indicated that the pollution information from air box is more than we thought before. “Actually, air pollution at mediums elevation was even more serious than we thought that the air at a higher terrain was better.”

Cross-Sectoral Collaboration to Expand the Application

Cross-sectoral cooperation may expand the benefits, but it also needs clear directions and guidelines, so as not to deviate from the original intention. Chen Linzhi said, “Throughout our cooperation, we must pay attention to maintaining neutral position and strictly abide by the principle of “Let evidence talk”, instead of being led by rumors.” Chen Linzhi cooperates with environment protection groups, government agencies, enterprises, and communities, and they cooperate with each other based on the correct data provided by Air box. Chen Linzhi mentioned that the current air box project is sponsored by the donation of the manufacturers and the county(city)governments. Citizen participation is also very important. For example, many enthusiastic people now take the initiative to pay attention to the air box; lots of environmental protection groups and parent-child co-learning groups are also actively involved. The maker community also plays a very crucial role. “In fact, many school teachers are themselves master makers.”

Wu Jingmei, product manager of Edimax Technology, said that the PM 2.5 air quality micro-monitoring station has been built in large quantities, and there are now more than 4,500 monitoring stations. “Every 5 minutes, real-time data were upload to servers, people can use the instant image of the mobile app to monitor the air quality condition at each stations, and the collected outdoor air quality data has also become the best research resource for Academia Sinica and school units.”

In addition to numerous of monitoring stations, Air Box has successfully fostered research theories such as sensor comparison reports, air pollution mode algorithms, and cooperation models of cross-domains with LASS, Maker, government agencies, and private enterprises. Let Taiwan become the first country with the world’s most densely micro-environmental monitor sensors, attracting countries from all over the world to come to visit. “When one mentions smart cities, everyone may think about Amsterdam and Chicago. In the future, I hope that the international community can think about Taiwan through the “air box.”

Regarding to the prospection, “How to continue to manage the air boxes is the top priority.” Chen Linzhi believes the air box needs the continued support, from private enterprises and the government, to predict the air quality accurately and to collect more information regarding to air pollution affecting health. In final, we can promote solutions to the international community. “Air pollution is a universal problem. Only establishing a transnational monitoring network with real-time report, and the world can work together to find countermeasures. Because air is circulated all over the world, air pollution does not only occur in the sky of a certain country.”


Maker Encyclopedia

PM 2.5:The so-called PM 2.5 refers to solid particles suspended in the air. Because PM 2.5 is very small, it can easily enter the body with the breath and accumulate in the trachea or lungs, affecting the health of the body. According to the World Health Organization, about 7 million people die each year from chronic diseases caused by PM 2.5, and the number is expected to continue to rise. Air pollution has become the world’s biggest environmental health concern.

Extended Reading

(Editor:PeiHsuan Lai)

Tags Air Box

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