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Pigeons Recruited to Measure the Invisible Toxicity of London’s Air

Pigeon Air Patrol (courtesy DigitasLBi)
A member of the Pigeon Air Patrol (courtesy DigitasLBi)

Pigeons outfitted with lightweight backpacks soared over London from March 14 to 16, collecting air quality data across the city that was shared via Twitter. The Pigeon Air Patrol was a collaboration between Plume Labs and DigitasLBi to raise awareness for an even larger air pollution project to be crowdsourced from London’s largest moving flock: its humans.

“It is very unexpected and draws the attention to what we don’t see, and makes it visible,” Romain Lacombe, CEO of Plume Labs, told Hyperallergic. “This is exactly how we strive to beat air pollution at Plume Labs, with our personal pollution trackers and the Plume Air Report, our mobile application to track smog alerts in 40 countries around the world.”

The human Air Patrol project is fundraising on Crowdfunder through April 3. Working with researchers at Imperial College London, the goal is to equip 100 people with GPS-enabled air pollution monitors starting in June, to measure carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels. This data would feed into their free mobile Plume Air Report application. Lead researcher Audrey de Nazelle explained in a post that “[p]ersonal monitors have the potential to help us understand the city’s air pollution in great detail, from where the pollution hotspots are to what urban designs reduce exposure.”

The Pigeon Air Patrol idea from Pierre Duquesnoy and Matt Daniels of DigitasLBi won the “solve a problem” category of the 2015 London Design Festival’s #PoweredByTweets: The Challenge exhibition at Somerset House, with displays showing bird’s-eye views of pollution in cities including São Paulo, New York City, and London. By involving pigeons, an urban presence as ubiquitous and often as invisible as air pollution, the goal was to visualize the cities’ hazardous air quality problems.

Pigeon Air Patrol (courtesy DigitasLBi)
Pigeon Air Patrol backpack on one of its members (courtesy DigitasLBi)

“Working with animals was certainly a challenge, starting with working with vets and a professional pigeon fancier to make sure the birds were extremely well taken care of,” Lacombe explained. “But it was very natural in a way; after all, pigeons used to carry messages before modern telecommunications. Today they carried another message. Thanks to technology, we can raise awareness of the air we breathe and help everyone lead healthier urban lives.”

The initiative is similar to projects like Andrea Polli’s traveling “Particle Falls,” a public art installation that involves a digital waterfall that changes from blue to red depending on air quality, and Studio Roosegaarde’s “Smog Free Tower” that sucks in smog particles and compacts them into cubes for jewelry. And from 2006 to 2008, artist Beatriz da Costa carried out a project called Pigeonblog, in which pigeon fanciers collaborated with artists and engineers to monitor pigeons with pollution sensors that were plotted in realtime.

There’s little argument that air pollution in urban areas is a problem; a report from the World Health Organization estimates that in 2012, “12.6 million deaths globally, representing 23% (95% CI: 13–34%) of all deaths, were attributable to the environment.” That includes air pollution, which is linked to respiratory infections, cancer, asthma, and other conditions. The Guardian reported in January that in London, the city “already breached annual pollution limits just one week into 2016, and only weeks after the government published its plans to clean up the UK’s air.”

Yet how many of us really think about the air quality of our daily commutes, or structure our lives around pollution exposure? The pigeons during their brief tenure, and the Plume Labs crowdsourced monitors, encourage a greater awareness of a toxic urban hazard.

Demonstration of the Plume Labs air pollution application (courtesy Plume Labs)
Demonstration of the Plume Labs air pollution application (courtesy Plume Labs)

Air Patrol from Plume Labs is funding on Crowdfunder through April 3. 

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